Luci Baines Johnson Turpin is telling Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer about her experiences when she heard the news that President John F. Kennedy was shot. She was a 16-year-old in Washington, hundreds of miles from Dallas, trying to sort out what had happened to the Kennedys; to her parents, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson; and to Texas Gov. John Connally, whom she was close to.
Turpin rarely does interviews and has never spoken publicly about what she went through that day. Yet she is a marvel of poise, occasionally getting emotional but never letting the emotions take over, as Schieffer nudges her on with the short, open-ended questions of a veteran broadcast interviewer. Seemingly everyone within earshot mentions how riveting Turpin is.
“The tough part is we have to cut it down now,” Mary Hager, Face the Nation’s executive producer, says after Turpin finishes. “You want to run the whole thing.”
Turpin’s interview, which took place Saturday afternoon, is just part of Face the Nation’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Schieffer — who was a police reporter for the Star-Telegram when the Nov. 22, 1963, slaying occurred — is doing the show this week from the Sixth Floor Museum, the former Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots that killed JFK and wounded Connally.
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As tourists milled about Dealey Plaza and visited the museum Saturday, Schieffer and the Face the Nation crew were on the seventh floor, which was transformed into a studio for the broadcast. Light cords littered the floor in organized chaos, and photos of John and Jacqueline Kennedy were hung on the wall as a backdrop to the broadcast, which airs this morning.
Schieffer, who has known Turpin a long time, was among those fascinated by her interview.
“I had no idea she was going to talk about the things she talked about,” Schieffer says. “Because she really hasn’t talked about this, and she really became quite emotional. But she was very measured in her responses. Sometimes people become so emotional they can’t get the words out. This is very hard for her.”
For people too young to remember the Kennedy assassination, it can be hard to grasp the impact the news had on people that day. Schieffer, who famously gave Lee Harvey Oswald’s mother a ride from Fort Worth to Dallas while the news was still developing, says that many people shared with Turpin a sense of trying to figure out just what was going on.
Programs about the assassination have been all over TV this month, to the point that there’s a risk of saturation before the actual anniversary occurs. Schieffer concedes that TV is good at overdoing things, but in the case of the commemorative coverage — which will also include The CBS Evening News With Scott Pelley airing from Dallas this week — he doesn’t think there can be too much of it.
“I hope that young people see this,” says Schieffer, 76. “For those of us my age, it’s a reminisce. It’s a look back. And that’s very good. But I think that it’s important for people who are young and know very little about this to understand what this means, how it changed the country, and I think it helps us understand who we are.”
Besides Turpin, the program will include Hugh Aynesworth, The Dallas Morning News reporter who was at Dealey Plaza when the president was shot; Mike Cochran, the former Associated Press correspondent who was pressed into service as a pallbearer at Oswald’s funeral; Ronald Jones, the former chief resident at Parkland Memorial Hospital who tried to save both Kennedy and Oswald; historians Douglas Brinkley, Thurston Clarke and Larry Sabato; political analyst David Gergen; and Peggy Noonan, President Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter.
Schieffer’s show-ending commentary includes a portion about the importance of the Sixth Floor Museum and its place in preserving history.
“In the days after Oswald shot the president, the first reaction of many in Dallas was to bulldoze this building, as if that might somehow erase the whole thing,” Schieffer’s commentary says in part. “Instead, community leaders decided to make it into a museum and a center for scholarship about one of America’s most terrible weekends. They recognized that a democracy requires an accurate history — without which we cannot understand how we came to be what we are.”