Friday, November 22, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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History on the line: a call from Oswald's mom

Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Bob Schieffer, brooding because he wasn't part of the biggest news story in the world, grabbed the ringing telephone on the Fort Worth Star-Telegram city desk.

A woman asked if anyone could give her a ride to Dallas.

"Lady, this is not a taxi, and besides, the president has been shot," the police reporter replied.

"I know," she said. "They think my son is the one who shot him."

Minutes later, Schieffer and Bill Foster, the automotive editor, pulled up outside Marguerite Oswald's modest Fort Worth home in a Cadillac sedan, that week's test car. Just like that, Schieffer was traveling one of the stranger paths in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Or as the venerable CBS newsman explains it now, "I was an odd little footnote to what happened."

But on Nov. 22, 1963, Schieffer, then 26, just wanted a piece of the story. The president had started his day in Fort Worth, but Schieffer wasn't part of the coverage.

"Basically, I was told, 'Get your butt on down to the police station,' " his regular assignment. He wandered back to the city desk later and found it in chaos. So many reporters had been dispatched to Dallas that there was no one left to take their stories when they called in. So he volunteered.

"In all my years as a reporter, I would never again get a call like that one," he recalls in his soon-to-be-published book, "This Just In."

Marguerite Oswald, a short, round-faced woman wearing black horn-rimmed glasses and a white nurse's uniform, was distraught, but strangely so, Schieffer said.

She seemed less concerned about the president's death or her son's possible role in the assassination than about her future. She complained that the sympathy would go to her Russian-born daughter-in-law, Marina, and predicted that no one would "remember the mother."

She later took to selling pieces of Oswald's clothing and peddled autographed business cards reading "Marguerite Oswald, mother of Lee Harvey Oswald" to tourists near Dealey Plaza for $5.

As a police reporter, Schieffer had taken to wearing the sort of clothes favored by Fort Worth police detectives, topped with a snap-brim hat.

When the car pulled up at police headquarters, the hat and Marguerite Oswald served him well.

"I'm the one who brought Oswald's mother over from Fort Worth," he told a uniformed officer.

The officer escorted them to a small interrogation room, and Schieffer quickly set off to find the paper's other reporters. He collected their notes and called them in from the interrogation room. No one ever asked who he was.

That evening, Marina Oswald was brought to the police station and an officer asked if she could share the room. Sure, Schieffer said. Trouble was, she seemed to speak only Russian.

Soon, though, Marguerite Oswald asked detectives if she could visit her son. When police agreed, Schieffer thought he had his scoop.

"The group included Oswald's wife, his mother, an FBI agent and me," Schieffer writes in his book. "I couldn't believe it. I would soon be face to face with the man who was being charged with killing our president.

"Whatever Oswald said, this would have to be the story of a lifetime."

They'd waited a few minutes when the FBI agent casually asked, "And who are you with?"

Schieffer tried a bluff he'd seen interrogators use.

"Well, who are you with?" he said with his best snarl.

The agent, suddenly edgy, asked, "Are you a reporter?"

"Well, aren't you?" Schieffer replied.

"It was at this point," he writes, "that I believe I received my first official death threat. The embarrassed agent said he would kill me if he ever saw me again."

Schieffer, already retreating, wouldn't get the interview of a lifetime, but he did witness the story that changed the nation.

More than that, the assassination demonstrated the frailty of life, even for a president. The president's death, then the Vietnam War, and then Watergate triggered a period of cynicism in America, he said, "and turned us into a cynical people."

"In a funny kind of way, I think we sort of got over that after 9-11, and the reason I say that is we started to have the same heroes we had before the Kennedy assassination — police and fire and military people," Schieffer said.

Schieffer, who went on to cover the Vietnam War for the Star-Telegram before going to television, said those two stories — the assassination and Sept. 11 — remain the biggest of his career.

"Not since the Kennedy assassination have I felt the way I felt that day," he said. "It burned out all my emotions. You're running on adrenaline, but the tragedy of it was just so overwhelming."


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