Jim Lehrer's No Good, Very Bad JFK Assassination Novel

Unless we watch PBS on hallucinogens, which is as unlikely in my case—I can't speak for you, obviously—as watching it at all, we have no idea what Jim Lehrer looks like when he's bug-eyed with a spirit of gleeful larceny. But imagine the thrill of un-Lehrer-like cunning he no doubt felt at bringing out Top Down—boldly subtitled "a novel of the Kennedy assassination"—just in time to cash in on the 50th anniversary of the big event. Et tu, Jim? Now that Newshour's heretofore cleaner-than-a-hound's-tooth anchorman has acquired a taste for this kind of sordidness, he'll probably be arrested for shoplifting next.

It turns out, however, that Lehrer has been saving up a precious anecdote about his own bit part on November 22, 1963, for half a century. As a young (can it be?) reporter for a long-gone (it can) Dallas daily, he covered JFK and Jackie's arrival at Love Field. The rewrite man back at his paper's office wanted to know whether the presidential limo's bubble top was going to be up or down during the motorcade, so Lehrer—not yet the Jim Lehrer—asked the Secret Service agent handling the trip's Dallas leg what the deal was with that.

At least in Top Down's fictionalization, that's when the decision was made—"Lose the bubble top!"—to leave no Plexiglas shield between Jack Kennedy's vulnerable skull and Dallas's unpredictable welcome. But as might-have-beens go, this one is piffle, and Lehrer isn't quite dishonest enough to fudge the reasons why. Meant to protect the limo's occupants from inclement weather, not assassins—it wasn't bulletproof—the bubble was up because it had been rainy in Ft. Worth that morning. It wasn't rainy in Dallas, and a Secret Service man who decided to keep Kennedy shielded would probably have been quietly led outside and asked how wet he was getting.

But Lehrer's fictional stand-in, narrator Jack Gilmore, nonetheless imagines his question was what prompted the agent to make the no-bubble-top call. More inordinately, Lehrer imagines the agent himself—named Van Walters here—as a guilt-riddled wreck who shouts things like "I did it! I killed Kennedy!" until you just want old Van to swim away in a Chesapeake of his own tears, like Misty of Chincoteague.  By '68, long since booted from the Secret Service, he's both physically and mentally shriveled, and that's when Lehrer—sorry, Jack Gilmore—re-enters his life.

If you're unfamiliar with Lehrer the novelist, you haven't missed much. He's written twenty of the things, and those I've idly read over the years are generally mildly amusing—especially the ones featuring the "One-Eyed Mack," a fictional lieutenant governor of Oklahoma—and about as memorable as junk mail.  But all you really need to know about Top Down is that it reads like a YA novel for old people, including the coy, not-quite romance between Gilmore and Walters' daughter Marti when she comes to him five years after Dallas to help stop her dad from wasting away. "I felt warmth spread to my face—and elsewhere" is as steamy as it gets, but then we really don't want to know what Jim Lehrer looks like when he's bug-eyed with lust either. 

Anyhow, Walters gets cured by a re-enactment that involves Gilmor—an ex-Marine, like Lehrer and for that matter Lee Oswald—shooting at some taped-together Plexiglas from a tower on the grounds of Martin Van Buren's mansion in Kinderhook, New York.  (How did Martin Van Buren get into this, you ask? Hell, why isn't he in every novel, no matter its subject?) That's mixed up with a bunch of drivel about the Marine Corps that sets up Gilmore's decision to rejoin the Semper Fi boys, serve in combat in Vietnam and wind up as a decorated general before retiring and becoming a TV talking head—all to avoid finking on Marti by printing a story he's under the bizarre impression would be a huge scoop.  Translation, Jim Lehrer's non-sexual fantasy life is something he'd have been better off keeping hidden behind that pert smile of his as well.

By now, you may be wondering why I think this whole forlorn business is worth describing at all.  Well, first off, I never pass up an opportunity to make fun of Jim Lehrer, whose echt-Washington brand of bland neutrality about everything can leave me thinking I'd rather be trapped in an elevator with some gob of Fox News mucus like Sean Hannity. But beyond that, my hunch is that, while Top Down is unlikely to be the worst or even the most inept of the commemorative 50th-anniversary baubles now pelting us from all sides—Geraldo Rivera has yet to be heard from, after all, and what I'd give for a bubble top of my own—it could be among the saddest, in ways the author definitely didn't intend.

After all, the only interesting aspect of this fall's flood of Kennedy-associated bilge has been the recognition that nobody cares anymore. Even those who were around then—in my case, as a child—have long since stopped giving two hoots about the once celebrated question ("Where were you when. . . ?") that Lehrer wanly kicks things off by reprising.  Besides the Kennedys themselves, the only people with an interest in pretending otherwise are the editors of Vanity Fair, and that's because they're watching one of their most durable meal tickets vamoose into the ether. That's just how historical memory works, and Alan Dershowitz had better brace himself: It'll happen to the Holocaust as well.

Yet now here's poor Jim Lehrer, finally peddling the minor autobiographical nugget about the assassination he's cherished like an old Boy Scout merit badge all these years and guessing—mistakenly—that there's a novel to be gotten out of it.  One sign of his cluelessness is that he assumes JFK's death is sure to resonate for readers without any novelistic effort on his part, and as Kurt Vonnegut once put it, "I really hate to tell you this after all you've been through, but you're wrong again." It can't be easy for PBS's Pooh Bear to accept that he's got a trivial tale to tell about a guy who asked a boring question once and got an obvious answer. Back when every shred of eyewitness testimony got treated as a sliver of the Ark's original shittimwood, it probably never occurred to him that one day it just wouldn't matter anymore.

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