Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dallas' 50 Years of Kennedy Angst


I'm glad that's finally over with.

For the past year, here in the Dallas area, our news media has been talking about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  Yesterday, in Dealey Plaza, along the western fringe of downtown, several thousand spectators gathered for a memorial observance, despite weather with temperatures just above freezing, and a cold, sporadic drizzle.

Not quite the agreeable commemoration Dallas officials were hoping for, considering that news organizations from around the globe had come to capture the moment fifty years later when a normally sunny Dallas would, once again, apologize to the human race for killing its beloved leader.

Of course, the city of Dallas never killed anybody.  And President Kennedy was never truly popular among Republicans during his political career.  But to hear people talk about the president, his policies, his wife, his brothers, and his death, you'd think that time stopped on Elm Street downtown as three shots were fired, one of them hitting the promising young Democrat.

Just about every time I drive past that spot on Elm Street where Kennedy was hit as he rode in his open-air limousine, there are at least one or two people nearby, and usually a small crowd.  They're looking at the spot in the roadway, taking in the angle from the old school book depository that still stands off to the side, and up towards its sixth floor window in the corner.  Elm Street curves to go under a set of railroad tracks, and then, on the other side of the railroad bridge, branches off northbound and southbound onto I-35.  Usually, I'm headed home, which means I take the route Kennedy's limousine first took, in the middle lane, which heads off towards Tarrant County.  The right lane heads off north, up I-35 and past Parkland Hospital, which is where his speeding limousine took the wounded president that fateful day.

And I have to admit, just about every time I pass that spot, I wonder what it was like for those Secret Service agents, realizing that the First Lady was holding parts of the president's brain in her hands, as another agent was crawling on the trunk of the speeding vehicle.  And I'm not just being melodramatic.  In one of the many, many, many retellings we Texans have heard over the past year, that agent who jumped up the back of the presidential limousine still remembers Jackie Kennedy reaching over to collect chunks of brain matter that had splattered on the car's polished black trunk, holding them in her hands as she grieved for her husband, who was dying in front of her.

I may not have been a person who'd have voted for Kennedy, but I'm still a human being, and the drama of that moment would have overwhelmed me as it would have just about anybody.  To witness such a thing would be more profoundly tragic than any of us can say.

So in that regard, the commemoration of Kennedy's death that took place in Dallas yesterday was due not only the Kennedy family, none of whom were in attendance, but the nation, and even the world.  All week long, several local media outlets had interviewed tourists from all over the planet visiting Dealey Plaza.  Indeed, it seems that of all the things for which Dallas is recognized today - its economic vibrancy, the old TV show of the same name, its respected symphony, its famous football team - the assassination of President Kennedy remains the touchstone with which most people associate Big D.

Some critics claim that Dallas hasn't done enough to atone for the problems in the city that contributed to Kennedy's death in 1963.  Others claim that Dallas should have built a shrine for Kennedy by now - instead of the boxy memorial constructed a couple of blocks away that reeks of urine.  Still others say Dallas should have bulldozed  the whole of Dealey Plaza, torn down the school book depository, and erased any vestige of the '63 atrocity.  About the only thing critics agree upon is that no matter what Dallas does or doesn't do with the scene of Kennedy's assassination, everybody won't be satisfied.

Frankly, I think the way Dallas has handled the half-century aftermath of Kennedy's death has been at least adequate.  First of all, Dealey Plaza is a confection of green space where three major streets service downtown underneath a major railroad artery.  Some people criticize the design as outdated, and an artificial wall along the western side of downtown.  But now that the city runs its light rail trains along those same tracks, it's hard to see how any better configuration can be constructed, with I-35 right there, and serpentine freeway ramps to another expressway right there as well.

Second of all, having the assassination's venue preserved virtually intact is a half-empty, half-full proposition.  If you want to be negative about it, sure, the recognizability of Dealey Plaza to history buffs serves as a constant reminder of the event, and it encourages the consistent proliferation of conspiracy theorists, many of whom throng the plaza on good-weather days, preaching their suspicions to curious tourists, and even giving out their own maps and charts of how Kennedy was shot.  And who did it.  But if you want to be positive about it, keeping Dealey Plaza intact has helped legions of tourists from around the world learn more about the place, it has helped keep the Kennedy legacy alive for generations of people who hadn't yet been born when he died, and, yes, it's probably the most popular and most consistently populated public area downtown.  It tells a gruesome story, but - and pardon the pun - plenty of cities would kill to have such a highly-trafficked pedestrian attraction in their downtown business district.

To be honest, if the Kennedy family had been smart, they would have purchased space someplace close to Dealey Plaza and established some sort of permanent museum or library to their fallen son.  A place where they could regulate the conversation regarding his legacy.  With all of the tourists already at Dealey Plaza, it would be the logical way for them to perpetuate Kennedy's memory on their terms.

Then again, a museum has already been set up in the former depository and is popular, highly-visited, and more academic than nostalgic in scope.  So maybe it's just as well for history's sake that the Kennedy family has kept all of their presidential memorabilia in Massachusetts.  After all, Kennedy wasn't killed because he was universally trusted and adored.  With the Kennedy's viewing Dallas as their no-man's land, we're freer here to imagine not just what could have been, but what really was.

For example, do you believe the findings of the Warren Commission?  A recent Gallup poll found that 61% of us still refuse to accept that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, was responsible for killing our 35th president.  Some people think Oswald was innocent - at least of assassinating Kennedy.  Oswald did kill a Dallas policeman that same day, J.D. Tippit, in a shooting witnessed by a dozen people in Oak Cliff, a neighborhood close to downtown.  In fact, it was Tippit's murder that landed Oswald in jail.

Many conspiracy theorists say most of that is hogwash, but I have just as hard a time believing 12 normal Dallasites would lie about a patrolman's murder as I do that the Warren Commission made up Tippit's killing.  So I'm not inclined to doubt that Oswald wasn't somehow involved in a significant way in Kennedy's death.  Why else would he react so violently to Tippit's questioning of him on a street in Oak Cliff?

But neither am I inclined to believe that Oswald acted alone.  He doesn't strike me as the type of man who could cobble together such an assassination plot by himself.  I'm open to the possibility that the Mafia, burned by the increasing investigations into corruption by Kennedy's brother, Robert, the turncoat Attorney General, wanted to punish the Kennedy patriarch, Joseph, who had helped supply the Mafia with booze during Prohibition.

Some experts say the Mafia connection with the Kennedy family has been overblown, but let's face it:  with the Mafia, who ya gonna believe?  A Mafia connection would also help explain why the shady, seedy Jack Ruby felt compelled to murder Oswald in the underground parking garage of the Dallas Police Department's jail.  But then again, it's speculation like this that has kept Kennedy's death in the public spotlight for five whole decades.  It's likely that all of the adulation that Americans have continued to shower on this singular Massachusetts family is due just as much to the sensationalism over the president's death and the perverted glamor of possible underworld ties as it is any of the political savvy exhibited from its other senators and congressmen.

Virtue, after all, was a quality emblazoned on the Kennedy men more in its lack than its abundance.

Indeed, the tragic recollections from that day fifty years ago yesterday are of a photogenic young woman in a pink suit and pillbox hat cradling the crumpled body of a president, or standing blanched-faced on Air Force One as the oath of office is recited to Lyndon Johnson.  Or standing, days later, a veiled figure in black, with two children at her knees, as the casket passed in front of them.  She'd later go on and make her mark in publishing, and inherit millions from a Greek shipping tycoon, but that pink outfit in that black limousine is what many of us remember of her most.

Her one surviving child, Caroline, became America's ambassador to Japan this past Tuesday, a timing reportedly requested by the daughter of the late president to get her out of the country in time for yesterday's bitter anniversary.  After all, my idea of their family museum aside, it's understandable for the Kennedys to not have ever ventured back to Dallas during these intervening years.

But that doesn't mean Dallas should forever hold the somber notoriety of being the place where, as many say, America's innocence died, along with its 35th president.

Kennedy did not want to travel to Dallas.  And Dallas did not ask to be the place where he was killed.  Two years ago, when Mike Rawlings became the city's current mayor, he received a call from the Los Angeles Times, asking him what plans Dallas had for the upcoming 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death.  And it's been that way for Dallas and its leaders for all these years.  City Hall put on a stoic face yesterday for the media, but I can't help but imagine they're breathing a sigh of relief, too, that this observance is now behind them.

I hope the Dallas area doesn't have another fifty years of morose anticipation.

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