Thursday, November 14, 2013

JFK 50 Years Ago

I'm commemorating the anniversary today because I may not be free to do so next Friday.

In my 55 years, I was in the vicinity when 2 major where-were-you-when events happened.  I was in Manhattan in the East Village on the roof of my building watching the events of September 11th, 2001 unfold.  I was in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was murdered.  I remember the events of 9/11 vividly.  I don't remember the Kennedy Assassination much at all.  I was only 5, and living with my family in small rent house just east of the campus of Southern Methodist University at the time.  All I remember about the Assassination is that it happened on a Friday, and there was nothing but the funeral on TV for 3 days after.  I remember seeing Lee Harvey Oswald on TV wearing a white tee shirt and calmly denying that he killed the President.  I did not see Oswald's murder.
My parents remembered that day in vivid detail, of course.  My mother was a physical therapist employed by Parkland Hospital where Kennedy was taken after he was shot.  She was off work that day, and is everlastingly grateful.  The hospital was a zoo that day.  We heard about the Assassination the same way the rest of the USA heard about it, on TV.  My father hated the Kennedys bitterly, so we were not among the crowds that lined the streets to see his motorcade pass by.  I had friends in Dallas who were along the route and remembered seeing Jack's wavy auburn hair and Jackie's pink coat and hat.  I'm told that my brother and I were home from kindergarten watching cartoons when the bulletins came on.

My dad deeply resented the blame Dallas took for Kennedy's death.  He always wanted to see the old Schoolbook Depository leveled.  We did not travel out of state for about 2 or 3 years after the Assassination because of stories we heard about cars from Dallas being vandalized or worse outside of Texas.  I've always thought it the height of irony that Dallas had a reputation for being a hotbed of far-right kookery, and yet Kennedy was murdered in Dallas by a far left kook.  For Kennedy's visit, the kooks were out in force as all the old black and white photos remind us.

But on the whole, the crowds in Dallas that day were large and very friendly.  What's more, the crowds really were spontaneous.  A legacy of that day in Dallas is the security cocoon that the President must travel with.  Surging crowds like this along a presidential motorcade route would be unthinkable now, unless they were carefully screened and the whole event stage-crafted.

Kennedy's trip to Texas was a drearily routine task of political fence-mending, trying to keep Southern (and Texan) Democrats on board for the coming election campaign in 1964, to assuage injured feelings after a rumor leaked out that Kennedy was going to drop Lyndon Johnson from the ticket, a rumor that was never true.  He arrived in Dallas for what we would call a fund-raiser, addressing the local Powers That Be at a large elaborate luncheon in the Dallas Trade Mart.  As we all know, he never made it there.  He was scheduled to leave Dallas that evening, fly to Austin, and spend a night with LBJ on the Johnson Ranch before returning to Washington.  The whole event was carefully stage-managed to appeal to Texas voters.

Another reason we stayed home on that Friday in 1963 was that we were Republicans; at the time a very rare species in Texas.  Democrats in the state were a majority, and were overwhelmingly Dixiecrats; far right voters still loyal to the old Confederacy (though there was a substantial minority of labor Dems in Texas, including then Senator Ralph Yarborough whom my father also detested).  In the 1972 election, I had friends whose parents voted for George McGovern, a man they hated, but only because they couldn't bring themselves to vote for the Party of Lincoln despite Nixon's Southern Strategy.  All that is gone now.  As LBJ predicted, Texas and the rest of the South are now solidly GOP in the wake of resentment created by the Civil Rights Act.

The general consensus now seems to be that Kennedy was a good president, but not a great one.  He did indeed manage the Cuban Missile Crisis very skillfully and courageously with a lot of help from his brother Bobby.  As a politician, he could be over-cautious.  He supported the proposed Civil Rights Act, but very carefully.  His election in 1960 was very close, and he faced a hostile Congress.
While his intentions for Vietnam were unclear at the time of his death (he probably didn't know himself), Kennedy was responsible for creating the strategies and policies that would ultimately fail in that war.  He was responsible for the overthrow (if not the murder) of President Ngo Diem. We all know now that in his sex life, Kennedy was all too human and even reckless.  We also know now that his health was much worse than the public was told, that he was in pain and on medications most of the time.  His private life was full of pain and conflict, not the least of which was the death of an infant son.
For all of his abundant shortcomings, it could be argued that LBJ was a much better and more effective President.  I'm not sure that Kennedy could have succeeded in passing the Civil Rights Act.  Johnson did.  Kennedy tried since his days as a Senator to pass some form of Medicare.  Johnson succeeded in passing Medicare for the elderly.

I'm one of the small minority of Americans who think that there was no conspiracy behind Kennedy's murder, that for all its problems, the Warren Commission came to the right conclusion.  Lee Harvey Oswald killed the President of the United States, and that he did it alone.  Oswald was a demented megalomaniac yearning for the limelight before he was anything else, and had plenty of reason to kill the President of the United States.  People sometimes forget that Oswald shot and wounded retired General Edwin Walker the week before the Assassination, and that he killed a Dallas Police officer J.D. Tippit the morning of November 22nd.  He was already a murderer before he murdered JFK.   It seems to me that if there was a conspiracy, it would have come out by now.  It's been 50 years and there is still no ironclad evidence, and everyone involved is now dead and went to their graves with no deathbed confessions.  My dad died convinced that Kennedy was murdered by the mafia.  LBJ died convinced that Kennedy was murdered by Castro in retaliation for CIA assassination attempts.  Oliver Stone is convinced that Jim Garrison was right, that Kennedy was killed by a cabal of the Military Industrial Complex, the New Orleans Mob, and homosexuals.  I don't believe any of it.

I think these conspiracy theories are a psychological rejection of the possibility that so great a man as John F. Kennedy could be brought down by so insignificant a man as Lee Harvey Oswald.  And yet, history is full of just such precedents.   King Henry IV of France was killed by a lone fanatic in 1610 after surviving 2 previous attempts on his life by lunatics.  Queen Victoria survived 7 assassination attempts, all by lone lunatics, one of whom knocked her out.  It is not hard to imagine that Lee Harvey Oswald, a paranoid megalomaniac, a loner and a drifter, a former Marine, could have succeeded by dumb luck where other crackpots had failed.

Dallas about 1963

For me, all the old photos of Dallas on that day 50 years ago are soaked in memories from my early childhood.  I can remember those scenes when they were real and not in black and white.  I remember the cars, the hair, the sunglasses, Love Field, the big Hertz Rent-A-Car sign on the schoolbook depository, all of it.
It turns out that I have some personal connections -- very oblique ones -- to the Kennedy Assassination.  My Uncle Ray was Marina Oswald's landlord for many years after Lee's death.  In my teenage years I frequented Campisi's Egyptian Lounge, a restaurant and pizza joint on Mockingbird Lane owned by members of the New Orleans mob blamed by Garrison for Kennedy's death.  When I was in grade school, all of us kids knew about Jack Ruby's Carousel Lounge and its reputation (their fathers probably went there).  I had friends who knew General Edwin Walker, a retired (resigned actually) military commander and right wing nutcase who was supposed to be Oswald's first target.  Oswald shot Walker in his driveway the week before he shot Kennedy, but the General survived.  I remember the General's large house on Turtle Creek Boulevard painted battleship gray with a moveable sign out front condemning everyone to the left of  General Curtis LeMay for selling out to the commies (most people).  I also remember that the guys I knew who were regulars at General Walker's house were very attractive young men.  It turns out that Walker was big ol' closet sister attracted to young men.   He was arrested in 1977 for fondling an undercover cop in a public restroom.

General Edwin Walker's house in Dallas as I remember it.

My older cousin Gary and I always joke about whether or not we appear in anyone's conspiracy theories.  Dallas was a very different place back then, and a much smaller town than it is now.

I remember that as late as 1983, the memory of John F. Kennedy's sudden and untimely death could still reduce people to tears.
Now in the wake of 9/11, and with the simple passage of time, the impact of the Kennedy Assassination is fading.  I think a big reason why it resonated so strongly for so long  was not simply because of some lost "Camelot," or lost promise, but because the subsequent history of the USA was so awful.  His death was soon followed by the deaths of tens of thousands of young men in Vietnam, by race riots, by student riots, police riots, by more assassinations, by Watergate, etc., etc., etc.

It seemed in retrospect that everything good and hopeful in the USA died with Kennedy all of a sudden in Dealey Plaza in Dallas that November afternoon, and all the bats flew out of the belfry.  To many people, it seemed the world had ended.

Secret service agents loading JFK's body in a temporary coffin on board Air Force One 
at Love Field in Dallas

The Grassy Knoll in November, 1963 days after the Assassination

The Kennedy Memorial in Dallas designed by Phillip Johnson

From 1962:

1 comment:

Steve Roe said...

Great article Doug! As a former Dallas native, I can relate to this story. Thanks, Steve Roe