Watching JFK's Ghost Fade Away

The 50th is the last big moment of mourning for Dallas' aging true grievers.

Over the last three years as the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination has drawn closer, Dealey Plaza where he was killed has been the setting for an ugly battle. On one side has been an eclectic army of conspiracy theorists insistent on their right to use the plaza as their podium. Partisans on the other side have been old Dallas establishment types sometimes using heavy-handed and often illegal tactics to quell and quash such activity.

This year a federal civil rights lawsuit produced emails and other communications proving that the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza was deeply involved behind the scenes in first seeking, then even taking part in the illegal arrest and jailing of a conspiracy author whom the museum wanted expunged from the plaza. The final outcome and expression of this battle will be the memorial service itself on the 22nd — ticketed and barricaded to keep the rabble out and the old guard in.

But now with the date upon us, all of a sudden a very different and deeply personal dimension opens. For those who were alive when it happened, the murder of JFK is still visceral. When opposing factions of the same generation of people confront each other at Dealey Plaza on Friday, they will be divided by barricades but united by the fact that for all of them the loss of John Fitzgerald Kennedy in that place a half century ago is still today a personal burden of grief. This anniversary probably will be the last time that is true.

I married my wife, a Dallas native, 35 years ago, and it almost did not happen, I think, because of the assassination. I moved here in the late 1970s. When we were dating, I repeated stories I had heard to the effect that Dallas school kids cheered when the assassination was announced on P.A. systems. I still remember the look on her face, as if I had slapped her hard.

I think we all know now those stories were urban legends. That's not the point. The point for me was that I had to learn — had to see it in her face — that these accusations were deeply and painfully personal for people who lived here then.

For about 30 seconds once several years ago, I was accused of something truly horrible. I had written a nonfiction book about a grisly murder case. Somebody made a sloppy low-budget TV show about the case, for which I was interviewed on camera. It aired nationally, unfortunately. Months later I was in the checkout lane at a supermarket, and a young couple in the next lane who had caught only fragments of the show convinced themselves I was the escaped, insane half-witted murderer. The killer had really bad teeth, by the way. It's stupid and hilarious now. But in the moment, I must tell you, it was a terrible thing. Especially when I think of his teeth.

That's a tiny fraction of what people in Dallas felt in the years after 1963. If it was any worse for any element of the city's population than others, then probably that slap across the face stung harder for those whose families were in the kind of leadership positions that made them specific named targets in the tsunami of writing and publishing that ensued.

A year or so ago I found online an hour and 15 minutes of raw videotape somebody posted 10 years ago. It was some kind of oral history or documentary project in which an interviewer talked about the assassination with Robert Decherd, recently retired chairman and CEO of A.H. Belo Corp., owner of The Dallas Morning News. The Decherds are a branch of the Dealey clan.

In his 1967 book, The Death of a President, commissioned by Jackie Kennedy as the official version of what happened, author William Manchester singled out the Dealey name for association with the climate of extremism in Dallas that Manchester, like many others to follow, blamed for the assassination. Manchester, by the way, also purveyed the false story about school children cheering with glee when they heard the president of the United States had been murdered.

I have listened a couple of times to this very long rambling interview with Decherd done 10 years ago, in which he is asked in all sorts of overcautious ways how he felt growing up as someone whose family was singled out for blame. At one point in response to a question, Decherd tells a remarkable story that he seems to want to minimize. At age 11, he was taken to Parkland Hospital where his parents visited the shot and severely wounded governor of Texas, John Connally, who was in the motorcade with Kennedy. So Decherd, this child from what sounds like a fairly sheltered background, sat staring at Secret Service agents and cops in a waiting room while his parents were in a room down the hall with one of the guys who got shot.

At another point the interviewer asks him if he has any difficulty with the association of his family name with the site of the assassination. Decherd says his feelings for Dealey Plaza include "only positive things because that's the manner in which it was created." He says the naming of the plaza for his forebear "was the pinnacle in my mind of a deserved recognition ... so I celebrate Dealey Plaza, and I don't look back on history and wish it were otherwise.

"Things happen in a lot of cities and a lot of places for reasons that transcend our understanding, and the fact that the president was assassinated in Dealey Plaza is a fact of history which thankfully our city finally found a way to recognize and acknowledge in an appropriate way, which is the role of the Sixth Floor Museum."

Yeah. I watch that, and I ask myself, so, Schutze, what if the camera from the bad TV show were on you, and the interviewer said, "Mr. Schutze, how has it affected you that sometimes people in grocery stores think you may be an escaped insane nitwit murderer with really bad teeth?"

I think about that, and I think maybe Decherd handled it pretty smoothly. But then there is this. I have come to know Robert Groden, the author whom the Sixth Floor Museum helped get thrown in jail on trumped-up charges. He's a nice man. I like him.

I came across the internal police department email in which the arresting officer bragged to his superior that they had been able to make Groden's overnight incarceration even harder on him by withholding his medications. This was an ugly business, this persecution of Groden. Whoever was at the top of it, working the puppet strings, needs to be deeply ashamed of himself or herself or themselves.

On the day Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Groden was an 18-year-old kid playing hooky from Forest Hills High School in the nice part of Queens, New York. He and his sister watched the story break on television. Groden has devoted every day of his life since that day to solving what he believes is an open murder case. He is a best-selling author. He was a staff expert to the 1976 House Select Committee on Assassinations, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald probably did not act alone in the killing of the president. He is a man not without standing.

Groden is not unlike the army of assassination experts and theorists who have been banished from Dealey Plaza for the 50th observations — a banishment carried out at the instigation of the Sixth Floor Museum and with the heavy-handed cooperation of City Hall. Many of them are in their 60s, 70s and even 80s. The assassination has been the dominant theme and focus of their lives.

Some of the visiting journalists who have come here to cover the 50th have told me that they find the presentations that the assassination theorists make to tourists in Dealey Plaza gauche and, worse, even deeply distasteful. One reporter seemed less bothered by Groden than by parents who stood by without a care in the world while their pre-adolescent children pored over grisly brain and skull autopsy photos displayed on Groden's table.

Yes. It's really rough stuff. Groden and the other theorists all seem to have hardened into a kind of thick-skinned immunity worthy of one of those crime serials on TV. They're not lambs or innocents. If they were out there hawking that stuff on the empty lot next to where you live, you'd move, believe me.

I'm probably supposed to tell you at this point that all of these people, the people who will be inside the barricades at Dealey Plaza on the 22nd and those who will be out, believe deeply in the legitimacy of their own positions. Maybe they do. But I won't say that. I really don't believe the old guard people inside the barricades or the conspiracy theorists outside are behaving out of any kind of conscious or explicit position on issues.

They're all crazy. They are crazy in the way human beings must be crazy when they stumble beneath burdens of grief. Grief dwells at the breaking point. There aren't any rules for grief. Grief makes everyone behave badly sooner or later.

But grief is also how we keep the dead man with us. Angry grief, shame-faced grief, accusatory grief, wild wailing grief: All of it holds him near, refuses to allow him to slip away. The tickets and the barricades, the security staff and the speeches, the ceremony and recriminations, even the heavy-handed bully boy stuff: None of that is what it's really about.

What we really see in Dealey Plaza on Friday will be the last gathering of the true grievers. The barricades will be an inconsequential detail. This will never happen again. They will all die. The haunt will die with them. And then he will be truly gone.

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