Still JFK Crazy After All These Years
Apparently I have written more about the upcoming 50th anniversary observation of the Kennedy assassination than anybody else in town, or else I have written crazier stuff. One way or another I have become a top phone call for out-of-town journalists, filmmakers and other seekers of something to say about the murder of JFK.
My real reason for passing on that fact is to put a chill in the bones of the old rich people running Dallas' JFK 50th affair. I can't imagine I would be their first choice for ambassador.
But talking to the visitors has also been interesting for me, providing me with a window on how people outside the city view Dallas and the assassination a half century after it happened. Most of what they really want to talk about is way outside the circle of thought here at home.
Here, the JFK assassination is still an active murder case. The primary goal of the old rich people behind the weird ritual planned at Dealey Plaza for November 22 is to tell the world they didn't do it. The primary reaction of the visiting press, I find, is to say, "Who said you did?"
By the time they get to me, the visitors already have interviewed some of the old rich people. They tell me, "The old rich people behind the weird ritual keep telling us they didn't do it! What the hell is that about? Did they do it?"
I usually just say yes. I don't really have time to get into a big thing about it. I've got my own work to do, columns to write, dogs to walk, photographs of myself to autograph. Really, the only reason I talk to them at all is so I can meet them over coffee.
If there is a second coffee in it for me, I may explain that I don't mean the old rich people actually shot him. I mean what the late Stanley Marcus, the city's prince of department store retail, told me in 1986: "Everyone was saying, 'Well, it could have happened anywhere,'" he said.
"Of course, that was true. But it did happen here, and it happened partially because of the atmosphere that attracted that kind of fanatic nut [Lee Harvey Oswald]. And when a community doesn't do anything to express disapprobation, it is logical it will attract more and more of them."
If someone should offer me a raisin scone, I might even go into my theory about how deeply personal and visceral the charge of culpability was at the time for the individuals and families against whom it was aimed. That whip bit hard on people like the Dealey/Decherd/Moroney families who own The Dallas Morning News, the family of former Dallas Cowboys owner H. Bum Bright who paid for the infamous "Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas" ad and others who were personally reviled for their roles in making Dallas a center of pre-assassination extremism.
Lots of people have written about the Kennedy assassination as the world's first live-broadcast global news event, the first time the global media took a remote, little-known place and put it at center stage before the eye of the great cyclops. But everybody writes about it as a media story and in terms of how it affected the cyclops. What about Dallas?
Until the JFK murder here a half century ago, remote little-known places existed within a certain sheltering architecture of irrelevance. Because they were remote, they were protected by their obscurity from withering scrutiny. Dallas was the first such place to be thrust suddenly and violently into the world's eye and under awful circumstances. The experience must have been like waking from a dream and finding oneself naked at center stage in a packed Carnegie Hall, covered with someone else's blood.
It wasn't just a terrible thing to happen. It was also a thing that shouldn't have been possible, a shock so powerful it scored and cracked the contours of sanity.
If we get that far into the raisin scones, I find I finally have an audience. The foreigners coming here to write about the JFK 50th have no interest whatsoever in who did it, but they are intrigued by the difficult ways in which Dallas still processes the event at this considerable remove in time.
I had coffee one prematurely mild morning in September with Pierre Sorgue, an editor and writer for GEO magazine in Paris, who was in Texas working on several stories, one of which was about the JFK 50th. He told me he met with Tom Huang and Alan Peppard, who are running the special 50th coverage for The Dallas Morning News, and they told him they were going to produce a special section including a full-page reproduction of the front page of the News the day after it happened.
With a shrug of Gallic faux innocence, Sorgue told me he had expressed admiration for their idea, then asked them why they did not also reproduce page 14 of the News on November 22, 1963, the day of the assassination. On that page on that day appeared the "Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas" ad now in history books worldwide as evidence of the atmosphere Marcus described to me.
Sorgue told me Peppard asked him in response why he didn't do a story about Vichy France. And right away, allow me to say I may have a wrong memory of what Sorgue told me. I was not taking notes. Peppard has a very different memory of the exchange. He told me in an email, "Although I cannot give you the exact wording, I commented that any type of commemoration ceremony is a challenge when one thinks of what is being commemorated. In a glib and off-the-cuff way, I asked, 'How do they commemorate the liberation of Vichy?'"
And before I go on, I should also say that Peppard wrote a really superb piece for his newspaper recently on the forgotten JFK motorcade in Dallas in 1960 when the dashing JFK was running for office with the unlovely LBJ at his side. Densely reported and wonderfully written, the story conveyed the nascent racist xenophobic atmosphere Marcus described as full-blown in Dallas three years later.
But. "Welcome Mr. Kennedy." What about Vichy? It's a bit of a conversation stopper, Alan. C'mon.
I did not get the impression Sorgue was offended by being asked about Vichy. It was much more that he was surprised and intrigued to find inflammation and sensitivity around a wound in Dallas that he thought should have gone dull decades ago.
He told me he sincerely could not think of a better way for the Morning News and Dallas to demonstrate that they have moved beyond and above the pain than by republishing the welcome ad. I'll tell you what I told him in response in a minute.
Among the visitors here with assassination-related projects in mind, there is considerable interest in Robert Groden, the conspiracy theory author I have written about a lot. Over a period of years the city has tried to silence Groden and banish him from a card-table post in Dealey Plaza where he sells books and videos. The city's weapons against him have been multiple tickets, fines and arrests over the years, all tossed out by the courts as illegal. The city even threw him in jail and denied him much needed medications as a form of deliberate near-torture.
The people who call to ask me for my take on Groden seem not to be interested one bit in who shot Kennedy or who has the best theory about it. Instead, they are captivated by his saga — one lonely man standing on a hill preaching the gospel he chooses to preach, week upon week, year after year, implacable against the oppression of a town that wants to make him disappear.
Why does he do what he does? Why does the town do what it does? Why does the town want him to disappear? Those are way more interesting questions for most of the visitors I have spoken with than who shot Kennedy.
So what do I tell them when we get to the big why? I say first that it's not the town. This city is full of young people who barely know who John Kennedy was. The streets are crowded with newcomers, everybody from everywhere, people who have no baggage on the issue.
We're talking strictly about the weird old rich people — the ones who were blamed personally. And we're not talking about facts. We're definitely not talking about philosophy, not even about history.
We are talking about — and I know this is an unkind word, but I think it's apt — people who are crazy. Not totally crazy all day long. Just a little bit crazy in this one area, sort of like arrested development or unresolved childhood trauma.
For the people who were kids or young adults when it happened, members of the families or the general social class that was blamed, I think the Kennedy assassination may have been a very damaging formative event in their early personal development.
Now in their old age, for them Dealey Plaza has become a hated cemetery where all of their youthful demons dwell and all of them look like Robert Groden with horns. For whatever reason — maybe it's numerology — the 50th anniversary has taken on an almost apocalyptic importance to the old rich people. It's as if they must rigidly control every split-second of the 50th ritual to stop the beast from rising up again from the stained soil of Dealey Plaza.
In other words, the thing on November 22 is going to be covered by the visiting press as a really great Halloween party: "DALLAS CRONES AND MOGULS UTTER INCANTATIONS TO KEEP BOGEYMAN AT BAY."
I'm not sure yet if I have a ticket. If I do, I'm going to go as LBJ's mistress. Does anyone know if I will need to shave my beard?
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.