The 55th anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas has slipped behind us already. The few reminiscence stories in the daily newspaper this year all seemed like reaches.
That really is the miracle of time, is it not, that it can wear, wash and smooth away even a wound like the one inflicted on Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, the day JFK was gunned down in Dealey Plaza?
In the weeks before this anniversary, I spied a story in the paper about the rooming house in Oak Cliff where the assassin slept the night before the murder and whether that house will be made a museum or fall victim to gentrification. I, for one, vote for gentrification. If the house has gone this long without rising to the level of a museum, the years ahead are not going to make it more fascinating.
Does this process of fading from importance mean that the event itself will fade from memory? Of course it will. Much bigger things than this have paled and finally disappeared from the pages of popular recall. Many a final exam in American history 101 would serve as proof for that. Whole wars are gone, leaving thousands of students to bite their pencils and stare at exam room ceilings in vexation.
History is a mystery. What if we knew then what we know now? But we do know now what we didn’t know then, and what good does it do us?
The Kennedy assassination is its own peculiar case, inspiring two simultaneous trends that ought to have been mutually exclusive — a furious obsession with minutiae and total amnesia for the larger truths. We’ve still got our hands on the details. It’s the big picture that’s gone.
Dallas’ problem for a long time was that Dallas so obviously wanted to hurry the forgetting process, and that was wrong. A terrible crime must be allowed to fade from painful memory at its own pace, and anybody who wants to speed up that process just looks like he was in on it.
That was the real heart of the matter. Dallas was in on it. But the city’s guilt was never going to be found in the minutiae.
Dallas was guilty as hell, because Dallas fostered and tolerated the kind of feral antisocial climate that always dredges up a Lee Harvey Oswald sooner or later from its gutters. The wound stayed angry as long as it did mainly because Dallas wasted half a century trying to deny its own role.
I came here 15 years after the event. In the course of 40 years as a local journalist, I must have ground out a couple of recycling bins worth of JFK stories, none of them addressed to any particular theme or aspect beyond what made a good story at the time.
Some of those stories I think I can look back on with a measure of satisfaction. Some make me wish I could hop on board a time machine, travel back in time and snatch the copy pages back from my editors' grubby paws before the stories ever got to the back shop. In spite of 100 nightmares about it, apparently I'm not allowed to do that.
I don’t think there has ever been another story I was close to that was so unforgiving. For the longest time, every single syllable published anywhere about the Kennedy assassination fell into a double, double, toil and trouble pot of assassination theories, always on the hot boil, hungry for every new eye of newt and toe of frog to add to the brew.
I made a stupid memory mistake just last year in a story about the federal government’s release from secrecy of 2,800 JFK documents. I conflated some events in stories surrounding the release of documents with some things I learned decades ago in discussions prior to a book deal that never got done.
Wouldn’t you know, the guy I conflated was too good a sport to say anything about it to me for a while, but finally he had to contact me because my mistake had tossed him into the boiling pot. Without relitigating the whole thing here, the important fact is that former FBI agent Udo “Woody” Specht had nothing to do with an infamous chapter known among conspiracy mavens variously as the Hosty note or the Oswald note.
In the early 1990s when Specht and I talked about collaborating on a book, he gave me an amusing version of that particular narrative, which involved an FBI agent named James Hosty. Hosty stands accused by the conspiracy crew of burning a note sent to him by Oswald, the assassin, accusing Hosty of browbeating Oswald’s wife. Why anybody cared if Hosty burned the damn note I never really understood.
My own notes from my talks with Specht were long gone. I thought I remembered he had related to me the Hosty note-burning story as something that happened while Specht was in the Dallas FBI field office and of which he had personal knowledge. That was all wrong. Specht came to the Dallas field office later.
He had heard the story when we spoke because by that time it had been public knowledge for almost 20 years. By the time we spoke, in the '90s, he already had left the FBI for private legal practice. He related the Hosty note story to me without revealing any FBI secrets, because he was not the kind of guy who would ever reveal official secrets, book deal or not.
The book Specht and I talked about was not a conspiracy book. It was sort of the opposite. One of his duties in the Dallas office was keeping track of the latest conspiracy theories, and he had a string of great stories about it. The book never got done, however, because, according to my book agent at the time, there was not a market for books shooting down conspiracy theories, only for books proposing new ones.
In the intervening years before his retirement, Specht enjoyed successful careers as a lawyer and a municipal judge in suburban Addison. During all those years, as he reminded me recently, he was careful to maintain a distance from the conspiracy theorists.
“As you know,” he wrote to me, “I am not a proponent of JFK conspiracy theories and as of this date no credible evidence has surfaced concerning same. I too could have filled my wallet and have been approached over the years to spin a conspiracy yarn.”
Not by me. But I did throw him into the pot last year, apparently, by mixing up the timing and the attribution of the Hosty yarn, giving someone out there a new bone to gnaw. I am not exactly clear how or why it is being gnawed, but I am sincerely penitent for causing it to be gnawed at all.
And by the way, what did we learn, in fact, from that big release of papers last year? Salted evenly throughout them were numerous instances now interpreted as unheeded warnings.
A CIA telephone intercept from two months before the assassination supposedly should have raised a red flag. Another CIA memo said someone had warned a British newspaper that something might happen: “The caller said only that the Cambridge News reporter should call the American embassy in London for some big news and then hung up.”
The trouble with all of the minutiae now is that everything in Dallas in 1963 should have been a warning. The entire fabric and tenor of Dallas at the time screamed that something very bad was about to happen here.
In the mid-1980s the late Stanley Marcus talked to me about Dallas in the period before the assassination for a book I was working on (and did get published): “I found it very difficult to go to a dinner party," he said, "without getting into violent discussions.
“If you disagreed, you were automatically labeled a communist. It was a hostile know-nothing atmosphere.”
Sound at all like today to you? In fact, why now would we still be wasting any of our attention at all on burned notes and overheard phone calls when it’s those larger themes from 1963 that call out so stridently for our attention? I’m talking about the same elements that struck Marcus — rabid right-wing thinking, intolerance, vilification. We’ve got all of that going for us now, only this time it’s not Dallas doing it. It’s the whole country.
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A half-century from now, will writers, historians and a new crop of conspiracy mongers look back on this time and conclude we had to be up to something deliberate and terrible because otherwise we couldn’t possibly have missed the warning signs? They’re all around us.
Or is it more like this? The warning signs are all around us only if we interpret them as warning signs, which is what people do later in retrospect. In the moment it’s just stuff, and that’s what it was in the early '60s. Maybe it was just the way things were, and there wasn’t much anybody felt they could do about it other than keep on plugging and hope things would come out OK.
It’s fading now, almost gone from the kind of very painful, wincing memory that kept the assassination alive for a half-century in Dallas. So couldn’t we argue that this is a case of things coming out OK in the end? Sure, except for the assassination of President Kennedy here in 1963. That would have been nice to avoid.
Is there a way we could look back now, lift our noses out of the minutiae, shake off the obsessive-compulsive fascination with conspiracy and see clearly for once the powerful parallels in the big pictures from both times? And if we could, what would that enable us to do? Can we change the course of history? Or do we really have to leave our destiny in the hands of a grungy little bastard like Lee Harvey Oswald?