Watching JFK's Ghost Fade Away

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.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze