Dealey Plaza, the small Depression-era park where Elm, Main and Commerce streets converge in Dallas, is a stunningly banal venue for one of the great tragedies of American history.
Surrounded by odd peristyles and pergolas, like a New Deal version of Stonehenge, Dealey Plaza was named after George Dealey, the late publisher of The Dallas Morning News. In 1961, Dealey’s son and successor, Ted, was in Washington, D.C., attending a convention of newspaper publishers. President John F. Kennedy hosted the publishers at the White House, and Ted Dealey, a conservative, stood up and lectured the new president in front of his peers.
“Mr. President,” Dealey said, “we need a man on horseback to lead this nation, and many people in Texas and the Southwest think that you are riding Caroline’s tricycle.”
Most of the editors and publishers winced. Kennedy was furious and embarrassed. But Dealey did not leave the insult in the East Room of the White House. He continued to editorialize vociferously against Kennedy, and, on the president’s arrival in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, The Dallas Morning News ran a full-page, black-bordered ad: “WELCOME MR. KENNEDY TO DALLAS.” It was approved by Dealey and accused the president of selling out to global communism.
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“Well,” Kennedy said, upon reading the ad in his hotel suite that morning in Fort Worth, “we’re in nut country now.”
That afternoon, Kennedy’s car turned left into Dealey Plaza. Gov. John Connally’s wife, Nellie, said to the president, “You sure can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.”
“No,” he replied. “You sure can’t.”
By the time Kennedy’s car sped out of Dealey Plaza, the president was mortally wounded and the world was altered in ways we are still trying to sort out.
A half-century later, the shooting of the 35th president is permanently seared in the collective American consciousness. Any person older than, say, 55 or so, can recall the moment they heard the news. “November 22, 1963” even sounds ominous on its own, and it entered the trinity of tragic dates all Americans recoil at when they hear them: “September 11, 2001” and “December 7, 1941.”
My first conscious historical memory was of the assassination. I was 3. My mother and our neighbor were watching the CBS soap opera “As The World Turns.” My faint memory of this moment was not of Walter Cronkite, but our black-and-white Zenith television screen going black, and then my mother and her friend screaming and crying.
Why? A 3-year-old doesn’t know who the president is. A 3-year-old does know there’s something terribly wrong when adults scream. There are other snippets of the weekend I think I recall, but now I am not sure. This I am sure of: that day, the name “Kenny” stuck with me. Who is “Kenny”?
I now know who “Kenny” was – Kennedy.
In the years following the assassination, it seemed virtually impossible, really, that the Warren Commission report had answered the question of who had killed John F. Kennedy. Its conclusion was that a mysterious 24-year-old with grandiose visions, who worked in a school textbook warehouse, executed the president with a $21 Italian rifle. There must be more to it. There must be.
As I grew up, I began reading about the killing, and I have to say it occupied a lot of my mental space. Along with millions of other people, I believed that there had to be some sort of conspiracy. And I bought into a lot of the theories. The majority of Americans still do. It was the CIA, or the mob, or Castro, or the KGB, or wealthy oil interests, or Lyndon Johnson ... I tried them all on for size. So did filmmaker Oliver Stone, who, in 1991, put out the brilliantly made Rashomon-style movie “JFK,” which baked virtually every Kennedy assassination theory into a single unified field theory that blamed everyone from Bell Helicopter to New Orleans homosexuals.
And why wouldn’t we believe that it was a conspiracy? After all, by then we had experienced many other great national cabals as well: Vietnam, Watergate, the CIA-FBI intelligence community war, and we all worked backward from there. Don’t tell us that this miniscule gnome Lee Harvey Oswald, some kook who quit the Marines and defected to Russia, killed Jack Kennedy. Please. A mediocre Marine marksman using an obviously defective rifle that shot magic bullets that turned in midair did this? No. Way. In. Hell.
No, this Oswald guy must have been manipulated, at the very least, by any number of more sophisticated forces. How could he not have been? He lived in New Orleans! That place is nuts! He married a Russian girl! He idolized Castro! His uncle might have been in the Mafia!
I vividly recall the night in 1975 when Geraldo Rivera showed the Zapruder film of the assassination for the first time on national television. Previously, Life magazine had published all the frames of the home movie, but virtually no one outside of the Warren Commission investigators had seen it in motion. A man named Robert Groden had blown up and slowed down the film as well. Believe me, the first time you see the Zapruder film, well, it is one of the most horrifying things you’ll ever see. Period.
Rivera and Groden were truly convincing. Of course, you can see that the president was shot from the front. It’s obvious: look at his head snapping back. It must be a shot from the “Grassy Knoll,” right?
Around that same time, I saw lawyer and author Mark Lane speak at the University of Minnesota. He wrote the best-selling book, “Rush to Judgment.” It was the bible of the assassination. He asserted that there was no physical way Oswald could have pulled off the murder, bullets don’t go through bodies and exit almost intact, and, in fact, he had interviewed witnesses who had seen puffs of smoke from behind the fence on the Grassy Knoll. There was even a witness who said there was a man who said he was from the Secret Service rushing off the knoll seconds after the shots.
Look at this Polaroid: there may be a sniper shaped like a police officer wearing a badge in the bushes, captured in the Moorman photograph. You can almost see it.
It’s right there.
Why can’t you see it?
In 1978, the U.S. House of Representatives formed the House Select Committee on Assassinations. They came to the conclusion that Kennedy was “probably” assassinated as the result of a conspiracy. I watched a lot of the proceedings on television. It was utterly riveting, and the most stunning moment was when two acoustics scientists testified that based on their analysis, “with a probability of 95 percent or greater,” that there was a second gunman, who was on the Grassy Knoll.
They were scientists, and they inevitably must be right. It’s just science. Not only that, the Mafia was probably involved. I mean, look at Jack Ruby. He must have killed Oswald to silence him. It’s the only thing that makes sense.
When I was in my 20s, I went to Dealey Plaza. It seemed virtually unchanged from 1963. I saw the Texas School Book Depository; they were sand-blasting it to revive its dreadful weathered exterior. Bits of red brick were all over the ground. The grass was very patchy and worn from tourists, I guess. There was one chilling moment. I saw one group of young people sitting on the Grassy Knoll. They were being photographed. Suddenly, they all turned around and mooned the photographer.
They all thought this hilarious, 30 feet from where John F. Kennedy was shot.
When you walk into Dealey Plaza, it’s a much smaller place than the vast green lawns the films and television suggest. I stood behind the fence on the Grassy Knoll. I still have a piece of the fence. And I also remember looking from where a sniper might have stood, to the spot where the president’s last conscious moment occurred, and I thought: no.
I didn’t want to admit it, but I knew everyone would have seen someone shooting from this spot. And, if you’ve ever fired a rifle, you know how loud they are: there is absolutely no mistaking a rifle fired 30 feet away from you.
And, 50 years ago, no one saw a man firing a rifle from the Grassy Knoll. Not one. But a few did see a man firing a rifle from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. And, three people on the floor below heard rifle shell casings hitting the floor above them; plaster loosened from the shots flecked their hair.
At that moment, at the fence on the Grassy Knoll, I came to the sad conclusion that it was Oswald acting alone, an insane man who even wrote about his anarchic desire to destroy the U.S. system and start over.
No one ever talks about that journal. They just talk about “magic bullets” and things they hear in the ether.
I looked up at the window on the sixth floor. Other people were looking up from Elm Street, as if they were searching for the answer.
It wasn’t there.
There isn’t an answer to why Oswald did it, really.
There is just a question that still hangs in the air, like a rifle reverberation. We turn our heads. We still see nothing.
We just see the pedestrian blandness of Dealey Plaza.
Or we see what we want to see.