So much ink has been spilled over the events of November 22, 1963, that I can hardly add anything new here on this blog. After all, since the very day of President Kennedy’s horrific demise on the freeway entrance in Dallas, every pundit, hack, conspiracy theorist, celebrity and average Joe has engaged in this parlor game. If Caesar’s murder was for the ancients the great story of intrigue and regicide, JFK’s story in some ways in the modern parallel.
I have been to Dallas on two occasions, and took time to wander about Dealey Plaza—the scene of the crime. Dealey is the sort of tourist attraction that a city has to learn to live with. It is an embarrassment to a city. But to demolish it would be to rob future generations of understanding. Humans seemingly need these haunted places, to allow the scenery to engage the senses and create vivid impressions and understanding. After all, why would I want to visit such a ghastly place but to satisfy my own historical curiosity and to think through my own conspiracy theory?
When I was a kid, upon the 30th anniversary of these events, the news was full of Oliver Stone’s hagiography of the events—his film JFK. That effort was beautiful theater but not much more. (And a rather beautiful score by John Williams). Seen through the lens of 20 more years of history, I have a hard time indulging the wild collusion of forces (CIA, FBI, LBJ, Oil men, the military-industrial complex, the Cubans, the Mob, the Russians) that allegedly came together to off their greatest nemesis, a presidential playboy who was about as liberal as Reagan. Nah, Occam’s razor applies here. Occam said that among competing theories, the one with the least assumptions is most likely the truth. Americans have such little faith in their government to deliver the mail on time, let alone conspire to commit a coup d’état.
Dealey Plaza is a sad place, but not simply for being the site of the assassination. The plaza is a bit isolated from the downtown core. Developed as part of an urban renewal program, the plaza is really nothing more than a green space connecting the on-ramps of the highway to the downtown core. The architecture is a modernist version of Bernini’s great arms that hug St. Peter’s Square in Rome (though much more modest). The impression I get is that this space was to provide the motorist an interesting approach into the city. Perhaps in the 1950’s, when America was in-love with the automobile (and, the cars were works of art unlike the fiberglass heaps of today), an office worker might want to take their lunch outside, and watch the Bel-Airs and Corvettes drive by.
Today, it is an exhaust-filled no-man’s land. Tourists meander through, taking photos for their own mememto mori. They stand on the pylon where Abraham Zapruder shot his film. They wander behind the dilapidated fence behind the grassy knoll—the place where the conspiracy types believe the real shooter took aim. They stand in the road, where an “X” tackily marks the spot of Kennedy’s death. They look up to the Texas School Book Depository and perhaps begin to think the Warren Commission had it right—from his sixth floor sniper’s next, Oswald had a clear vista toward the motorcade. They tour the Sixth Floor Museum and take in the official history.
On my two visits, much had not changed—the city was trying to raise funds to restore the plaza to its 1963 appearance. Hucksters sold tattered, acid-yellow newspaper souvenirs to the tourists, providing the barebones about the history and space. This cheapened what seems to be hallowed ground, much in the way the souvenir slingers crowd around Ford’s Theatre in Washington (the site of Lincoln’s assassination) or the underpass in Paris where Princess Diana met her end.
On that last note, touring the death places of the famous and powerful seems to be a universal human behavior. In Turkey, tourists stand in the room where the founder of the country, Ataturk, died in his Sultan-sized bed, some 70 years after the fact. Tourists still go to the place in the Forum Romani where Caesar was immolated 2000 years ago. Christians go to a church they believe to be the place of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus rose. Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, the site of his suicide, is paved over. Yet tourists still linger there.
Down the road from Dealey Plaza is the city’s official memorial to JFK, a modernist pile developed by the architect Phillip Johnson. Johnson, a friend of the Kennedy’s, designed the great outdoor space to be a cenotaph and temple to JFK–a place for quiet reflection in the bustling city. Locals raises money for the monument, but didn’t care much for the modernist memorial. Dallas conservatives—the sort that wished death upon Kennedy in private only to live in shock over their wish coming true—hated the monument as well. But what other memorial could pay tribute to Kennedy—the first master of television media, the telegenic president in full color who championed the arts (albeit at Jackie’s behest)? No exact sculpture would do, nor a Lincolnesque Greek temple. This memorial is a large, white box–a canvas by which the viewer can cast his own contemplative memories about the 35th president–with nothing but the open blue Texas heavens above. It is an awesome temple—a place that forgives Dealey Plaza a few blocks away.
Dallas has changed greatly since 1963. It is still a city about big money, but it is about other things too. My generation knows it as the city of the Dallas Cowboys, of the Dallas TV show (and its remake), of hipster beer spots and an enormous airport. Today marks the first time that the city has memorialized the event (aside from the memorial by Johnson), a city looking to move forward. City officials removed the tacky “x” from the road, cleaned up the plaza and kept the conspiracy theorists at bay.
The boomers obsess over the Kennedy era, as they quiz one another about where they were on that day. But 50 years on, the gloss is coming off of Camelot. Kennedy’s presidency can be critiqued with a critical eye. Kennedy’s philandering doesn’t go unnoticed. However, none of those transgressions ameliorate the “undignified end” that this president met in Dallas. We are the inheritors of those days—of increased security, restricted freedoms and armies of security that will prevent another November 22, 1963 from happening again. In many ways, Dealey Plaza is a memorial to the end of American innocence.