Dallas still defined by Kennedy’s assassination in 1963
JFK’s ambition went unfulfilled – yet he managed to inspire a generation
Fifty years on, many residents of Dallas want to forget, not remember, Kennedy’s death.
Still trying to shed the “city of hate” label tagged on to Dallas in the aftermath of Kennedy’s murder, local artists, students and community groups have organised the Dallas Love Project, a collection of 20,000 pieces of art expressing unconditional love turning walls across the city into “galleries of love”.
Children’s paintings adorn spaces in buildings around the city, but all the focus of the visitors to the city is on Dealey Plaza, the scene of Kennedy’s assassination a half-century ago.
Throngs of tourists and reporters have converged on the plaza as media trucks and tents and newly erected stands surround the scene of one the most famous events of 20th-century American history to commemorate the 50th anniversary, a moment that changed American politics and culture.
Adorned by tattoos of John F Kennedy, his wife Jackie and slain brother Robert, Jeff Gold (59) has travelled to Dealey Plaza from his home in Los Angeles just as he did for the 40th anniversary.
“I am dedicated to Kennedy and I have always found him to be an inspiration,” said Gold. “We don’t have royalty in this country . . . it is the closest we can get to looking up to somebody.”
Locals have a different view. Waiting for a tram a few blocks away from the large crowds at the plaza, George Segien (62) says there is a “lack of empathy” among Dallas residents.
“It is not something that they really want to remember being famous for,” he said. “It is not one of your prouder moments having a president dying in your back yard.”
Americans prefer to remember Kennedy for his potential than for his accomplishments – a charismatic, youthful leader whose promise was cut short in a deranged moment at the hands of Lee Harvey Oswald, a psychologically troubled young man with a hatred of capitalism and a wish to be famous.
Congressman Joe Kennedy, the only member of the Kennedy family now in political office, said that his great-uncle “challenged all of us to achieve a better and bigger future for our country”.
The blizzard of conspiracy theories following his death spawned a wave of anti-government sentiment that was further stirred by the racial violence against the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War and Watergate political scandal of the Nixon presidency that marked a dark decade after Kennedy’s murder.
Bob Schieffer, the veteran CBS newsman who was a young reporter in Texas at the time of Kennedy’s assassination, says one reason for the “endless debate” in all the conspiracy theories is because people find it hard to believe that “a total loser” like Oswald could have taken down the president.
John F Kennedy’s ambition went unfulfilled and, in the time he served, he fell short of greatness, yet he inspired a generation. Historians rank him as an average president, yet the public eulogise him along with Lincoln and Roosevelt as one of America’s greatest presidents, overlooking his limitations.
“The blood of a terrible assassination on November 22nd, 1963 washed away John Kennedy’s sins in the eyes of the public – both his public and private shortcomings,” said Larry Sabato, author of The Kennedy Half Century and director of the University of Virginia Centre for Politics.
The images of that sunny November day in Dallas 50 years ago are seared into the American consciousness – Kennedy waving to smiling crowds, Jackie glowing in her pink suit and pillbox hat and that horrific moment, caught on frame 313 of Abraham Zapruder’s 26.6-second film, showing the right side of Kennedy’s head shattered by the impact of a sniper’s bullet.
Older residents in Dallas are still skittish about an event that brought widespread condemnation to the city.
“In 1963 we looked for scapegoats, and Dallas was handy because of its conservative culture,” said Sabato.
Speaking at an event in Washington on Wednesday, Clint Hill, Kennedy’s secret service bodyguard who jumped on the presidential limousine when he heard the first shot fired in a vain attempt to protect the president, remembered the eerie prescience of Kennedy’s conversation with an aide before travelling to Dallas that morning that he could be killed by a sniper firing from a high-rise building.
Hill said that he only reflected on his personal failings on that day in 1963 several years later when he was given a desk job with the secret service. His trauma deepened into alcoholism for six years after his first televised interview in 1975 unearthed feelings about what had happened on November 22nd, 1963.
‘Sense of guilt’
“I felt a sense of guilt because of all the agents working that day I was the only one who had a chance to do anything,” he said. “Where all the other agents were positioned, I was the only one who had a chance to get to the car but I couldn’t get there fast enough – it really bothered me.”
While the events in Dallas 50 years ago left Hill deeply troubled, a visit in 1990, returning for the first time since the assassination, eased his torment.
He walked around Dealey Plaza and went up to sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository from where the official government-commissioned report concluded that Oswald fired the shots at the president. He wanted to see whether there was anything more he could have done. He concluded that he could not have stopped Oswald. “I should have gone back sooner,” he said.