JFK 50th anniversary: Choosing to remember the dark side of history or the inspired leadership
November 15, 2013
DALLAS - Like afterimages seared into our mind's eye long after the camera has stopped flashing, the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas 50 years ago this month is replete with iconic images that marked my generation. These images, normally safely buried away, can quickly be summoned by hundreds of memories that swirl in and out of the streets and back roads of Dallas to this day.
After a recent briefing to the press on the upcoming official 50th anniversary observance of the assassination, I paid a visit to the Sixth Floor Museum, one floor below the briefing room, in the Texas School Book Depository at Dealey Plaza. The visit brought me face to face with such images. There were the president and his first lady, all smiles with a bouquet of red roses in her arms, perfectly complementing her raspberry pink Chanel suit, as they arrived at Love Field in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963. Moving on down the photo exhibits, there was Jackie Kennedy again, this time in a frantic attempt to climb out of the back of the Presidential limousine as her mortally wounded husband lay dying. Next stop, a photo of a smirking Lee Harvey Oswald, and the "sniper's nest," still preserved in that sixth floor corner window.
I wanted to somehow reach out and just stop all this from happening. Impossible, I know. But that is still the feeling of many Americans, a half century later. We just want to stop it from happening. Thus the premise for the recent Stephen King novel, 11/22/63: the protagonist goes back in time in an attempt to stop the Kennedy assassination. I understand how he feels.
The median age of Americans is now 37. The majority of our countrymen alive today were not alive when this event occurred. Perhaps some think that we are obsessed with the JFK assassination, but they have their own "where were you when" events that they will need to explain to succeeding generations. So we ask their forbearance on this 50th anniversary.
"Where were you in '62?" was the tag line for a popular movie in the 1970s, "American Graffiti." I was 12 years old then and don't really remember a whole lot of 1962, but I vividly remember the following year, especially as it came to an anguished close and the assassination of a popular young president became the emotional touchstone for a nation.
I remember exactly where I was in 1963, especially on Nov. 22 of that year. We all do. In my case, I was in the eighth grade at University Junior High School in Austin, Texas. We were especially excited on that day, because the president was coming to Austin after a trip to Dallas. We were getting out of school early so that everyone could go down to Congress Avenue in downtown Austin and watch the motorcade.
Later that night, he would give a speech at a political fundraiser downtown, then travel to the LBJ Ranch in Johnson City, but we didn't care about that. We wanted to see the young president with the funny accent who had been talking about the challenge of space in San Antonio the day before, and as for the girls, we definitely wanted to see Jackie.
When the news came over the Public Address system that President Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, we were simply stunned and devastated. We went home early all right. But we went home in tears, and we spent the weekend in front of the TV, watching the most unimaginable things that our young minds could not even begin to process and understand.
The violence that we saw in November 1963 was the precursor for a violent decade, one that included more assassinations, a bloody war in Vietnam brought home to our dinner tables via the evening newscasts, anti-war protests, and race riots in the great American cities. It was a time of great upheaval. Thank God the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination wasn't publicly released until 1975 - I don't think the public could have handled its release in the 1960s.
Having no reason to travel to Dallas during most of the ensuing years, I never visited the scene of the Kennedy assassination. During several business trips to Dallas in the last five years or so, I was vaguely aware that "over there" was Elm Street and the Texas School Book Depository. I briefly thought about making the trek to visit it, but it seemed like such a sad place to visit. I had been to the Kennedy Gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery and had seen the Eternal Flame. But to go to the place where that young president's head had been blown off and his young wife had tried to climb out of the limo - who wanted to actually visit the "Nightmare on Elm Street"? - I had always wondered if Wes Cravens was thinking of Nov. 22 when he named his movie.
In 2010, I moved to Dallas on a job reassignment, working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Federal Building in downtown Dallas. After several months of house hunting, I found a home in a part of North Irving known as Las Colinas, a relatively easy commute up Interstate 35 to State Highway 114. Something seemed oddly familiar about it, picking at the edges of my thoughts. I was following GPS directions, and had not been paying a lot of attention to other marker signs, but started taking note.
Then one day it dawned on me. My commute home was basically the route of the Kennedy assassination all those years ago: up Elm Street, past the Texas School Book Depository to the right, past the Grassy Knoll that Conspiracy Theorists loved; under the Triple Underpass, where the limos and the Secret Service sped up, but too late; on to Stemmons Freeway (Interstate 35), past what was then the Trade Mart, where he was heading for a luncheon engagement with 2500 of Dallas' finest; past Parkland Hospital, where the 35th president of the United States was pronounced dead as his blood-spattered widow placed her ring on his finger; and on past Love Field, where they flew him out on Air Force One, and swore in Lyndon B. Johnson as the 36th president of the United States. "OK, let's get this plane back to Washington," he said. Sounds to me like the sure sign of a man in who had become in charge.
Some things have changed in 50 years of course. The ill-fated left turn onto Elm Street from Houston - the turn that slowed down the motorcade so much that the president became a virtual "sitting duck" - can no longer be made. Houston Street is now one way the other direction. Large oak trees now block the view and the trajectory from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository. The assassin could not have fired from that window today.
The skyline of Dallas is vastly different, as is the city itself, and looking off to the left from the sixth floor of the Depository, high-rise buildings are in profile. But all the elements of that tragic day are still in place, frozen in time. Giant "x"s have been placed on Elm Street, supposedly to mark the spots where the first and then the second bullets hit. As you drive that curve of Elm Street, over the xs and by the tourists taking photos, it's almost as if you are a small part of the Zapruder film.
Two aspects of this drive have stood out to me: First, how small, how compressed this area is. The drive in front of the Texas School Book Depository to the triple underpass to Stemmons Freeway is nothing at all. I whip through that every day in virtually seconds.
And how much that sharp turn from Houston Street onto Elm Street must have slowed the motorcade. There surely was a reason that made sense at the time for the route to snake through the streets of downtown Dallas, an area that is now home to me five days a week, but hindsight screams about slowing down the president that much. Security was not the issue then that it was today. Still, even as a teenager in Austin, I was aware of some of the extremist politics of the time. Hindsight, hindsight.
Those of us who grew up in Texas will always have special memories of that time. The president's fateful trip to Texas in November 1963 took him to all the major cities - Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Dallas, with Austin also planned. So if you lived in a major Texas city, your local news was about JFK's visit that November.
Ironically for me, in 1987, while serving in the U.S. Air Force, I was assigned to Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio as the Public Affairs Officer. Brooks, which is now closed, was home to the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, and was the center for much research and development relating to manned space flight. It was also the location of President Kennedy's last official act as president.
On Nov. 21, 1963, he took part in the dedication of that Aerospace Medicine facility, and delivered a great speech about space exploration.
Here's an excerpt, which we used often in our commemorations of JFK's visit to Brooks Air Force Base:
"This nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against. With the vital help of this Aerospace Medical Center, with the help of all those who labor in the space endeavor, with the help and support of all Americans, we will climb this wall with safety and with speed-and we shall then explore the wonders on the other side."
That speech has always seemed to me quintessential Kennedy: leaning forward, future-focused, a better America for our children and our grandchildren. That is what the Kennedy presidency was about. It was not about that bloody day on Elm Street in Dallas.
This year, on the 50th anniversary of that day, I am fortunate to have obtained press credentials to cover the commemoration ceremony. Back in my days at University Junior High, and all the days that followed, I never would have believed that I would be in Dealey Plaza on the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. Dallas leaders have obviously given much thought to this event, and I believe have chosen wisely. I am happy to say that the ceremony will not focus on assassination and death, but on the remembrance of a life and a legacy. It will not take place on Elm Street, but rather on Main Street. And what is more American than Main Street?
A half century is such a long time, and covers so much change in our culture and in our nation. My hope is that the Americans who were not alive when President Kennedy died will learn from this anniversary not the dark side of history, but how such inspired leadership can truly light the world. The images they carry in their mind should not be from the Zapruder film, but of a young president constantly challenging our nation to explore all the wonders and possibilities that we can bestow to future generations.