U.S. History postsFriday November 22, 2013
'From Dallas, Texas, the Flash Apparently Official ...'
Fifty years ago today, my mother (of two children then) met my father, a young reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune, for a Friday lunch at a downtown restaurant. Apparently they heard the news from their waiter, but I don't know if the news they heard was “shot” or “dead.” My father didn't even know what the waiter was talking about. The president? The president of the restaurant? What president? “President Kennedy,” he was told. Thus they knew before everyone else in the restaurant. For the rest, it was still an ordinary Friday lunch, and there was talk and laughter and clinking of glasses and silverware. In the tellings since, this always feels like the worst part. Tragedy has already enveloped my mother and father, yet all around them is chatter and laughter.
Eventually, someone came out and made an official announcement and my father rushed back to the Tribune to see if he could be of use. He helped put together a photo essay on Pres. Kennedy. He remembers tears welling up in his eyes when he came across the famous White House photo of John-John playing beneath the presidential desk.
ADDENDUM: Comments from my father: You nailed it — the surreal horror of knowing of tragedy before anyone else in the room. No one made an announcement, though. What happened was that the background music was suddenly interrupted by the voice of Walter Cronkite as the people around us gradually understood what had happened.
The waiter told us as he brought my beef stroganoff. I didn't eat beef stroganoff again for a dozen years.
Heading Into Nut Country: From Dealey Plaza to the Tea Party
George Packer has a good piece in The New Yorker called “Leaving Dealey Plaza,” about the Kennedy assassination, whose 50th anniversary is upon us and Dallas. He opens in this haunting fashion:
Ever since the age of seven, I’ve been obsessed with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It took place when I was three, and though I have no memory of hearing the news, the President’s murder, in Dallas, hung over my childhood with the vivid and riveting terror of a dream. On my parents’ bookshelf, there was a slender, crimson-jacketed pictorial account of November 22, 1963—fifty years ago next month—and the days that followed, by the photographers of the Associated Press, called “The Torch Is Passed.” I would sit by myself for what felt like hours and stare at the black-and-white stills—the roses in Jackie’s arms at Love Field; the open Presidential limousine gleaming in the sunlight; the waving, unknowing crowds; Kennedy’s smile in the images just before the first shot; Jackie’s face turning toward him as his fists jerk up to his throat; the black shoe hanging over the back of the seat as the limo speeds away toward the underpass.
Recently he visited Dallas for the first time, so he went, like I went, to Dealey Plaza. He found it much like he'd always imagined it whereas I'd always thought it was located in the center of the city. Not sure why. Because it's central to our history? Instead it's on the edge of the downtown area. It's on the extreme edge. It's the road you take before leaving the center forever.
Packer's article is about the extremism in Dallas at the time, and the hatred—“We're heading into Nut Country,” Jack apparently told Jackie on the flight down—and the difficulty Dallas has dealing with the crime. It's the city that killed the president. Then Packer makes the inevitable update, the inevitable warning, the plus ca change warning. That hatred of Kennedy isn't gone, it's just been transferred. In 50 years, as the rest of us have progressed, the extreme right has managed to change one letter: they've gone from Birchers to Birthers. Nut Country is more diffuse now. It's also in the halls of power. Packer concludes:
Last week, as part of the anniversary build up, the Morning News ran a brutally honest article about the city fifty years ago. The piece quotes Darwin Payne, a historian and former Dallas newspaperman: “You could feel it in the air. When I hear some people express hatred for Obama, it feels the same. But I never have felt we are on the verge of anything like the events I witnessed back then.”
American politics today isn’t haunted by the same fear of sudden, shattering violence. But, as for nut country, it’s migrated from the John Birch Society bookstores to the halls of Congress, where angry talk of socialism and impeachment is almost routine. Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Louie Gohmert are the spiritual descendants of Walker and Hunt. Fifty years later, Dallas would like to move on from Dealey Plaza. This is normal and right. What’s holding it back is the Republican Party.
Woodrow Wilson, With a Message for the Originalists
Here's Woodrow Wilson in 1908 in his book, “Constitutional Government in the United States,” arguing against, of all ideas, checks and balances:
The trouble with the theory is that government is not a machine, but a living thing. It falls, not under the theory of the universe, but under the theory of organic life. It is accountable to Darwin, not to Newton.
I came across it while reading Jill Lepore's article, “The Tug of War: Woodrow Wilson and the power of the Presidency,” which is ostensibly a book review, or books review (“Wilson” by A. Scott Berg; “Woodrow Wilson” by John Milton Cooper, Jr.), but which ranges more into the life, and into the office, than into the books. That link to the article, by the way, is just to a snyopsis. For the full thing you need the magazine. Which you should get. Sept. 9, 2013.
Helluva rise for Wilson. Named president of Princeton in 1902. Elected governor of New Jersey in 1910. Elected president of the United States in 1912 and again in 1916. Helluva fall as well: illness and incapaciation. The elections, meanwhile, required help: Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party splitting the Republican vote in the first; winning 10 of the 12 states where women could vote in 1916. I hadn't realized suffrage had been a state by state thing before the 19th amendment.
He was the first Southerner since the Civil War to be president. James Weldon Johnson said he “openly condoned and vindicated prejudice against the Negro.” His wife died in office; he remarried in office; his second wife ran things during his incapacitation.
Lepore also reminds us of the swift change of things: “During Wilson's Adminstration, Congress lowered the tariff, reformed banking and currency laws, passed a new antitrust act, instituted a graduate income tax and the first federal inheritance tax, passed the first private-sector-eight-hour-workday legislation and the first federal aid to farmers, abolished child labor, and established the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve. Wilson believed that it was the obligation of the federal government to regulate the economy to protect ordinary Americans 'from the consequences of great industrial and social processes which they cannot alter, control, or singly cope with.'”
Are Democrats more likely than Republicans to be academics? From this list it seems so: Wilson, LBJ, Clinton, Obama. Also, look at all the Navy boys.
The Most Horrible Thing I've Ever Heard
Lately I’ve been reading “Popular Crime: Reflections on the celebration of violence,” by Bill James. Yes, that Bill James. Along with baseball stats, he’s apparently got a bit of a crime-story fixation. He considers himself an amateur sleuth. He has a few corrections in mind for the justice system.
In the book, he goes over some of the more famous murder cases in American history (Lizzie Bordon, Lindbergh Baby, O.J.), some sensational cases in their day that have receded from view (Elizabeth Canning, Mary Rogers, Hall-Mills), and he has a chapter on serial killers that will make you want to flee the planet.
He also talks about the most famous American murder of the 20th century: John F. Kennedy. And it’s there that I read one of the most horrible things I’ve ever read.
James begins many of his discussions by saying, basically, I’m just some guy; what the hell do I know? Then he tells you what the hell he knows. This is particularly true here. He says there are a zillion books on the JFK assassination—that you can read one a month for 20 years and not be done—but he can recommend two: Gerald Posner’s “Case Closed” and Bonar Menninger’s “Mortal Error.” I was familiar with the first (Oswald did it, by himself, get over it) but not the second, and that’s the one he really recommends. It’s based on the work of Baltimore ballistics expert Howard Donahue. In 1967, CBS News was attempting to recreate what Oswald had done to see that it could be done—to see if someone could hit a target at that distance with that gun three times in 5.6 seconds. So they hired Donahue. Who did it in 5.2 seconds. Case closed.
Except Donahue became fascinated with the assassination and did his own research and came to his own conclusions.
Three shots were fired that day at Dealey Plaza. This is what Donahue believes happened.
He believes Oswald fired the first two shots. The first missed, but a ricocheted fragment hit the President in the neck. The second shot hit both Kennedy and Connally. Then Oswald’s gun jammed and he never got off a third shot.
So what happened? Who fired the third shot? Was it David Ferrie in the grassy knoll with the candlestick?
Here’s why Donahue believes Oswald didn’t fire the third shot:
- The third bullet disintegrated upon impact, which a bullet from Oswald’s Carcano rifle would not have.
- A Carcano round fired at that distance—from Oswald to Kennedy—would not have had the impact the third bullet that hit Kennedy did.
- A Carcano round is 6.5 millimeters in diameter. The final, fatal entrance wound was 6 mm wide.
- The trajectory of the final bullet, based upon entrance and exit wounds as well as the position of the President’s head at the time, traces back, not to the book depository, but to the car directly behind Kennedy.
And who was in the car directly behind Kennedy? The Secret Service.
No, the Secret Service wasn’t in league with LBJ and Castro and the Mafia to bring down Kennedy. In some ways, it’s worse:
... a Secret Service man, George Hickey, grabbed a weapon when he heard the first shot. Hickey’s weapon accidentally fired, and that bullet, from Hickey’s gun, mortally wounded the President.
Hickey’s gun, an AR-15, uses bullets 5.56 mm in diameter, which disintegrate upon impact. Hickey was also close enough to the President to account for the big blam of the third shot.
An accident. A fucking accident. That’s how our history changed.
The night I read this I went numb with horror.
I should add that I, like James, don’t know anything, but I really don’t know anything. I don’t know ballistics and trajectories and yadda yaddas. I haven’t studied any of it.
But I know what makes sense. Here’s James:
On first hearing this theory, almost no one believes that it could be right. ... But I have read Mortal Error carefully, and I have to tell you, if there’s a flaw in his argument I don’t see it. Unlike the conspiracy theories, which are almost universally based on some conversations which tooks place in Russia in 1961, in New Orleans in 1962, or in Tampa in 1972, the Donahue analysis is based primarily upon a detailed, careful study of what happened in Dealey Plaza on November 22.
I still don’t know if it’s true or not. Most people think it isn’t. But of all the conspiracy theories out there, this is the one that fits my worldview. To plot out, and organize, and initiate, a murder of this size and scope, and then disappear from view? Poof? We’re just not that smart.
But a mistake? A screw-up? A horrible, horrible accident? Oh yeah. That’s us. That’s us all over.
How the March on Washington was Viewed in 1963
From my review of “Report Civil Rights,” Library of America's massive (and much-recommended) collection of eyewitness journalistic accounts and in-depth magazine articles on the civil-rights struggle from 1941 to 1973, which appeared in The Seattle Times 10 years ago:
Appropriately, some of the articles upend our warm, hazy view of [the March on Washington].
True, E.W. Kenworthy of The New York Times wrote that the demonstration had “an air of hootenanny about it”; but Russell Baker reminds us that by the time Dr. King spoke, “huge portions of the crowd had drifted out of earshot,” while civil-rights worker Michael Thelwell details how the Kennedy administration hijacked the march's original intent — a one-day sit-in to “completely immobilize the Congress” — and turned it into something “too sweet, too contrived, and its spirit too amiable to represent anything of the bitterness that had brought the people there.”
Bitterness? The March on Washington? Indeed. In Marlene Nadle's Village Voice article, in which a busload of New Yorkers ride to the march, a white Peace Corps volunteer talks, with perhaps too much paternalism, about why he wants to help Nigeria. Suddenly a black activist shouts, “If this thing comes to violence, yours will be the first throat we slit. We don't need your kind. Get out of our organization.”
To me, though, the most fascinating thing about the Library of America collection remains its lessons in journalistic objectivity.
From 1946 to 1963, most articles gave both sides of the argument, black rights vs. states' rights, and the journalist didn't choose sides. This is what Negroes think, this is what Southerners think. Decide for yourself.
That began to change after Birmingham, the March on Washington, and the JFK assassination. Among the societal assumptions ecompassed within journalistic objectivity, in other words, was the assumption, post '63, that Negroes had gotten a raw deal in the South and beyond. “The moral issue was simply too stark, and segregationist logic too twisted,” I wrote 10 years ago. “By June 1963, even The New York Times was referring to the White Citizens Council as 'a racist organization.'”
“It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream ...”