The woman stood in a group of grim-faced strangers, sobbing quietly as she read the first wire reports of the president’s death.
This was not a scene from a news room on November 22, 1963. It happened a few weeks ago at the Sixth Floor in downtown Dallas. The woman was only two years old when the catastrophe struck, but that hardly matters. Twenty-eight years after our city’s saddest day, the death of John F. Kennedy can still move us to tears.
Maybe, like me, you’ve put off visiting the Sixth Floor, thinking it was just for tourists, the way many San Franciscans think of Alca-traz and New Yorkers the Statue of Liberty. The Sixth Floor is an important tourist attraction, but it belongs to us, too. Phoenix-like from the ashes of our city’s greatest sorrow (not guilt) rises one of our noblest triumphs.
Spend a few hours at the Sixth Floor, and you’ll appreciate the careful thinking that went into creating a museum that really serves two functions: to commemorate without unction and hyperbole the life of John Kennedy; and to examine without whitewash the circumstances of his death and its aftermath. It is not a happy experience-how could it be?-but it is sobering, poignant, enlightening and, ultimately, in some odd way, good for the soul.
The Sixth Floor presents Kennedy not as the flawless god of the New Frontier or the sexual adventurer of the later tabloids, but as a politician on a political errand, visiting a state he had only narrowly carried in 1960 and a city that had rejected him in favor of Richard Nixon. Kennedy certainly had his supporters here, but the reigning spirit of Dallas at the time, as noted elsewhere in this retrospective issue, was anything but friendly to his moderately liberal politics. The groups that had provided Kennedy’s slender victory margin-blacks, Hispanics, labor unions, Catholics-wielded little power in Dallas. Many of the civic leaders the president was to address at the Trade Mart that day were openly hostile to his programs,
The early sections of the exhibit recall the social and cultural milieu in which Kennedy came to the White House. His wit and easy eloquence are displayed in print and in videotapes of press conferences, reminding visitors that while all politicians are creatures of design (and speech writers), some of them carry it off better than others. There is JFK’s famous inaugural address, which almost no Democratic candidate could utter today (“…we shall pay any price, bear any burden …oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty”). At a White House dinner honoring artists and intellectuals, he said that the building had never seen such a gathering of genius “with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Phrases such as “deep doo-doo” and “the vision thing” may not endure as long.
A few panels and a short film are devoted to Kennedy’s slight achievements as president-the space program, the Peace Corps. As JFK takes us to the brink of war with the Cuban missile crisis, the spillover noise from the later parts of the exhibil (police radios, confused announcers) creates a strange aural collage, and seems to hasten his life to a close even before the trip to Dallas.
Coming to the window itself, we imagine Lee Harvey Oswald hunched behind his boxes, and conjure up other pasts (hat might have led to other futures. Someone might have asked what he was carrying in the wrapping paper; a child might have stepped off the curb to wave, causing the limo driver to swerve ever so slightly. . .Many things might have happened, but did not. “Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded, and some never leave the country,” Kennedy once said. “Life is unfair.”
And in the midst of life, death is born. On the screen, the little boy salutes as the riderless horse tosses its head. Backed by a pompous funeral dirge, de Gaulle and other world leaders pay their respects, surprisingly vulnerable among the legions of mourners. Imagine, today, heads of state walking unguarded in vast crowds. That’s something else we lost with Kennedy.
Robert F. Kennedy was murdered in Los Angeles and Martin Luther King in Memphis, but these cities did not carry the stigma that marked Dallas. That is in part because of Jack Ruby. Because he killed Oswald, there will always be those who see larger forces at work in JFK’s murder. Ruby’s act, which many viewed as an inside job, helped fuel the early “city of hate” slurs against Dallas by Kennedy loyalists among the press and the intelligentsia, who were flattered that a president actually took note of their existence. In their grief, they helped to perpetuate the idea that some Dallasness, some foul civic miasma, had murdered the president. Somehow, the right-wing fulminations of H. L. Hunt and General Edwin Walker had sent Lee Harvey Oswald to that sixth-floor window.
The Sixth Floor deals at great length with the myriad conspiracy theories. One panel dutifully reminds us that organized crime, the U.S. military, the FBI. the Dallas Police Department, and “aliens from outer space” have been blamed for the murder. Perhaps there will be updates as new theories emerge. Good photos exist, taken by his wife, of Oswald holding the murder weapon, but of course the conspiracy people consider them fakes.
And who can blame them? The heart withers without dreams and myths. ?’The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes,” Shakespeare wrote, and we want to believe it is so. Our glamorous young prince cannot have been killed by one greasy little nobody who got up one morning and changed history. No, the evil forces must be a match, in their malevolent way. for the hero’s grandeur.
Tom Wicker wrote that Kennedy was the “last leader in a time when Americans were eager to follow.” The Sixth Floor reminds us why so many followed him. But the assassinations, Vietnam, Chappaquiddick, Watergate, and the tawdry revelations about John Kennedy himself have taught us the high price of believing in leaders.
Is it better to wrap ourselves in the cynic’s armor, to believe in nothing and nobody, or to open ourselves to that pain again? It’s a question worth pondering. The Sixth Floor is a good place to start.