The moment of silence has just been called for in Dealey Plaza. The bells are ringing. It’s been fifty years to the minute since John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot to death.
I was born eighteen years after the Kennedy Assassination. Having two historians as parents meant that I grew up with a lot of “extra fairy tales” told at bedtime: the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the fall of Anne Boleyn… I don’t remember Dallas in November 1963 as one of the ones I continually asked for, but I do know that I learned the “facts” very early on. I know where my parents were when they found out the news; I know where my godfather was; I’ve seen the clips of Walter Cronkite and remember my grandmother (who was the same age as JFK) telling me how eerie and silent the weekend was, with everyone unable to stop watching the coverage, both before and after Oswald was shot on live TV.
This morning, I watched my generation’s version of 22 November 1963: Oliver Stone’s JFK from 1991.
I show a clip from it often in my Irish Diaspora classes when I’m discussing the Kennedys and conspiracy theories. I have no idea how convoluted the plot acutally was (though Donald Sutherland’s turn as Mr X is awesome), but I do think there was one. The lines that always strike home with me from that film involve the comparison between Kennedy and Julius Caesar. The great leader of Roman history was brought down by “honourable men”, surrounded by a conspiracy that wasn’t quite tangible, but which charged every man’s every action.
The end of JFK reports that the files from the Committee on Assassinations will not be made public until 2029, and that the CIA documents will not be available until at least 2039… and that’s only if the government doesn’t move the date back. This happens a lot with documents in Northern Irish history so, as a historian, I can only assume that the same decision will be taking place in some boardroom in a marbled hall in Washington DC twenty-six years from now.
(At the moment, the choir in Dallas is butchering The Battle Hymn of the Republic. All I can think of is the clip of Andy Williams singing it properly at Robert Kennedy’s funeral. God.)
The thing that I often tell my students is just to watch the Zapruder film (though it’s hard for me to watch it without Kevin Costner’s voice in my head saying “Back… and to the left. Back… and to the left”) and to make their minds up for themselves about the angles from the book depository and people running towards the grassy knoll.
The only time I’ve ever seen Dealey Plaza was on my first day in Texas in 2002. I had flown down to surprise my friend, Peyton, and her then-boyfriend (now-husband) Justin had picked me up at DFW. As we drove towards her grandmother’s house in Fort Worth, we crossed the overpass and Justin, with a very casual wave of his hand, said “That’s the plaza that all you Kennedy fans obsess about” (or words to that effect… it has been over a decade since that day, after all). There was the depository and the bend in the road… and then — poof! — it was gone. I had momentarily become a Garfield suction-cup car accessory, but I’m really not sure how much my mind took in for the 3.2 seconds I was looking at the actual spot.
I don’t know how many documentaries have been on tv in the past month, talking about new theories and old suspects. I’ve taped a couple of them, as well as a brilliant documentary on JFK’s life from The American Experience. I keep catching myself justifying my DVR recordings because next term I’m teaching a course, devised by myself, called “Sex and Sexualities in the Irish Diaspora: A History”. Obviously, the Kennedys are going to have pride of place up there with Oscar Wilde, Roger Casement, Charles Stewart Parnell, Grace Kelly, Scarlett O’Hara, and Father Ralph de Bricassart.
And now, the obviously necessary Thorn Birds clip, because I have no restraint:
Anyways, as I’m reading articles about the significance of a presidential body after it has been killed, or preliminary reports on public behaviour after the shooting, and theories of scandal, I keep coming back to one of Mr X’s lines from JFK: “Kings are killed, Mr Garrison!” He said it like he was completely shocked at
Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison’s naïvete. Were people really that naïve in 1963? Am I a completely jaded 1980s product of a post-Watergate world? Are there people out there who really do think Oswald acted alone???
I know I’m going to have fun teaching about the Kennedys next term, particularly because I actually get to a run a course about my own research topic: gender history and the Irish Diaspora. I get to teach about JFK and Marilyn Monroe, which is fantastic. I know that I’m really benefiting from all the articles and tv spots and opinion pieces that have been in the media the past few weeks about Jack and his place in American history. But I also can’t help wondering that, while many of the rest of us are approaching the death of this king as if it was the touchpaper for a profound change in how people perceived reality, somewhere today, a fifty-five year-old woman woke up in Japan and thought about her father. And, then, perhaps, she thought about how many millions of other people would be doing the exact same thing, but from a completely different perspective. Does she know the real story? Wouldn’t it be nice if, should the truth ever be fully divulged, she would be told first?
Another monarch, or a more literary sort, also died on 22 November 1963, but his death in England has always been overshadowed by the enormous implications of what happened in Dallas. Still, rather than watching Thirteen Days tonight or a movie where Gary Oldman isn’t a possible anti-communist patsy, or any of the possible Kennedy documentaries, I might (post-marking) just curl up with a favourite book instead. After all,
“Once a king or queen of Narnia, always a king or queen…”