The tightly controlled commemoration of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death in Dealey Plaza proved more a salve for the wounded civic spirit of Dallas than celebration of the life and legacy of President Kennedy.
A ticketed crowd of 5,000 people gathered on a bitterly cold day, while Dallas police officers kept passersby, the curious, and the unticketed at bay. There was no vantage on the event that was not controlled by city authorities. The admirers of JFK who have gathered on this spot every Nov. 22 for decades were nowhere to be seen.
The ceremony grounds had been artfully constructed so the cameras from around the world captured Dallas’s skyline. The Texas Schoolbook Depository from which gunfire issued 50 years ago was usually just outside the cameras’ range. Ditto for the grassy knoll from which dozens of people thought another gunshot originated.
Inside the security perimeter, message discipline was strict. As I walked up the stairs to the grassy knoll, the cops were shooing away cameramen who wanted to capture the ceremony from the perch. “You can’t stay here,” said the cops.”Move along.”
For the commemoration of a tragedy few tears were shed. The most affecting part of the ceremony came before it began when the Jumbotron screen showed technicolor highlights of JFK’s family and his friends, his appearances in Berlin and Ireland. The color guard and the chorus that followed were pleasant and ordinary. Mercifully, a flyover of jets was cancelled because of the weather.
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings gave an honest speech, acknowledging that Dallas in 1963 was a city filled with hate that didn’t tolerate the expression of liberal points of views. He spoke of the strides Dallas had made, and anybody who has spent time in the city could not disagree. This is not a city of legal segregation and political venom as it was in 1963. That’s good news for Dallas but it relevance to the purpose of the ceremony — celebrating JFK — was obscure, if not odd. Is the message of JFK’s death that right-wing extremism should be discredited? Maybe.
After a moment of silence, historian David McCullough took the podium to praise Kennedy and to recite from some of his less inspiring speeches, including one about landing on the moon. Nothing from his call for passage of the Civil Rights Act or his American University speech on peace, and perhaps understandably so.
Such liberal sentiments might have served to remind the audience and the world that such policies were exactly why JFK was hated here. By his omission, McCullough managed to remind the world that JFK was, in many respects, a conventional politician who could brighten up platitudes but not always transcend them.
All of which raised the question, why have this ceremony here? Why now?
We do not honor the life and legacy of Martin Luther King on the balcony of a Memphis motel on April 4? We do not celebrate Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater on April 15? We celebrate their birthdays, not their place of violent death, and we celebrate them everywhere.
It was hard to avoid the conclusion that the purpose of the ceremony was to prevent others from using the place and the occasion to express disbelief about the official theory of what happened here. The ceremony’s blandness was born in the contradiction between the reality of JFK’s death in this spot and the denial of that reality 50 years later. The event was neither inspiring nor cathartic, and that was the saddest thing about a day that was not sad enough.
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