On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, a Dallas pedestrian, upon learning that President John F. Kennedy had been murdered in his town, whooped and threw his Stetson in the air. In a nearby wealthy suburb, students in a fourth-grade class cheered at hearing the news.
At Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, principal Philip McDevitt made the announcement over the P.A. system, stunning students, some of whom burst into tears. Nobody knew what it meant or what would happen next.
Thousands of miles away, a U.S. military officer and future newshound on a 72-hour pass was hunkered down in a swank hotel with a couple fifths of booze and a hooker. He wouldn’t emerge until Monday, perhaps the last person in America to find out about the assassination.
November 22, like September 11 four decades later and December 7 a quarter-century before, is an iconic signifier in America history, one of those dates when everyone old enough to remember recalls where they were, whom they were with and how they reacted.
As the nation prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination next Friday, those memories will surface yet again, representing a moment of cultural inflection in the country whose facts, impact and meaning have been disputed and debated ever since.
In honor of the event, Calbuzz invites our readers to share your personal recollections of the astonishing events of that day and those that followed – from Kennedy, Jackie and the Trade Mart to Oswald, Ruby and Parkland Hospital. Email up to one hundred crisply composed words, no more – no speechifying please – to firstname.lastname@example.org. Sign with your name and your hometown and we’ll post from them next week. Thanks for the memories.
Death of a President: Not surprisingly, TV networks and every cable channel in creation will air countless hours of programming about the assassination in coming days, with many certain to feature commentary and speculation about alleged conspiracies, both imaginary and well-researched, about who was responsible for Kennedy’s killing.
A History Channel documentary, for example, reports there are at least 311 separate conspiracy theories abroad in the land, which collectively implicate 42 groups, 81 assassins and 214 people (and, let’s face it, who’s going to check their stats?) Approximately 2,000 books about the assassination have been published since 1963, so it’s not unexpected that large majorities of Americans reject the Warren Commission’s central finding about the murder:
Polls find that between 60 and 80 percent of Americans reject the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone killed Kennedy. In fact, more Americans believe that a shadowy conspiracy was behind a president’s death 50 years ago than know who Joe Biden is.
Why are Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories so popular? The distinguishing feature of a successful conspiracy theory is power, and the Kennedy assassination has that in spades.
The victim was an American president and the potential villains include actors of immense reach and influence. There are so many accused conspirators that anyone, regardless of political affiliation, can find a detested powerful actor to blame. For those on the right there is Lyndon Johnson, Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union; for the left there is Lyndon Johnson, defense contractors and the military. And this is only a partial list.
No paranoids allowed: Given all this, we were bemused to learn that the city fathers and mothers of Dallas are making a special effort to cut conspiracy theorists and assassination researchers out of the action when Big D commemorates the 50th anniversary. Civic leaders are hoping for a bright and glistening, see-hear-speak-no-evil whitewash of the city’s role in the horror of Nov. 22, according to a must-read National Journal piece by Marin Cogan:
They don’t intend to use the word assassination. The event “is all about acknowledging the life, legacy, and leadership of the 35th president, not the moment 50 years ago,” says one of the press handlers helping with the ceremony. Historian David McCullough will read from Kennedy speeches, the U.S. Naval Academy Men’s Glee Club will sing, religious leaders will offer prayers. A ceremonial flyover will take place, and church bells will ring throughout the city. Around 12:30 p.m., participants will observe a moment of silence.
The only thing that will be missing are some of the people [conspiracy theorists] who have been coming to Dealey Plaza for decades. The city offered only 5,000 tickets, to be distributed through a lottery, and asked applicants to submit to a background check—meaning that most of the assassination researchers will be shut out. “We’ve been doing this for 49 years, and there’s no reason to usurp it,” (assassination aficionado John) Judge says. “We could have been accommodated, but we weren’t—we think, on the basis of our message.”
The stakes go beyond granting the conspiracists some measure of credibility. For the city, the anniversary may be its best chance to finally put one of the most painful periods in modern American history behind it, an opportunity to show that Dallas has moved beyond the image it cultivated in the assassination era as a polestar of political extremism. To understand the fight between the researchers and the city is to understand how Dealey Plaza became a symbolic battleground for a much larger war over the legacy of Dallas and of how history remembers what happened to JFK.
Seriously Dallas? Isn’t keeping conspiracy theorists out of Dealey Plaza sort of like shooing swallows out of Capistrano?
Lone nuts and long books: Back in the day, we confess, at least half of us developed a mad crush via KPFA on Conspiracy Queen Mae Brussell, who led us into spending way too much time obsessed, not only with the grassy knoll, umbrella man and Special Agent James P. Hosty, but also with the Carousel Club, Little Lynn and the capacity and specifications of the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle.
These days, we’re more willing to accept that nut job Oswald probably took it upon himself to off the president, an evolution of belief due in large part to sheer exhaustion from endlessly wading through “Reclaiming History,” the 1.5 million word (sic) examination of assassination evidence by former L.A. Deputy D.A. Vincent Bugliosi, famed for prosecuting Charlie Manson, who spent many of his peak earning years laboring to knock down any and all conspiracy theories burbling anywhere in America.
In service to the national campaign against eye strain, Bugliosi’s publisher recently came out with Parkland, a revised repackaging of Four Days in November, which is excerpted from the great man’s magnum opus. Parkland is a straight hour-by-hour chronology of everything that happened involving the key characters between the early hours of Nov. 22 and the president’s funeral; it’s a long but pretty easy read, at least if you’re deeply interested, like certain whack jobs (we name no names), in things like what Oswald actually said during the cops’ four interrogations with him; on second thought, just go see the movie version of Parkland, and enjoy Billy Bob Thornton’s fedora-fitted portrayal of Secret Service honcho Forrest Sorrels instead.
Chronicle Watch: Another day, another soap opera episode at the Hearst Chron. Seems that Joanne Bradford, the online marketing specialist whom corporate brought in just five months ago to apply her brilliance to the task of Saving the Paper, has already jumped ship.
Bradford is leaving for one of those crafting-strategies-for-multi-platform partnerships type jobs we don’t understand at Pinterest, the social scrap booking start-up content sharing service that we also don’t understand. We dare to speculate, however, that her abrupt departure was hastened by one whiff of the New York-based Hearst Corp.’s bureaucracy.
Among other things, her sudden leave-taking left plucky but embattled managing editor Audrey Cooper holding the bag when the New York Times on Wednesday broke the news that the Chron is planning to do away with its superb, beloved and nationally recognized stand-alone Food section, and to fold its content into a new lifestyle section with the tentative (let us pray) catchy title of “Artisan” (Hold the phone Maude – did you see the story in Artisan about making papier mache Christmas ornaments out of recycled newspapers?).
Like the L.A. Times coverage of the movie industry or the San Jose Mercury News on Silicon Valley, the style, substance and expertise of the Chronicle’s Food section in America’s greatest foodie town has helped define the paper. Under the leadership of indefatigable editor Michael Bauer, it has long entertained and informed readers, while winning a boatload of national awards, not only for its first-rate restaurant and wine reviews, recipes and columns by culinary professionals, but also for news reporting, such as a way-way-ahead-of-the-curve series on childhood obesity in 2002.
Shortly after the Times posted its Chronicle scooplet online, we hear, Cooper and publisher Jeff Johnson, Bradford’s erstwhile executive partner, marched over to the Food department and barked at staffers, who’d been told of the pending change a few days before, for allegedly leaking the news.
Soon after, SF Gate published an odd post by Mad Dog Cooper, headlined “Managing Editor’s Response to New York Times.” Possibly, it made sense to the newsroom, but any out-of-the-loop Actual Readers who stumbled upon it surely felt as if they’d walked in in the middle of the movie.
Bristling with non sequiturs and management-speak, the 250-word dictat was a murky non-denial denial that read like it was translated from the Swedish:
We are reinvesting in this coverage, exploring ways to have it more deeply permeate the entire newspaper while making all newspaper sections even more modern and relevant. We are undergoing a newspaper-wide section-by-section review with the idea that we need to reimagine sections to more intuitive cultural topics that are more aligned with how Northern Californians think and live.
We are exploring several opportunities, testing them with readers and conducting independent research to make sure we’re delivering what our customers need and want. Once we decide on a path, we will make sure to celebrate it — just as we celebrate the amazing Northern California food culture.
I’d love to tell everyone right now what we’re going to do. The truth is that we haven’t decided it yet. But I can tell everyone unequivocally that our top priority is to continue doing the nation’s best coverage of Northern California food and wine.
Thank goodness we cleared that up.
Coming Monday: We’ll publish a special op-ed by San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed about his ballot initiative on public employee pensions. Reed’s piece follows an opposing view we posted this week from Steve Maviglio, spokeshuman for the labor-backed Californians for Retirement Security.