Friday, November 19, 2010

A Detour To Dallas
Forty seven years back. A crisp autumn Friday. Just about one p.m. I was shaving. Getting ready to work the night trick across the Hudson at a paper in Bergen County. I covered four towns. My favorite was the sliver of grungy waterfront under the shadow of the George Washington Bridge called Edgewater. It was loaded with interesting insular characters who had never been across the half mile of river to Manhattan because they had no reason or desire to go there. So much for the lure of bright lights. Mounted on the wall behind the police chief’s desk was a tommy gun, a souvenir from Prohibition days when bootleggers stashed their goods in the caves tucked under the palisades in Edgewater.
Friday nights were easy because there were no town meetings to attend. I’d just copy the blotters at the four police headquarters. I’d write them up at the office and do a few obits, social notes and stuff. With luck, I was out of Jersey by eight or so and heading down to the Village in my zippy Corvair (the model later made notorious by Ralph Nader as a “one-car-accident”).
It was just about one, and me with my face foamed, when WINS delivered the bulletin: a shooting in Dallas involving the president! In no time, they were talking about a Cuban connection. A CBS reporter I knew called to ask if I had run across a certain Lee Oswald in Cuba? That September I had gotten back from a lefty student trip to the island that was supposed to last two weeks but had stretched out to two months. No. I never met any Oswalds, there or here.
I got to Jersey about dinner time and did my rounds. There was only one subject of conversation and one common mood: a bewildered sadness and uncertainty. Everyone was benumbed.
Along with the rest of the country, I spent the weekend in front of the tube. I had one eye on my Sunday Times and one eye on the set the morning Ruby shot Oswald. Looking back, I got exactly the same feeling as when the second World Trade tower was hit. Something big, hidden and awful was happening. There was obviously more to this than two discrete dementos.
But soon enough the media was pounding into us that Oswald had shot Kennedy for no good reason and Ruby had then shot Oswald for no bad one. We were told that the interesting, if not downright sinister, biographies and associations of those two characters, were unimportant to the case. The all but perfect incompetence of the Dallas cops (who never took down a statement from Oswald because it was Friday and the stenographer had gone home) was just another pointless coincidence. The non-stop message was trust the government, there was less here than meets the eye. Nothing to see, folks. Move along.
First, we got the FBI report from J. Edgar: No conspiracy, no magic bullet. Then the Warren Commission report: no conspiracy, but yes, a magic bullet. Finally in the 70s came the House Select Committee report: conspiracy likely, but forget about it. Ever since, the country has been divided between a large majority of citizens (now dying off) who still smell a rat, and a small but powerful government/media elite armed with spray cans of air freshener.
Just about all the principals in the JFK assassination are long gone. Some files have been thrown open but lots of secrets are still kept (about Lincoln’s assassination as well). This is not to cover anyone’s ass, but to maintain the myth that it’s not necessary in America to read Shakespeare or Acton or Gibbon or the chronicles of the Romans. That’s because we have nothing to learn from history. We are blessed in that our leaders, like our country, are exceptionally good, and therefore incapable of the crimes, conspiracies and cover ups that mark the power arrangements everywhere else on earth. Who would claim otherwise but some wacko conspiracy theorist?
In February of ‘64, just a couple of months after the assassination, I was driving across country with Bob Dylan, Victor Maimudes and Paul Clayton. Like morbid tourists, we detoured into Dallas looking for Dealey Plaza. We finally inquired of some passing duffer. “Oh, you mean where they shot that sonofabitch Kennedy?” he said with a big grin.