I came across a post I wrote in October about Dallas’s Love Project, where school children made posters on the theme of love for the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination. Business people and others posted the posters throughout Dallas’s business district, to remind everyone that Dallas is not a “city of hate.” That’s the reputation it had after Kennedy met his gruesome end in Dealey Plaza.
Talk about missing the point. People loved and hated Kennedy all over the country. That’s how it is with presidents. You don’t take that job without knowing you are going to raise antagonism. Some groups may have been more vocal in their anti-Kennedy rhetoric during the run-up to his visit, but no one can say that these sentiments were more virulent in Dallas than anywhere else.
Nellie Connally leaned over toward the president, shortly before the volley that killed him, to say, “No one can say Dallas doesn’t love you now, Mr. President.” That observation misses the point, too. Of course the people who come out to see the president’s car pass by will be generally supportive. It’s like a short parade, with the limousines, motorcycles, and VIPs. Moreover, you can’t say that a whole city loves or hates anyone. Nevertheless, Nellie Connally’s comment was kind and well meant.
The problem with Dallas was not the anti-Kennedy sentiment that flowed among some conservatives who would oppose any Democrat in the White House. The problem with Dallas was the way leaders of its law enforcement establishment behaved after the murder. From the first shot in Dealey Plaza on November 22, to the last shot in the jailhouse basement that killed Lee Oswald on November 24, the hands of Dallas’s officials appear dirty. They acted not as co-conspirators, but as co-actors who were responsive to Washington’s wishes.
For the most part, they went along with the signals they received from the feds. Oswald killed Tippit in broad daylight after he sniped the president from the book depository, during his lunch hour? Roger! Got it! The murder weapon was a Mannlicher-Carcano rather than the Mauser supposedly found at the scene? Got that one, too! The president’s autopsy report comes back with wounds completely out of line with the written observations of doctors at Parkland hospital, where the president died? We’ll make sure those doctors keep quiet. No problem, J. Edgar. Will do, Lyndon.
Thirty minutes after Kennedy was shot, he was pronounced dead at Parkland hospital. The official announcement of his death came thirty-three minutes later, at 1:33 PM. Seventeen minutes after that, at 1:50 pm. Dallas police crowded into the Texas Theater to arrest Lee Oswald for J. D. Tippit’s murder. They left no doubt that they had the president’s killer as well. They never looked for anyone else.
Any casual reader can readily find a detailed timeline of Oswald’s movements between 12:30 pm and 1:50 pm. Because it’s so detailed, the whole timeline seems credible. We’ve never had an account, however, of how the Dallas police put the timeline together. More to the point, we do not know how the Dallas police concluded that the president’s killer was Lee Oswald, seventeen minutes after the official announcement. That would be some procedural, wouldn’t it? We’d like to see a police drama that accounts for such fast work.
We do know this much: the Secret Service removed the president’s body from Parkland hospital at gunpoint a few minutes after 2:00 pm. That incident showed Dallas officials that Washington wanted control of the investigation into President Kennedy’s murder. Law enforcement authorities across the city had it within their power to raise holy hell about this breach in the relationship between local and federal authorities. They could have resisted it; they could have conducted their own investigation. They had numerous advantages in such a conflict, because the murder occurred in their own locale. Washington was far away. However powerful the federal government, the FBI suffered all the disadvantages that come with distance.
Dallas officials did not do that. They went along with Washington’s stage management. The Dallas district attorney and the Dallas chief of police tried Lee Oswald in the press during the next forty-six hours and after. They paraded him before reporters for two extraordinary press conferences, to show off their bruised and bedraggled assassin. We have our killer! By the time Jack Ruby shot Oswald at noon on November 24, Oswald’s trial was over. News reports all over the country would suggest that Ruby had saved the criminal justice system a lot of trouble.
Lyndon Johnson himself called Dr. Charles Crenshaw at Parkland hospital on November 24, shortly after Oswald arrived there. The president wanted to let Dr. Crenshaw know that a gentleman was standing by, in the emergency room, to take a death-bed confession from Oswald! How is that for stage management? After the president’s call, Dr. Crenshaw walked over to the gentleman to tell him that there would be no death-bed confessions today. Johnson’s representative disappeared, and Oswald would die from loss of blood shortly after that.
Here’s what’s significant about the aftermath of Kennedy’s murder: the whole country went along with Washington’s stage management. People who spoke up learned to be quiet, fast. People who spoke up knew where they stood: they stood to lose their careers, and perhaps more, for their boldness. If you did not accept the official story, from beginning to end, you could find yourself in a lot of trouble. The people who did speak up discovered that quickly. Most were reticent. People knew that to stay out of trouble, follow the lead of the greatest string-puller of all, Lyndon Johnson.
Here is a question that would be rather hard to answer. We know that political assassinations have occurred often in history. Some, like Jack Kennedy’s or Julius Caesar’s, are quite open. They occur in public. Others occur in private. Poison or hidden daggers in the palace might be the weapon of choice in that case. Whether public or private, I’m curious whether followers of those leaders readily accepted official stories about why their leaders died. Did they engage in the kind of collective ignorance and forgetfulness that the United States experienced after Kennedy’s death? Did they purposely overlook the evidence of assassination, and the dishonesty required to hide that evidence? Did they, as we did for Lyndon, give the new leader a pass on this one?
If this analysis is correct, Dallas bears an extra burden of shame only because the murder occurred there. Close to the crime, officials there had an obligation — and resources — to find out how such an infamous act occurred in their city. They did not act. They accepted direction from Washington’s string-pullers. They rolled over. Of all people, Dallas’s law enforcement officials had the most to lose if they crossed Washington. If you speak up in an environment like that, you are going to get fired or sidelined.
On the other side, if Dallas officials had pursued the truth, they could have saved their city’s reputation. The taint that remains with the city today is not the taint of hate; it is the taint of dishonesty. Instead of the Dallas Love Project, we needed — wanted — to see the Dallas Honesty Project. Dallas could redeem itself, if it sought to create truth posters rather than love posters.
We might wish now that Dallas had led the way to discovering the truth about Kennedy’s murder, as well as Tippit’s, but we can’t place all responsibility for these matters in one city. If leaders in that city know they can count on backing from the rest of the country, they might still mount the investigation that should have occurred fifty years ago. It would be historical research now, not a criminal investigation, but it could happen. To start with, we could try to find out who actually killed J. D. Tippit, and go from there to some bigger questions.