Sunday, January 20, 2013

North Dakota Institute Symposium

The Kennedy assassination and American memory

Dakota Institute Symposium - Bismark State College - November 5-7 

Can it be 50 years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas? Like everyone of my generation, I know exactly where I was that day—Dickinson, Cub Scouts, in a little duplex on the north end of town, making a Christmas decoration for my mother, which she still has five decades later. I can remember where I was on Nov. 22, 1963, and of course on Sept. 11, 2001, an event so seared into our collective memory that it is designated by date alone, and I know where I was when the space shuttle Challenger blew up shortly after liftoff (Jan. 28, 1986), but just now I had to look up the date.

Memory is a tricky phenomenon. Some things we actually remember and some things we only think we remember, because we have been told that we remember them so many times. When the news breaks—“From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. central standard time” reports Walter Cronkite—we don’t say to ourselves, I’m going to remember this moment for the rest of my life, this is one of the handful of pivotal events of my era, I should look around and drink in all the details for later. We are, at the time, riveted to the news, and typically, once we have drunk in the first gulp of the magnitude of the event, we get ourselves to the nearest phone to call the person who matters most. Memory holds on to things selectively and arbitrarily, and it conflates details from different moments.

I did not actually hear Walter Cronkite make that fatal announcement on Nov. 22, 1963, because I was in school at the time, but I cannot now think of that horrific day without seeing Cronkite pause, remove his thick black glasses to look up vacantly at the clock in the newsroom, and then his voice breaks for half a second before he explains that . . . Vice President Lyndon Johnson is alive. I’ve seen that clip fifty times at least, and each time I have to fight back my own tears, including two minutes ago. Probably Cronkite did not see that as his finest hour—a newsman must not let his emotions overcome his objectivity—but that tiny catch in his voice is, in fact, one of the great moments in American history. It deepened the national tragedy significantly. Cronkite and his CBS colleague Eric Sevareid were like the Chorus in a Greek tragedy, straining to help the American people make sense of the unthinkable, bringing all the accumulated wisdom of their remarkable professional careers to bear on the biggest story they would ever report and interpret.

Nor can I think about the assassination without seeing the Zapruder film roll through my brain on a kind of continuous loop. I can hardly stand to watch it, even after a hundred viewings, and more often than not I have to turn away before frame 313, where the head of the President of the United States explodes into a pink mist of bone, flesh, brain, and blood. But here again, memory is playing tricks. The American people did not actually see the Zapruder film on national television until March 6, 1975, a dozen years after the shooting. It was aired on the ABC program Good Night America, hosted by—brace yourself—Geraldo Rivera. The American people were so shocked and outraged by what they saw in the film that Congress was provoked into initiating a series of investigations that culminated in the 1976-1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations. That Committee concluded, in 1978, that President Kennedy was probably killed not by a lone gunman but by a conspiracy.

Our brains are narrative engines. Apparently we can only make sense of life, or at least our individual lives, if we gather up the shards of memory, and some other pieces we gather elsewhere from a range of sources, and form them into a coherent narrative that serves our interests or sooths our souls. Each of the evangelists had to make sense of Jesus according to his own way of seeing the universe. It would be fascinating (and very revealing) to know which of the four accounts Jesus would have found truest to his life and mission. Maybe he would have said each gospel is “true” in its own way.

I know of few people who do not have a “settled” opinion of what happened in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Some of my smartest friends are so committed to the lone gunman theory that they have never actually read a book on the subject, and don’t particularly wish to. Others are absolutely certain it was a conspiracy, but they skip from Castro to the KGB to the Mafia to the CIA and on to right-wing veterans of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, without quite knowing where they prefer to stop skipping.

It seems that most of us would rather commit ourselves to a tidy narrative than to acknowledge that some things are just stuck in mystery and indeterminacy. In the first few hours after JFK’s assassination, FBI director J.Edgar Hoover, the newly-sworn President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Dallas Police, and even Robert Kennedy, “concluded” that a man named Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone. We now know that LBJ actually believed that his predecessor had been cut down in a conspiracy, but as a fill-in President with a re-election campaign just eleven months in the future, he wanted to close the case as quickly as possible to enable the American people to go on with their lives without the burden of a communist or (worse) an American right-wing and possibly government conspiracy (i.e. coup d’etat) hanging over their heads. We know, too, that Robert Kennedy never believed that the assassination was the sole work of Oswald, but he “signed on” to the official narrative on day one for a range of reasons.

Just a few days ago, RFK’s son, Robert Kennedy, Jr., told an audience at a Dallas 50th anniversary commemoration that his father considered the Warren Commission Report, released on Sept. 27, 1964, a "shoddy piece of craftsmanship." Kennedy, Jr., concluded: "The evidence at this point I think is very, very convincing that it was not a lone gunman."

Nobody knows for sure.

My brain is like a yo-yo. My view of the assassination shifts depending on what I am reading about it at any given time. I have my own theory, but of course it is entirely derivative from the books I read.

The good news is that the Dakota Institute, the State Historical Society, and Bismarck State College will be exploring all of this (and much more) with open minds, the rigor of the humanities, and the best possible cast of lecturers, beginning with North Dakota’s Clint Hill, on November 5-7 on the BSC campus. JFK: Fifty Years Later is going to be our finest symposium yet.

Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College and director of the Dakota Institute. Clay can be reached at or through his website,

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