Cities don’t commit crimes, but Dallas continues to feel guilty all the same. Fifty years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, many in the city are still burdened by the memory of that day -- and the sense that, in some way they cannot put into words, they were responsible.
I hadn’t appreciated the pervasiveness of this view in one of my favorite cities until I spent some time there this month participating in a symposium on the assassination organized by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. I had been invited to talk about the lingering effects of Kennedy’s death on our politics. I wound up learning a great deal about the way that Dallasites continue to carry the trauma.
One participant described his work with black teenagers. These young men, he said -- kids born in the 1990s -- referred constantly to the burden they carried because they’re from the city where Kennedy was killed.
Toward the end of the day, a French journalist remarked that in Europe, Dallas is known for three things: the Dallas Cowboys football team, the television show about J.R. Ewing and family, and the assassination of the 35th U.S. president. Locals chimed in, several noting that on their own travels abroad, strangers even today say things like, “Oh, the city that killed Kennedy.”
At first blush, it’s hard to understand the city’s burden. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Washington, but nobody today talks of the nation’s capital as if the city somehow killed the 16th president -- just as nobody imagines that Washington had something against Ronald Reagan, who could easily have died after being shot by John Hinckley in 1981. Sara Jane Moore was able to fire two rounds at Gerald Ford outside a San Francisco hotel in 1975, but nobody claims that the city wanted him dead.
Dallas, however, has faced special blame from the start. “Everywhere we went for the next couple of years, people booed us when we ran out on the field,” former Dallas Cowboy Bob Lilly told NBC Sports. The whole city felt the weight. “It was a shock how much the world hated us,” wrote Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, a Dallas native, on the 20th anniversary of the assassination. “The world decided that Kennedy had died in enemy territory, that no matter who had killed him, we had willed him dead. And yet the truth is that we were under the spell of Camelot like everyone else.”
The Dallas-did-it meme persists. It’s reflected in Oliver Stone’s version of the assassination. At the symposium I attended, more than one speaker attributed the killing -- and the city’s reputation -- to the atmosphere of extremism that reigned there at the time.
And Dallas of the early 1960s was indeed shot through with far-right fury. This was the city where, during the 1960 campaign, angry crowds had hurled invective at Lyndon Johnson, a son of the state, calling him a “damned Catholic Yankee.” This was the city where, just a month before the assassination, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson had been threatened by a mob and spat upon. This was the city where, on the very day of the assassination, the John Birch Society purchased a black-bordered full-page newspaper advertisement asserting that Kennedy was soft on communism.
The irony, as Kennedy biographer Robert Dallek points out, is that if Lee Harvey Oswald had any politics at all, he was very much a man of the far left. The Secret Service, concerned about Kennedy’s safety, kept close watch during those fateful days before Dallas on extremists of the right but made no effort to track extremists of the left.
Even today, there is an unfortunate persistence to the myth that right-wing extremism was responsible. Two years ago, Frank Rich wrote in New York magazine that Kennedy was brought down by a “particular strain of virulent hatred” that is still alive today. Some of the Dallas residents attending the symposium this month expressed the same sentiment.
Certainly the assassination changed Dallas. The burden lingers -- think again of those young black men -- but the effects are complex. As psychologists James W. Pennebaker and Becky L. Banasik found, deaths from heart disease, murder and suicide increased significantly in Dallas in the years immediately following the assassination. But so did rates of charitable giving and economic growth.
Over the years, many theories have been suggested to explain the special guilt that lingers in Dallas. The extremism, of course. The hatred. The notion that Dallas was in the South, viewed by much of the nation, in Wright’s words, as “enemy territory.”
Dallek points to a more plausible explanation. Lincoln’s assassination was somehow part of the larger tragedy of the Civil War. The sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt might have been more traumatic had it not occurred at a moment when it was obvious that World War II was about to be won. “By contrast,” Dallek writes, “Kennedy’s sudden violent death seemed to deprive the country and the world of a better future.” He was killed at the very moment when the U.S. was at the height of its confidence and power. An explanation was so necessary because the trauma was so unexpected.
I recently spent a year studying Kennedy in connection with a novel about the Cuban missile crisis. My bias going in, I freely confess, was that he had been a fairly ordinary president, his accomplishments exaggerated in our collective memories because of the bullet that took his life.
But in the course of researching the book, I realized how wrong I was. Kennedy was an extraordinary president at an extraordinary moment in history. One reason that liberals and conservatives alike are able to claim convincingly that he was one of them is that he held the middle ground with a reliable tenacity scarcely seen since. In the particular case of Cuba, many others who sat in the Oval Office might have followed their doves into accepting Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba as a permanent part of the geopolitical landscape or followed their hawks into World War III.
What Kennedy’s supporters said about him was mostly true. He was dashing and handsome and terribly young: the first president born in the 20th century. And although he had to cope with the lingering effects of recession, the divisions of the civil-rights movement, and the nation’s constant fear of Soviet military and technological prowess, his verve and charm and confidence kept his approval ratings in the 70 percent range just a year before his re-election campaign.
In short, the nation loved him. So did the world. For the snuffing out of that life, there had to be a reckoning. Oswald was himself killed, and so he couldn’t face judgment. Aside from the myriad shadowy conspirators in whom many Americans still fervently believe, nobody was left to blame but the city.
Which brings me back to what I said at the outset: Cities don’t commit crimes. People do. Half a century is past time for the world to stop punishing Dallas, and for that marvelous city to stop punishing itself.
(Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter.)
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