Unlike so many people who have become part of the Dallas narrative, Robert J. Groden doesn’t radiate the aura of a winner. He is a paunchy 67-year-old nebbish who drives a PT Cruiser and loves dining at Red Lobster. He is tall, but he slouches. His color isn’t good, probably because, by his account, he suffers from three kinds of heart disease. His shaggy hair, doleful eyes, and chronic wince give him the mien of a man locked in a perpetual if not entirely painful state of mourning, which actually happens to be the case. Groden has devoted most of his adult life to exposing what he believes to be a diabolical conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy. In better times, he wrote best-selling books on the subject, assisted the House Select Committee on Assassinations, and pitched in as a consultant for Oliver Stone’s JFK. But these days Groden can most often be found selling his books, magazines, and DVDs from a battered folding table on Dallas’s infamous grassy knoll, in the shadow of what was once known as the Texas School Book Depository, where, depending on your level of paranoia, Lee Harvey Oswald did or did not fire the shots that killed the thirty-fifth president of the United States. “I would bet money LBJ was up to his ears in it,” Groden told me after suggesting that the assassination was instigated by some combination of organized crime and the CIA. I half expected the crisply attired waiter hovering over us at a fancy Design District restaurant—my choice—to ask us to leave.
In other words, in another city, in another time, Groden would be hard to picture as a threat to anyone. But since moving to Dallas from the East Coast, in 1995, he has been ticketed 81 times for minor offenses—“harassed,” in his words—and in June 2010 he was arrested and spent nine lonely hours in the Lew Sterrett Justice Center until a friend posted bail. “All for selling a single magazine,” Groden told me in the dulcet tones of his native Manhattan. Granted, JFK: The Case for Conspiracy displays gory autopsy photos of Kennedy’s head, but there’s no law against that. Pushed just a little too far by that nine-hour detention, Groden filed suit against the city in federal court. “I believe in conspiracies, and I think this was an obvious one,” Groden said of the continuing litigation, which he sees as an attempt to silence him just as a critical date in the life of his adopted hometown peeks over the horizon. “I don’t know why they are so afraid of me,” Groden added. Besides the fact that he embodies everything Dallas doesn’t want to think about ever again, I couldn’t come up with a thing.
November 22, 2013, will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK. For five decades, this most self-conscious of Texas cities has attempted to work its way out of the shame it suffered internally and externally because of this catastrophic event, and thanks largely to the passage of time, it’s finally approaching what therapists like to call “closure.” But as Mayor Mike Rawlings told the Dallas Morning News last March, this particular occasion “is very important—unbelievably important—as to our place on the world stage.” It is an article of faith around city hall and among certain North Dallas power brokers that the eyes of the world will be turned on Dallas that day—that this could, in fact, be the biggest moment in Dallas history since, well, the assassination itself. The arrival of Anderson Cooper, Bill O’Reilly, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the BBC, Telemundo, Al Jazeera, and God knows who else is anticipated, and given the voraciousness of the 24/7 news cycle, they could actually appear.
Hence, official Dallas has reverted to type, sprucing up, anticipating problems, and forming committees with super-secret plans—that is, exercising complete control—in its attempt to honor the late president while showing the world how much it has changed since the dark days, when a preponderance of right-wing lunatics earned it a reputation as the City of Hate.
Community leaders know there is a right way and a wrong way to host a global event (oh, the sorry Super Bowl of 2011). The right way would include introducing visitors—especially members of the international press corps—to Dallas’s impeccable taste and blossoming diversity. Let guests gaze upon the glorious Arts District, with its gleaming Winspear Opera House and Nasher Sculpture Center. Let them take in the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge or sample a dinner prepared by Stephan Pyles or Dean Fearing. Let them see how private funds have helped tidy up the once sorely neglected Dealey Plaza and Texas Theatre, where Oswald was apprehended.
Robert Groden and his ilk, however, represent the wrong way. History has shown what can happen when things spin out of control where this particular date is concerned. On the twentieth anniversary of the assassination, for instance, a local provocateur named Joe Christ drove a convertible through Dealey Plaza with Jackie and Jack mannequins in the backseat. At a designated moment, the presidential dummy’s head popped off, and fake blood spurted into the air. Then, just last year, county commissioners considered and then—when the county judge returned from vacation—nixed a plan to allow a British company to build a 174-foot Ferris wheel near the John F. Kennedy Memorial Plaza. And in September a visiting troupe from Chicago’s Second City comedy group performed a skit in which Dallas community leaders debated the sale of JFK bobblehead dolls on the fiftieth anniversary. Needless to say, they did not receive a standing ovation.
Clearly, no one in the Dallas power loop wants to see a poorly dressed mob occupying Dealey Plaza, chanting about conspiracies and cover-ups—at least not while Wolf Blitzer is broadcasting worldwide. It’s a serious game with uneven stakes. With exactly one year left to prepare for the event, the city knows that if everything goes right—if nothing happens but a tasteful