life could change, it had changed at last. Wasn’t this what we had been waiting for? We asked the question with our eyes, looking for some fixed response to this new flood of circumstance. We were giddy and scared, and as for me I was grateful for the loss of innocence.
“…shot in the head, Governor Connally wounded…”
Some of the details were off base. We heard that Johnson was shot too, he was seen entering Parkland Hospital holding his arm. Who else? Were they killing everybody? I don’t think I ever paused to think who they were; I knew. At that moment I supposed we were in the middle of a right-wing coup.
And as we sat there, gazing crazily at each other and at the P.A. box, I finally noticed Mr. Hill and realized that tears were streaming down his wrinkled cheeks. His chest was beginning to heave, then he sobbed in great barks, and everyone now was watching him, studying him as if he had the answer for our own reactions. But his grief was a private thing, and he picked it up like the greatest burden he had ever carried and walked out of the room. As he left I felt the first prodding overture of shame.
“The president is dead.”
It was a shock how much the world hated us—and why? Oswald was only dimly a Dallasite. He was a Marxist and an atheist; you could scarcely call him a product of the city. He was, if anything, the Anti-Dallas, the summation of everything we hated and feared. How could we be held responsible for him?
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. Although we were filled with resentment toward the privileged, arrogant East Coast society that Kennedy represented, it was a resentment born of envy and intense curiosity. We felt inferior. That Jacqueline Kennedy spoke French and some Spanish was impressive to us; the only people I knew who were bilingual were inner-city Mexican kids. We admired Mrs. Kennedy’s taste, we liked for her to be at home with the great musicians and artists of the world, and her breathless, Marilyn Monroe voice intimated that she was not all white gloves and pillbox hats. The Kennedys invested the country with a self-conscious eroticism that was nicely bridled by the presence of young children in the White House. In short, we had the ordinary human identification with the occupant of the presidency that most Americans did. I can even remember Kennedy phrases creeping into my father’s vocabulary. My father spoke of “moving ahead with vigor,” and when I’d ask him a question he was likely to preface his response with “Let me say this about that.” Kennedy hated wearing hats, and so my father, along with nearly every other male in the country, gave up wearing them.
We had drawn closer to Kennedy even as the rest of the country grew disenchanted. The disgrace of the Bay of Pigs actually helped him in Dallas; there was something noble and chastening about seeing Kennedy humbled. My father admired the way Kennedy accepted the blame. The Cuban missile crisis showed Dallas that Kennedy had learned the use of power; it also showed us the danger of Ted Dealey’s bluster. Mother bought canned goods and bottled water. We got an extra store of candles, flashlight batteries, and a transistor radio that had the Conelrad stations marked with nuclear triangles. I remember writing to my Italian pen pal that by the time he received my letter we would surely be at war with Cuba, probably Russia as well, and who knows? Perhaps the world would be destroyed before I got his response. The world survived—it is still chilling to think how close we passed to the brink—but I never got another letter from Italy.
And in fact when Kennedy came to Dallas we gave him his warmest reception so far, a perfect confrontation between Kennedy’s vaunted courage (walking into crowds, stopping the motorcade to shake hands) and Dallas’ new willingness to make friends. The last words Kennedy heard in life were spoken by Nellie Connally, who turned and said, “Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you.” It was a true observation but also history’s goddamnedest irony, for an instant later Jacqueline Kennedy had to respond, “They’ve killed by husband, I have his brains in my hand.”
She said “they,” and I assumed she meant us. That was an assumption the whole world shared.
Dallas killed Kennedy; we heard it again and again. Dallas was “a city of hate, the only American city in which the president could have been shot” (this from our own Judge Sarah Hughes, who administered the oath of office to Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One). And yet the values of the city, which the world condemned, were more or less my values; the image of the city, which was white, middle-class, provincial, and conservative, more or less fit my family. I had been unacquainted with tragedy, and now the entire globe was convulsed in grief and held me responsible.
But Dallas had nothing to do with Kennedy’s death. The hatred directed at our city was retaliation for many previous grievances. The East hated us because we were part of the usurping West, liberals hated us because we were conservative, labor because we were nonlabor, intellectuals because we were raw, minorities because we were predominantly and conspicuously white, atheists and agnostics because we were strident believers, the poor because we were rich, the old because we were new. Indeed there were few of the world’s constituencies that we had failed to offend before the president came to our city, and hadn’t we compounded the offense again and again by boasting of those very qualities? In that case we were well silenced now.
In church that Sunday, November 24, my father and