Today is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I honestly cannot recall any anniversary being as anticipated as this one.
Well, perhaps with the exception of the American bicentennial in 1976 (for consistency's sake, perhaps this should be called the JFK semi–centennial). And maybe it only seems that way to me because I live in Dallas, and the city has been preparing for this anniversary all year (the behind–the–scenes preparations have been going on longer, I'm sure).
Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald alone shot the president, but there were enough loose ends that conspiracy theories flourished, especially after the American public got to see the Zapruder film for the first time.
Doubts persist. A recent Gallup poll shows that more than three–fifths of respondents do not believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Gallup acknowledged that the number is the lowest in nearly 50 years. What Gallup did not point out is that a majority of Americans accepted the Warren Commission's findings until the Zapruder film became public.
Since then, a solid majority of Americans has believed that Oswald did not act alone — if he acted at all.
By modern standards, I suppose the Zapruder film is almost primitive in its quality. But it is the most detailed visual record of a presidential assassination that we have — and, after they saw it, most people had to conclude that the Warren Commission's findings were not supported by the photographic evidence. By the time the Zapruder film was released (more than three years after it was made), the Kennedy assassination was already regarded as the most photographed assassination ever.
(LIFE.com focuses on a different image, one that sums up the global reaction to what happened here 50 years ago today.)
I hope we never have another attempt on a president's life, but if we do, I have to think that will become the most photographed assassination ever, given the number of cell/camera phones that are sure to be in use.
Today in Dealey Plaza — where the shooting took place — there will be a crowd of people holding tickets for a special program planned to commemorate the exact moment on this day in 1963 when the first shot was fired. As it did on that day in 1963, the day has dawned with rain — but it is considerably colder here today than it was then, and the rain doesn't seem likely to clear by midday.
Regardless of how cold it is, these tickets have been as hot as Willy Wonka's golden tickets, and I'm sure there will be few if any no–shows. A monument commemorating the assassination will be unveiled at that time (an "X" already marks the spot in the street where Kennedy suffered the fatal head wound). My understanding is that the program will be televised locally. Portions of it will almost certainly be shown on the national newscasts tonight.
It seems that so much has been said and written about the Kennedy assassination that almost nothing more could possibly be said, but the 50th anniversary is an invitation for all kinds of things — even if they aren't entirely relevant, such as Professor Nicholas Burns' piece in the Boston Globe on the three lessons of the Kennedy presidency (which is a separate topic from his death — as it is and should be for all presidents — and would be a dandy topic on the 100th anniversary of Kennedy's birth, which will be in less than four years but isn't necessarily appropriate on this occasion).
Relevance (or lack thereof) hasn't kept publications like the Los Angeles Times and others from running eyewitness accounts that are interesting but really add nothing to public knowledge of what happened.
For that matter, we know what happened. We continue to obsess over the who (which is also irrelevant). We're still asking the same questions. United Press International, for example, ran a piece a few days ago wondering who was responsible for the assassination.
Such things are to be expected, I suppose, but it has always struck me as inexcusable that so much time and energy should be wasted on speculating about who was responsible without determining why Kennedy was killed. I am certainly not a criminal investigator, but it seems to me that, if you answer the why, the rest should fall into place.
Larry Sabato, of whom I have written here before, wrote last week about five persistent myths about Kennedy. Most, like his points that the 1960 Nixon–Kennedy debates did not propel Kennedy to victory in the election that year or that JFK was not the liberal he is perceived to have been, come as no surprise to anyone with an interest in history.
Likewise, Tricia Escobedo's piece for CNN.com purports to tell readers five things they don't know about the assassination.
But I've been studying the assassination for a long time, and I knew that Oswald wasn't arrested for killing Kennedy. I also knew that the TV networks suspended all other programming for four days to report exclusively on the assassination and related events. And I knew that Judge Sarah Hughes, who swore in Lyndon Johnson on board Air Force One that afternoon, was the first woman to swear in a president.
I also knew that, earlier in 1963, Oswald tried to kill General Edwin Walker, a critic of the Kennedy administration and integration, while Walker was inside his home.
I'm not sure, though, that I knew that assassinating a president was not a federal offense in 1963. Interesting to know — at least from an historian's perspective — but of no real value when trying to answer the still unanswered questions.
Fred Kaplan of Slate.com, a onetime believer in conspiracy theories, recently devoted his energies to debunking them even though he acknowledged that "[t]here's no space to launch a full rebuttal" — apparently not even in cyberspace.
For a long time, whenever the Kennedy assassination has been the topic of conversation, the focus has been on whether it was the result of a conspiracy and who really fired the fatal shot.
America should have been asking why, not who. After half a century, I think it is too late.