At the Hotel Joule on Dallas’s Main Street, Dan Rather is roaming the lobby with a small entourage. Like dozens of other journalists here right now, he’s in town to cover the 50th anniversary of the assassination of president John F. Kennedy, and to put Dallas back in the spotlight.
Across Main Street, a nine-metre-tall sculpture of a bloodshot eyeball stares blankly back at the Joule, and you can’t help but project a city’s anxieties onto that strung-out pupil. Yes, this is the street where the Ku Klux Klan once marched, where the Kennedy motorcade passed before reaching Dealey Plaza, in the city whites fled to after desegregation. But we have changed! We’re artsy and liberal. Stop judging us for what happened 50 years ago.
“McKinley was killed in Buffalo and Lincoln in Washington,” says the avuncular Texan and former CBS news anchor, “but no city has had to overcome the stigma that Dallas had.”
The Kennedy curse is upon Dallas again, yet another chance for baby boomers, liberals, history buffs and conspiracy junkies to hold this city hostage to the early 1960s. More than any other place in the world, Dallas has been defined by a crime scene. Not even Sarajevo, the host to Archduke Ferdinand when he was assassinated in 1914, bears such a burden.
As the country prepares for its national catharsis on Nov. 22, Dallas residents must be wondering if there is an expiration date on contrition. Never mind that tens of thousands of locals lined up to see the crown prince of Camelot roll by in an open convertible. And the inconvenient fact that a communist named Lee Harvey Oswald, not a right-wing extremist, pulled the trigger. The tyranny of demographics keeps Dallas frozen in time. While 9/11 or Oklahoma City may trump the assassination for younger generations, the death of JFK is the personal touchstone for the bulk of an aging U.S. population.
Dallas did it, or it was at least an accomplice. It is the City of Hate, the unforgivable city.
At the bar of CBD Provisions, the city’s restaurant of the moment, Phillip Jones, chief executive officer of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, delivers the same spiel he has doubtlessly given to many curious rubes like me, who land in his city with an overnight bag filled with stereotypes.
Dallas isn’t what it was 50 years ago, the former Clinton administration official says. It’s an island of political blue in a sea of Texan red. Its mayors are Democrats, and so are its judges. It has elected a Latino lesbian sheriff. There is a thriving Arts District, world-class museums. It’s a convention hub that challenges Las Vegas and Atlanta.
“Like it or not, the assassination is part of our history,” says Mr. Jones over blasts of Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem. “But we don’t want to be defined by one event.”
Up and down Main Street storefronts – and wherever the Kennedy motorcade went – there are children’s drawings proclaiming Dallas to be the “City of Love.” Driven by Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic artist Karen Blessen, the Love Project is meant to be proof her town has worked through the pain and shame of the past. Around 18,000 schoolchildren contributed.
You can’t blame the city for being defensive. While the country’s tens of millions of baby boomers pick at the national wound, the majority of Dallasites may not be feeling anything. It’s a young city where many people seem to have come from elsewhere – the Manhattan of the Southwest. Officials throw around the statistic that 95 per cent of residents neither lived here nor were born at the time of the assassination. Though it’s difficult to substantiate the claim, it’s not a Texas-sized boast, either. Census figures estimate that 65 per cent of Dallas residents are between the ages of 18 and 65, with a median age of 30.
To them, Mr. Kennedy’s grisly end must feel as distant as Mr. McKinley’s did to boomers.
An unexpected gift
Arguably, the death of Camelot was Dallas’s greatest blessing. Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Lawrence Wright recently called the JFK assassination “a gift,” a pivotal moment that allowed a young city to correct itself. “Dallas became a more open, tolerant and just city as a result,” Mr. Wright says over the phone. “It learned the lesson of humility.”
Before the assassination, Dallas didn’t have much of an identity beyond its oil money and the right-wing radicals who ran the place. There was E.M. (Ted) Dealey, the Dallas Morning News publisher who told JFK at the White House that the nation needed a “man on horseback,” not someone “riding Caroline’s bicycle.” There was the eccentric oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, widely believed at the time to be the world’s richest man, bankrolling much of the vitriolic backlash against Mr. Kennedy’s New Frontier.