The goal of these studies -- beyond merely feeding my curiosity about American history and politics, which has been accomplished many times over already -- is to write a short book about Nixon, the poker player. His story is so fascinating and full of strange twists and improbable turns, though, it is easy to get sidetracked by other side roads along which the significance of the poker angle becomes less apparent or recedes to the point of being insignificant.
These last couple of weeks my Nixon studies have been marked by a few detours concerning John F. Kennedy, in particular his assassination which of course happened 50 years ago today. I’ve been influenced by others’ recent references to the anniversary, as well as by the occasional television specials focused on the event that have picked up in frequency over the last couple of weeks.
JFK of course figures prominently in Nixon’s story, with their heads-up battle in the 1960 election representing an initial setback in a political career that had to that point been characterized by uninterrupted success for Nixon, though his eight-year tenure as Vice President had slowed his momentum by then.
For those alive on Friday, November 22, 1963 and whose memories stretch back that far, all recall vividly details of the moment they learned of what happened on Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas at 12:30 p.m. that day. The rest of us were subsequently born into a post-JFK world and in different ways gradually became aware of the history that preceded us.
I vaguely recall learning about the man on the half-dollar coin as a child, then later about what happened to him. Eventually I came to learn about Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, and the rest. I remember my grandfather telling me he firmly believed Lyndon B. Johnson had been the responsible party. I had a paperback copy of the Warren Commission report at one point which I read through. I read other accounts, Don Delillo’s fiction Libra, saw Oliver Stone’s JFK, and like many have returned to the story again and again over the years.
Now with YouTube and other online resources we can relive much of those crazed few days in Dallas, including lots of original TV and radio, both local and national. A place called the Texas School Book Repository figures prominently in the story of the assassination, but now we all share an enormous virtual repository where there is no end to the accounts, analyses, images, audio, video, and other materials related to the event.
Not long ago I watched on YouTube the History channel’s JFK: 3 Shots That Changed the World from a few years back (airing again on the channel this afternoon), which over the course of three-plus hours and two parts compiles lots of primary source material without any comment other than through the editing choices and a brooding, spooky soundtrack.
I recommend that History channel special (here’s Part 1 & here’s Part 2). It’s hard not to be moved by it. And angered and confused and frustrated and everything else. The first hour or so is especially gripping, with everything leading up to the killing tinged with shudder-producing forboding.
I’m referring to seeing the Texas Schoolboys Choir serenading Kennedy prior to his last speech before the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce with a rendition of “The Eyes of Texas” with its ominous sounding lines “the eyes of Texas are upon you / And you cannot get away.” Or Raymond Buck, the Chamber of Commerce president, giving Kennedy the gift of a white cowboy hat. “We couldn't let you leave Fort Worth without some protection against the rain,” he tells Kennedy who then despite some goading from the crowd resists putting on the hat, perhaps so as not to mess up his hair.
“And to protect you against local enemies,” Buck continues, “in the manner that you are protecting this nation against our foreign enemies, and to keep the rattlesnakes on Vice President Johnson’s ranch from striking you, we want to present you with this pair of boots.”
Soon Kennedy takes the short flight from Fort Worth to Dallas, landing at Love Field where hundreds await his arrival. There’s the sequence of he and Jackie leaving the limo for a time to shake hands, the crowd swarming in a way that is unsettling. Then it’s back into the car for the last ride, and soon come the shots, those first news reports, and the initial shocked reactions.
Watching it unfold, it is difficult not to be filled with sadness. I think of how frightening it all seems, compounded by the chaos of the error-filled hours and days following the assassination where for those who lived through it the whole pretense of civilized society must have seemed on the verge of tearing apart. It all seems impossible, the product of a mad world at once primitive and naive and complex and sinister.
When my grandfather confidently fingered LBJ, I wasn’t old enough to understand why he might. Later I would become acquainted with the various conspiracy theories (including ones involving LBJ), although now I find that like most people the more I learn about Kennedy’s assassination the less clear it becomes.
Twenty-five years ago Errol Morris made one of my all-time favorite films, The Thin Blue Line, about another murder mystery in Dallas. Yesterday he released an interesting short via The New York Times called “November 22, 1963” in which he invites Six Seconds in Dallas author Josiah “Tink” Thompson to talk about the JFK assassination and how with the passage of time it becomes increasingly opaque.
To get back to Nixon, some might be surprised to learn he was in Dallas on November 22, 1963. No shinola.
By then Nixon had lost another campaign, the one for governor of California in 1962 after which he’d famously tell reporters “You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Back in private life, Nixon was working for a New York law firm that represented Pepsi-Cola. It was that relationship that brought him to a convention of American Bottlers of Carbonated Beverages in Dallas, at which Pepsi was also having a corporate meeting.
There's video of Nixon speaking in Dallas on November 21, voicing very critical, partisan opinions regarding both JFK and LBJ. He’d leave Dallas the next morning, flying from the same Love Field Airport where JFK would arrive just a few hours later. At midday -- just after the assassination -- Nixon was landing at Idlewild Airport in New York, renamed JFK a month later.
Nixon’s presence in Dallas just prior to the assassination has predictably been folded into various conspiracy theories, with Nixon’s own inconsistent accounts of where he was when he heard the news of the assassination adding further encouragement. That’s right -- while everyone else remembers precisely where he or she was at that moment, when it came to recounting his memory of it Nixon had multiple versions of the story.
There are other stories regarding Nixon and the assassination, including his having known Jack Ruby many years prior to 1963 (a link sometimes brought up in connection with the LBJ conspiracies). According to Oswald’s widow, Marina, he had also allegedly intended to kill Nixon back in April 1963 when Nixon may or may not have scheduled a trip to Dallas that he never took, a story Nixon alludes to in his memoirs.
As Thompson tells Morris, “I know this happened one way rather than another. It had to happen one way, right?” And while the photos and films taken that day seem to get us closer to what that one way was (as Thompson suggests), they -- and all of the other evidence (credible and spurious) -- confuse us, too, creating a perplexing palimpsest that makes it harder and harder to see anything clearly.
The assassination and all of the questions surrounding it have cast a long, half-century-long shadow under which we’ve all lived. Many correctly point to the day as inaugurating an era marked by violence, distrust, and uncertainty. The only world most of us have known.