I just heard a blurb on NPR on a recently unearthed home movie of the Kennedy motorcade through Dallas on November 22, 1963. The movie was turned over to the Sixth Floor Museum at Lee Harvey Oswald’s former workplace. After hearing the bit on the radio, I knew just what to do: check the museum’s website for the video. But the site was slammed with traffic. No problem: YouTube or Google Video (or both–are they the same now?) would surely have it. And they did–thirty-nine seconds’ worth, which might be all that the museum made public; or maybe that’s all that the amateur cameraman, George Jefferies, shot. (Jefferies, 82, a former insurance executive, says the home movies sat in a dresser drawer for more than four decades before he recently asked his son-in-law whether he’d like to see some footage of Kennedy’s visit to Dallas.)
Thirty-nine seconds. Not much. A crowd in the street. Limousines approaching and passing. A group of smiling passengers: the Kennedys, the Connollys. In less than two minutes, all that would change. But beyond the haunting irony in the pictures, I was surprised to see that Kennedy had drawn a big crowd and that the city had made a big deal out of the visit; in the clip, you see the flags and bunting and banners flying on lightpoles into the distance. I never realized that the city had enthusiastically welcomed Kennedy. Here’s John Connolly, quoted in the House Select Committee on Assassinations report:
“The further we got toward town, the denser became the crowds, and when we got down on Main Street, the crowds were extremely thick. They were pushed off of curbs; they were out in the street, and they were backed all the way up against the walls of the buildings. They were just as thick as they could be. I don’t know how many. But, there were at least a quarter of a million people on the parade route that day and everywhere the reception was good.”
Kennedy personally stopped the motorcade twice to speak to spectators. Imagine that happening now. The report went on to say: “Governor Connally noticed that Mrs. Kennedy, who had appeared apprehensive the previous day, was more relaxed and enjoyed the Dallas crowd. The only hostile act he remembered was a heckler with a placard that read ‘Kennedy Go Home. The President noticed the sign, and asked Governor and Mrs. Connally if they had seen it. Connally said, Yes, but we were hoping you didn’t.’ ”
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It’s easy to think, after all these years, that November 22 has lost its significance. It’s true that it’s hard to recall or communicate the sense of tragedy that suffused that day, that weekend, and the years that followed with their new assassinations and anniversaries. Incidentally, I was watching a few minutes of a show the other night that had nothing, nothing at all to do with the first Kennedy killing. It was “The Dog Whisperer,” of all things, an episode in Dallas. In establishing the setting, there were a few quick overview shots of the city. One clip in the montage looked familiar–“Was that the book depository?” I replayed the sequence on TiVo, and the scene appeared again. Just a couple of seconds. A sort of reverse angle view of the familiar ways you see the scene: from the sniper’s vantage in the depository building, from the slope where Zapruder stood taking his home movie. This shot was from across the way, looking toward the book depository from high above. But looking at the scene as a still image, all the pieces were there; it was definitely the place we all knew. We may think we’ve forgotten. But that piece of ground is familiar on an instinctive level.
He stood at the southeast window inside a barrier of cartons. The larger ones formed a wall about five feet high and carried a memory with them, a sense of a kid’s snug hideout, making him feel apart and secure. Inside the barrier were four more cartons–one set lengthwise on the floor, two stacked, one small carton resting on the brick windowsill. A bench, a support, a gun rest. The wrapping paper he’d used to conceal the rifle was on the floor near his feet. Dust. Broken spider webs hanging from the ceiling. He saw a dime on the floor. He picked it up and put it in his pocket.
He looked down Houston Street as the motorcade approached, slow and vivid in the sun. There were people scattered on the lawns of Dealey Plaza, maybe a hundred and fifty, many with cameras. He held the rifle at port arms, more or less, and stood in plain view in the tall window. Everything looked so painfully clear.
The President had chestnut hair and the First Lady was radiant in a pink suit and small round hat. Lee was glad she looked so good. For her own sake. For the cameras. For the pictures that would enter the permanent record.
He spotted Governor John Connally in one of the jump seats, a Stetson in his lap. He liked Connally’s face, a rugged Texas face. This was the kind of man who would take a liking to Lee if he ever got to know him. Cartons stamped Books. Ten Rolling Readers. Everyone was grateful for the weather.
The white pilot car turned, the motorcycles turned. The Lincoln passed beneath him, easing left, making the deep turn left, seeming almost to rotate on an axis. Everything was slow and clear. He got down on one knee, placed his left elbow on the stacked cartons and rested the gun barrel on the edge of the carton on the sill. He sighted on the back of the President’s head. The Lincoln moved into the cover of the live oak, going about ten miles an hour. Ready on the left, ready on the right. Through the scope he saw the car metal shine.
He fired through an opening in the leaf cover.