In Dealey Plaza, it will for ever be November 1963
Known for his commentary on international relations and US politics, Rupert Cornwell also contributes obituaries and occasionally even a column for the sports pages. With The Independent since its launch in 1986, he was the paper's first Moscow correspondent - covering the collapse of the Soviet Union – during which time he won two British Press Awards. Previously a foreign correspondent for the Financial Times and Reuters, he has also been a diplomatic correspondent, leader writer and columnist, and has served as Washington bureau editor. In 1983 he published God's Banker, about Roberto Calvi, the Italian banker found hanging from Blackfriars Bridge.
Wednesday 16 August 1995
The trees are a little taller, and a couple of lamp-posts have been moved. But the rest could come straight out of Abraham Zapruder's colour film. The thoroughfare curling down from Houston Street and disappearing beneath the beige-coloured Triple Underpass Bridge. The Grassy Knoll on the right, from where Mr Zapruder stood with his movie camera.
The Picket Fence behind it. Finally, instinctively, you cast your eye upward behind you to the sixth floor of the old Depository building, and the window from where Lee Harvey Oswald fired the shots which killed President John Kennedy. Or, as they say in Dallas, allegedly fired. I had imagined that finally America had come to terms with the fact that Oswald had done it alone, that there was no conspiracy involving the CIA or FBI, the KGB, the Mafia, Cubans, or Martians; that a nondescript, disgruntled individual had bought a $12.78 mail-order rifle and changed the course of history. But not a bit of it.
The previous evening I had inquired of a taxi-driver how far the Kennedy site was from my hotel. "Look, if you believe JFK was killed by a lone gunman, I'll sell you a fine chunk of desert as prime real estate," was his opening gambit, followed by a tale of how he had arrived in Dallas from Amarillo a couple of months before the assassination, and ended up that night having a drink in the Vegas, Jack Ruby's night-club, with none other than Patrolman J D Tippit, whom Oswald would murder shortly before his arrest. Which is, of course, material for half a dozen decent plots.
The next day, when I visited Dealey Plaza and the Kennedy museum, which now occupies the sixth floor of the old warehouse, a man on a street corner was hawking $5 copies of "The Questionmark Newsletter - 32nd Anniversary Special Edition".
It contained a selection of blurred photos with arrows and markers, and photocopies of government documents with "Secret" all over them.
"It's rumoured the real assassin sometimes comes back here," he told me, before pointing out the corner window from which Oswald "allegedly shot the President". And that word is everywhere, on a commemorative marker, even on the official plaque on the Depository wall. Alleged, Alleged, Alleged ...
Approaching the museum, I half expected the worst. Vulgarity is not unknown in Texas. But with the exception of a $3 "JFK Carpark", there is nothing tacky about the Kennedy site.
The museum itself is a masterpiece of its kind. It peddles no theories and offers no cheap sentiment; only a minutely detailed exposition of an event which, even three decades on, needs no embellishment to stir deepest grief.
What sticks in the mind? The "sniper's perch", fashioned amid piles of cardboard boxes of books, strewn as they were 32 years ago. Seen here, the television footage of the funeral in Washington and the unbearable and unearthly dignity of Jacqueline Kennedy there is more powerful than ever.
Then there are those words of the Dallas television commentator describing the cheering crowds lining the presidential motorcade's route minutes before the assassination, which must have come back to haunt him ever since: "There's no danger whatsoever, the welcome is overwhelming ... "
But it is tiny mementoes of tragedy which linger longest: the garbled wire-service dispatch which gave the first word of the attack and - most poignant of all - an invitation to the official dinner that the Kennedys were to attend in Austin on the evening of 22 November, the guest's name handwritten in perfect italics.
But a good conspiracy theory can conquer sorrow. Here are a couple of entries in the visitors' book: "Will the USA ever have another politician with such dignity, grace, perseverance and strength?" wrote Eric Czaplinski of New Jersey. "For my sake and our country, I sure hope so." On the opposite page was scrawled, anonymously: "Does Dallas possess the autopsy report - where is it?"
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