Who Killed Kennedy?
A gentleman never wears brown and a serious person never even talks about the Kennedy assassination.
It’s hard, however, to distance yourself in Dallas.
Here the Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald had his sniper’s nest, has been converted to the Sixth Floor Museum. You look down on Dealey Plaza as Oswald did through the 4X telescopic sight of his Mannlicher-Carcano cradled on a book carton.
The World War Two Italian gun cost $12.78, its telescopic sight $7.17. Both were bought in American style from a mail order house in Chicago.
It was, according to experts – here we are being drawn into argument with conspirators – a very accurate weapon. And Oswald – more argument with the dissenters – was a proficient marksman at much greater distances than the 81 metres that separated him from the open Lincoln Continental carrying the President.
Looking from the window at the “X” painted on the road surface, I thought assassination is too solemn a term. This was plain, unvarnished murder.
John Kennedy had what critics call character faults. While President he may have smoked reefers in bed with mistress Mary Meyer and tried LSD with her. He certainly bedded Judith Campbell, a top mafia man’s mistress. They may have resulted in impeachment if he had lived to win a second term. Hugh Sidey, the friendly TIME correspondent, believes so.
But just under three years into his presidency he was achieving, what might be called a certain grandeur. He was beginning to move beyond the Cold War and towards civil rights for American blacks.
So consider this: the man who secured the first Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and was arguing with Southern governors to let blacks enrol at university was felled by a 24 year old wife-beater with no cause except his own demons.
With help from a hotel concierge I located a member of “the research community.” That’s Dallas code for an assassination nut – in this case a retired security man, owning over 100 books on the issue and attending annual conferences of conspiracy theorists. He conducts tours from Love Field where Air Force One had landed at 11:39am to the Parkland hospital where Kennedy had been pronounced dead at 1pm.
As you inspect rooming houses where Oswald and his Russian wife Marina lived or see the run down cinema where he was seized, it’s Oswald’s lonely, angry life that stares back at you. You are nudged towards the lone nutter theory endorsed by the Warren Commission.
And I kept thinking of the view of novelist Norman Mailer in his book Oswald’s Tale that there’s enough in Oswald, this vulgar nonentity, to explain the deed. And Mailer knew all there was to know about the overlap of CIA, mafia and exiled Cubans in Kennedy’s America.
Yet when Robert Kennedy, brother to the President, heard the news of the assassination his immediate action was to ring the Director of the CIA, John McCone, and ask whether the agency had been involved. For the Attorney-General to even think this points to a war within the Kennedy administration. This is the starting point for David Talbot’s 2007 book Brothers, a sophisticated account of how the idea of a conspiracy persisted within Kennedy circles.
Talbot argued that Cuba was the Iraq of its day. To the “national security elite … it was where the forces of good and evil were arrayed against each other, the epicentre of the struggle that would come close to a literally earth-shattering climax.” And the military and intelligence bosses thought their own President was dangerous.
For his part Kennedy had despaired of the CIA after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs affair in 1961. In the Cuban Missile crisis of October 1962 he had overruled the unanimous proposal of his Joint Chiefs of Staff of a full-scale invasion of Cuba. He was to say privately, “I am almost a ‘peace-at-any-price’ president,” and this seemed to be woven into the June 1963 Peace Speech where he argued for Americans to examine their attitudes to the Soviet Union, the Cold War and the possibilities of peace.
You don’t have to struggle with James Ellroy’s unreadable novel American Tabloid to grasp the fact of a sewer running just under American political life in these years. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jnr put it more elegantly, writing of “the underground streams through which so much of the actuality of American power darkly coursed: the FBI, CIA, the racketeering unions and the mob.”
Talbot’s thesis is that members of the Kennedy inner circle believed in a conspiracy or were open to its reality.
Except…there is no evidence. None.
Further, the Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley says of the President, “His differences with the hardliners who opposed him were mostly tactical, not strategic. He wavered between bold, liberal visions of the future and conventional Cold War thinking.” He and Robert still wanted to use the CIA to kill Castro. His intentions on Vietnam were elusive.
Today, the anti-conspiracy case has overwhelmingly the bulk of the arguments.
Published in 2007, Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History boasts 1,664 pages with a separate CD-ROM carrying an additional 1,128 pages of footnotes. It’s said that if the book were produced in normal volumes of 120,000 words each it would be 13 volumes, every line wrestling conspiracy theories to the ground.
I know how Ishmael felt, when dragged under the ocean, he watched Moby-Dick churn by. But I won’t harpoon Reclaiming History; there is a limit on even my capacity for this kind of stuff,
Or, as Bryan Burrough wrote in The New York Times, “This book should be applauded. I’m not sure, however, that it should be read.”
More manageable is Gerald Posner’s 580 page Case Closed, published in 1993 and since updated.
Posner savages Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK which elevated Jim Garrison, District Attorney of Orleans, in his manic attempts to prove conspiracy. Posner reminds us that Garrison first alleged a conspiracy that was “a homosexual thrill killing.” He later endorsed “a Nazi operation” sponsored by oil rich millionaires. Later a CIA operation with Jack Ruby as paymaster. Later a plot by White Russians, with Robert Kennedy joining the Warren Commission as part of the cover-up. The movie was a disgrace because it invested Garrison’s lunacies with glamour.
As for Dealey Plaza, of the nearly 200 witnesses who expressed an opinion on the number of shots whose testimony or statements are in the National Archives and the 26 Warren Commission volumes, over 88 per cent heard three. This is the official story. The House Select Committee on Assassinations, established by Congress to review all material, claimed in 1979 there was an additional shot based on a recording of the police radio network. But this was rushed and sloppy work and more recent acoustical science dispels it.
There’s no evidence of mafia involvement. There is no link between the mafia and Oswald, nor a pattern of the mafia killing American politicians.
Posner dispels the classic conspiratorial argument that there had been “mystery deaths” of witnesses to the assassination. In fact he points out the long lifespan enjoyed by important witnesses, even three who claimed to have seen a second shooter. Even 30 named as the second shooter by conspiracy buffs. There is not a single mystery death.
Posner concluded, “Chasing shadows on the grassy knoll will never substitute for real history. Lee Harvey Oswald, driven by his own twisted and impenetrable furies, was the only assassin at Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. To say otherwise, in light of the overwhelming evidence, is to absolve a man with blood on his hands, and to mock the President he killed.”
President Lyndon Johnson reportedly resorted to the mantra, “Lone gunman. No conspiracy” in his talks with Chief Justice Earl Warren.
His motive was to settle public opinion and rein-in right-wing extremists who wanted to blame Castro. But he was right. Lone gunman. No conspiracy.
Viewing The Kennedys: A Perspective on the Miniseries
One of the most memorable scenes occurs after the President is murdered. From Dallas, Vice-President Lyndon Johnson calls Bobby Kennedy, Attorney-General and brother of the slain leader. Bobby has known about the death of the President for only one hour. He is stunned. For his part Johnson is crude and insensitive; he is calling to ask about the mechanics of his swearing-in. In a daze, Bobby can’t even summon up enough energy to be angry. Don Allison looks and sounds like Lyndon Baines Johnson; Barry Pepper has the bottled-up impatience and brittleness of Robert Francis Kennedy.
“Every happy family is happy in the same way, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, wrote Leo Tolstoy. In the family of Joseph and Rose Kennedy – nine children born between 1915 and 1932 – the triumphs and tragedies were intertwined and the world has been fascinated with every new revelation.
“I never knew the Depression” said President John F Kennedy to a journalist. He had been 12 when the New York Stock Exchange collapsed in 1929. After, his stockbroker father was still so rich he could buy a mansion in Palm Beach and a house at Hyannisport. Happy family.
In 1944 Joe Jnr, the eldest son, was killed in a plane explosion over the English Channel. He had been the cynosure of doting parents, a son who’s father was intent on making himAmerica’s first Catholic President. In 1948 daughter Kathleen died in a plane crash over Europe. Another daughter, Rosemary was sitting in an asylum, a vegetable. Mentally retarded, she had been lobotomised in crude psychosurgery approved by her father.
Wretchedly sick with Addison’s disease and other complications, John Fitzgerald Kennedy became the nation’s youngest elected President in 1960 (Teddy Roosevelt was younger when he succeeded the murdered McKinley in 1901). John recruited his brother Bobby as his Attorney General. A vindication for a family descended from the Boston Irish. Yet both boys were to be murdered, a story cruel, savage, pre-modern.
In January this year, the History Channel announced it would not run this series, reportedly as a result of pressure from the Kennedy family. This shows a touching but uncharacteristic delicacy. The History Channel has run programs on extraterrestrials, Jack the Ripper, Eva Braun and the Shroud of Turin. A biography of Hitler’s Alsatian Blondie is apparently in preparation.
One can say of this series, produced by Joel Surnow, that its script is mediocre and acting somewhat mixed. It does not, however, always take the most negative interpretation of Jack and his presidency. For example, it does not indulge the notion that surfaced in an article in 2006 that the Kennedys had played a role in the suicide of Marilyn Monroe. Helped her suicide? How, you might ask? By working with her psychiatrist to guarantee she had access to a big jar of sleeping pills, according to this sensational concoction. That story was reported in serious papers, on the authority of a single, former, insignificant FBI agent. Indeed any stray or drifter who ever had a short-term job with the FBI or the CIA gets to become an authority on the Kennedys and the assassinations.
So the miniseries doesn’t veer into the wilder speculations like this one. But it does dramatise conflicts and arguments within the sprawling family, generally with some degree of credibility, for example, the tension between old Joe and Robert Kennedy in the management of the 1960 election. It was, incidentally, one of the closest outcomes in US presidential history. (Garfield v Hancock in 1880 was closer in terms of popular vote, and Wilson v Hughes in 1916 was closer in terms of the electoral college).
There’s not a bad attempt at dramatising the tension of election day, 1960, when, in Hyannisport, Joe anxiously makes phone calls to party bosses Mayor Daley of Chicago and Mayor Wagner of New York; inquires about buses in New Jersey to get voters to the polls; and pursues union organisers in Nevada to keep mobilising their members. All credible, but an incursion on Bobby’s role as his brother’s campaign director. We see Joe heartlessly over-riding Bobby, before the two become reconciled.
We hear Rose state, “The older boys are Joe’s, Bobby’s mine.” In flashbacks to the 1930s there is even tension and rivalry between John and his older, doomed brother Joe.
And we see Rose suffering old Joe’s still-smouldering libido. All the above is defensible in terms of the historic record, but to my knowledge there is no evidence to support the little drama, after Joe’s stroke, when Rose ceases to be the all-suffering Catholic mother, telling her speechless crippled husband that she has sacked his young nurse with whom he had apparently enjoyed a dalliance. The stroke-ridden Joe scribbles out the word “Revenge.” Rose looks at it, then back at him and says, “Not mine, Joe. God’s.”
Might have happened – dramatic licence – but no evidence.
The Kennedy story is extraordinary enough. Yes, JFK as President did have sex with Judith Campbell Exner at the same time as she served as mistress to Sam Giancana,America’s biggest mafia boss. The head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, did bring the evidence to his boss the Attorney-General Bobby Kennedy. The president did see Washington socialite and artist Mary Meyer on about 30 occasions, and she may have brought marijuana and LSD into the White House, something the CIA probably learned about.
By the way, Meyer is seen in this series as a guest at a White House but not in the President’s bed smoking marijuana or playing with LSD, as it seems she was in real life. This is an example of The Kennedys pulling its punches, stopping short of the worst interpretation. After the President’s assassination Mary Meyer herself was murdered, quite possibly by the agency. I write that as someone normally disinclined to the conspiratorial.
The President was chronically ill and Dr. Max Jacobson (“Dr. Feelgood”) a society doctor from New York, administered drugs to him and Jackie. When Robert Kennedy questioned the medicine – amphetamines – the President responded, “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.” We know this from other sources; we see it on the screen. In fact, the series might have gone further and dramatised the fact that after his Vienna summit with Nikita Khrushchev the President was so sick he was in bed for a full two weeks, although this was unknown to the media. He spent half of his life sick in bed, according to one estimate.
Liberal Americans have criticised the miniseries for inaccuracies. One criticism was that the President is shown saying to his brother Robert that he gets migraines if he doesn’t sleep with new women on a regular basis. There is no evidence he said it to his brother. To that extent the criticism is right. But he did say to a British Prime Minster: “If I don’t have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches.” Harold Macmillan related it to colleagues, quite amused.
I doubt the portrayal of old Joe Kennedy is fundamentally unfair. He is presented as a casual bigot and racist, capable of making references to Polacks, Jewboys and Micks; and as Ambassador to the United Kingdom not just an appeaser but almost pro-Nazi.
In a scene with Rose after his oldest son’s death, Joe is shown coming close to throwing a crucifix, saying he’ll never accept faith again. It appears to be made up. In fact an earlier version of the script had him hurling it against the wall where it broke. No evidence of this. Perhaps, though, a credible dramatisation. The series shows Joe drinking alcohol, but there is evidence he took the pledge in his teens and was a lifelong teetotaller.
The script’s serious liberties are with the area of Joe’s relations with the crime boss Sam Giancana and singer Frank Sinatra. It shows Joe working to get mob support for his son in Chicago wards apparently controlled by Giancana. The script is heavily based on Seymour Hersh’s hatchet job The Dark Side of Camelot (1997). There is a different view in the Michael O’Brian’s 2005 biography, which argues there is no evidence of campaign activity by Giancana to elect Kennedy; further, that Giancana controlled only two wards and these in fact produced low votes for the Democratic ticket compared to the other Democratic wards.
This is important: it would have meant John Kennedy and his father had no obligations to the mob. This suggests in turn that a meeting shown in the miniseries involving Giancana and Joe at the Trocadero Tavern, allegedly arranged by Frank Sinatra to get mob support for Jack, is wholly fictitious. Also fictional are the following mafia related plot lines: Joe on the phone with Bobby learning that the Attorney-General’s Department is not going after the “little fish” but Giancana instead; Joe in a church trying to get a former FBI agent to help him out of his mobster entanglements; and Joe calling Sinatra and telling him he is no longer a friend of the Kennedy family.
Another liberty the script takes with history is Joe offering Jackie a million dollars in the 1950s to not separate from Jack. This is gossip congealing as speculation: there is no evidence it ever happened.
It is true that Kennedy as President ran up against the dark side of American power: a shockingly compromised CIA, an FBI in the grip of J Edgar Hoover, Joint Chiefs of Staff who were capable of blundering into war with Russia. To me there is no way Kennedy’s leadership during the Cold War can be criticised. One can argue credibly he and his brother stopped a nuclear exchange in the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. That should outweigh, even for puritans, any character failings. Saving the world is good enough. All else gives way before this.
Having seen war, Kennedy was viscerally anti-war, confiding once, “I am almost a ‘peace-at-any-price’ President.” His greatest though perhaps most neglected speech was the so-called Peace Speech given at American University in June 1963 proposing an end to the Cold War. His proudest legislative achievement was the Limited Test Ban treaty of 1963, the first arms control agreement between East and West. He resisted pressure from the big brass to escalate the Bay of Pigs, saying, “We’re not going to plunge into an irresponsible action just because a fanatical fringe in this country puts so-called national pride above national reason.” Acutely understood and beautifully put. There is some (limited) evidence he had given up on Vietnam and in his second term may have pulled out.
This John F. Kennedy is only hinted at in the miniseries. And sometimes buried by the private life revelations, even when they are valid.
I visited Dallas and looked down from the Sixth Floor Museum on Dealey Plaza from the window Oswald had used. There is an X on Elm Street where the President was slain. I thought of the big thing we owed Jack and his brother: the keeping of the peace when the world trembled on the edge of a nuclear exchange. And – throwing in another achievement – his support for black civil rights across the South. Belated, but an historic shift nonetheless.
This makes him bigger than this series – maybe any TV series – can render him and, from our perspective, more – and not less – a hero than he appeared in his own times.
Watch the series. Think on the above. Read further. Visit the graves at Arlington and pause with the respect due a peace-maker and his brother.
The West Wing
On the Oval Office wall hangs the painting by Childe Hassam that decorated the room when occupied by Bill Clinton. In a flashback to Jed Bartlet’s New Hampshire campaign we get a fleeting glimpse of what appears to be a wall poster with the exhortation “It’s the economy, stupid.” But The West Wing is a fantasy world with a lot of games going on, not a recreation of the Clinton presidency. It’s the world liberal Democrats would have wished for during the nightmare of George W. Bush.
In the flashback sequence Josh Lyman later to be the deputy chief of staff says, “The Democrats aren’t going to nominate another liberal, academic former governor from New England. I mean, we’re dumb, but we’re not that dumb.” Leo McGarry, later to become chief of staff replies, “Nah-I think we’re exactly that dumb.” Clever dialogue like that sometimes works, and sometimes stretches credibility. Harassed, over stressed, bludgeoned presidential advisers surely haven’t got time for the flow of cute smart repartee. The saccharine quality of the writing – at the end of episode three in Season Two the staff sit on a stoop drinking beers on the night of a congressional election and enunciate a round of “God bless America” – is balanced by the lively politics lessons that dance through the script.
I love the breakfast scene between Vice President Hoynes and Congressman Tillinghouse on guns legislation:
240 million guns out there, how are you going to get them back? What’s in it for me?
Then why am I handing you a personal political victory?
Because I’m going to be President of the United States one day and you’re not.
From another Congressman being lobbied by Josh to support stricter gun laws: “A relationship with the president is currency around here and I need some.” Later Josh says to another Congressman “President Bartlet is a good man. He doesn’t hold grudges. He pays me to do that.”
For history buffs there are a lot of clever echoes. In episode six, Season One, a staffer asks if anyone in the office has a copy of the constitution. This echoes a well known incident in the Lincoln presidency when staff had to send out to the Congressional Library for a copy of the constitution.
What makes it realistic is that the president and his staff can bounce from blunder to blunder, for example in their handling of a visit by a prickly Indonesian president (Episode Seven, Season One) when they blunder badly. A retiring Supreme Court Justice with a strong liberal bent gives the president an unabashed dressing down about retreating from his liberal values. Bartlet replies “… I remind you sir that I have the following things to negotiate: an opposition congress; special interests with power beyond belief; and a bitchy media.” That was never better said. But the retiring judge replies, “So did Harry Truman.”
There’s a nice echo of Truman’s handling of a coal dispute in 1952 when Bartlet threatens the nationalisation of the trucking industry and the drafting of teamsters. They debate issues as touchy as the notion of hate crimes, as when the staff argue whether a punishment for the crime is enough and punishing people for their is wrong in the context of the beating to death of a gay school boy.
There is a robust intellectual contest about the notion of reparations for American blacks because of slavery when a black nominee for the position of Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights nearly turns Josh Lyman around. The debate over school vouchers gets aired as does the question of gays in the military, with an eloquent summation by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs that the arguments for continued discrimination are the same arguments presented about racial desegregation in the military 50 years earlier.
Says Sam Seabourne, the Deputy Communications Director, in an episode devoted to the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice – they pick the Hispanic – that the 30s and 40s were about the role of government; the 50s and 60s about human rights; the future will be about privacy – the internet, phone records, medical records, who’s gay and who’s not.
They examine quirks in the practice of American government, like the requirement that when the president gives the State of the Union message, someone in the line of succession – in this case the Agriculture Secretary – must be absent from Capitol Hill. Also examined are the ambiguities in the 25th Amendment and the 1947 National Security Act about presidential succession – this in the context of assassins firing on the presidential party and Bartlet taking a bullet.
There is a lot of political wisdom. Josh comments at one time, “Mr. President, we’re talking about enemies more that we used to. (Pause) I just wanted to say it.” And Bartlet gives a tribute to Leo McGarry in this piece of conversation:
Have you got a best friend?
Is he smarter than you?
Would you trust him with your life?
He’s your chief of staff.
Drugs policy is aired. Thirty percent of the prison population are nonviolent first offenders in jail for drugs. Crack cocaine, used by blacks, attracts mandatory minimum sentences that would never gravitate toward the son or daughter of a Congressman charged with cocaine or marijuana offences. “Mandatory minimums are racist” declares one adviser. Bartlet dismisses the American belief in term limits thus: “We already have term limits. They’re called elections.”
The most educational strand of the series is about the interplay of presidential and congressional power. The president insists on appointing in the first series, to the Federal Elections Commission a believer in campaign funding reform but Democrats and Republicans are united in pledging retaliation by serving up legislative initiatives on neuralgic issues like school prayer that the White House does not want to see debated.
The biggest, boldest leap in the script is to confer on President Bartlet relapsing, remitting multiple sclerosis, a secret only a handful share.
The series is a paean to liberalism, no where more than episode 12 of Season One where Toby Ziegler, the Communications Director, jolts the White House out of its policy drift by reminding them of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency. “Government can be a place where people come together,” he says. President Bartlet agrees and the music swells. At this point they drop the sentence “the era of big government is over” from the draft State of the Union. This sentence was used by Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union address. A nice little game with history.
Bartlet, a Nobel Laureate in economics, is a polymath. He does his Christmas shopping in a Washington rare book store, lingering over the classics section (he appears fluent in Latin). He has an encyclopaedic mind and takes a joy in lecturing his staff. “I’m a national park buff” he declares in episode eight, Season One, having visited all 54 national parks in the United States. He had been a three term Congressman and a two term Governor of New Hampshire. His family founded the state, and an ancestor – it’s implied – signed the Declaration of Independence. The wild improbability of a liberal economics professor from New Hampshire becoming president is the classiest joke of the series. But is it really anymore farfetched than a former pot-smoker, Fulbright scholar, Governor of Arkansas becoming president? The credibility of viewers is stretched from time to time as in episode eight of Season one when Bartlet, at his third cabinet meeting (the first in six months because it is constitutionally required), humiliates his Vice President in front of a full cabinet. This is hard to accept, shockingly bad political management.
The schmalziest episode this far in is episode five of series one, involving some dewy eyed nonsense about Josh having access to a National Security Council pass to be used in the event of nuclear war – something his colleagues aren’t given and which he decides heroically to hand back. Perhaps the most authentically moving episode is the one in which Toby arranges for a full Marine funeral service for a homeless veteran. That’s in episode 10 of season one and the directorial panache delivers the best closing scene you’ll witness in all of The West Wing.
In my reviewing of The West Wing I am only up to episode three of season two. There are seven seasons, so this review has got a long way to go.
Walking through history in Alabama
The Sydney Morning Herald (May 29, 2010): “Follow the freedom trail”
How do you find “the real America”? Or one of the many “real Americas”?
As everybody tells you, it’s not through big cities such as New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco.
It’s taken me a while to test a different approach and I think it’s paid off.
Here it is: spend a week seeing one of the less obvious of the 50 states. Make it a plain unlikely one – say Alabama.
Yes, the deep South where the Appalachians peter-out and America reaches the Gulf of Mexico. Or, historically, the cradle of the Confederacy and 100 years later, the epicenter of the battles over Civil Rights.
Fly into Atlanta, Georgia, the USA’s busiest airport hub. A two and a half hour drive brings you to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery.
On a Sunday you join the 11.00 am service in the very church where between 1954 and 1960 Martin Luther King preached, a simple red brick structure on 454 Dexter Avenue. The bricks had been gathered by former slaves from an abandoned road, the church itself built on a former slave pen.
“The slave bells were echoing in the ears of some of our members. They had wounds from whippings that had not healed,” orates guest preacher, the Reverend Willy L Muse. “Oh yes”, “Amen”, “Alright”, “I like that”, responds the all black congregation. They even applaud. Then they sing accompanied by piano and drums.
One parishioner, Hattie Minter, welcomed us and told how she met King in 1957. She said the famous bus boycotts had been organised in the church. That’s a thread that leads you to another site on Alabama’s Civil Rights Trail, the Rosa Parks Museum at 252 Montgomery Street.
Here you walk the steps of the 42 year old seamstress who in December 1955 refused to give up her seat on the whites-only section of a local bus. The boycott that followed was a head-on challenge to the racial segregation on which the South was built.
The boycott drew Martin Luther King into leadership. At 303 Jackson Street you step into a seven room 1950s home with a crater on the front porch left by dynamite flung while King’s wife and baby were inside. Hounded by over 30 to 40 death threats a day, King wrestled with the threats to his family. In an “epiphany” at the kitchen table he decided God had told him to fight on for justice.
“Churches were the only institutions that blacks owned and controlled,” Dr Ed Collier tells us, and leads us into King’s small office. There is the table at which the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed, with its manual typewriter. On the bookshelves, a mix of 1950s best sellers and works on the church.
Along with this story of civil rights stands the earlier history of white, slave-owning Alabama and the mythology of the Lost Cause of the South. Five minutes from the Dexter Avenue Church stands the gracious State Capital where Jefferson Davis in 1861 was inaugurated as President of the Confederacy. Inside you inspect the old house chamber where Alabama had voted to secede from the United States. At two Dexter Avenue stands the old telegram building from which this new government of slave owners ordered the firing of cannons at Fort Sumter in Charlestown, South Carolina, the act that began the Civil War.
A historical marker on Commerce Street identifies the site of a slave market and near the railway station a jail for 700 Union prisoners captured at the Battle of Shiloh. On 644 Washington Avenue stands Davis’ official residence, his bedroom slippers, briefcase and top hat on reverent display. This was the Southern White House until the rebel government shifted to Richmond in mid-1861.
In Montgomery Civil Rights overlays Civil War. You spend a day walking in the footsteps of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and Jefferson Davis..
While the Civil War saw slavery abolished, blacks were still denied the vote. The drive from Montgomery to the old river port of Selma is a national historic trail that marks the route protestors took in 1965 demanding that Congress pass the Voting Rights Act. Midway off US 80 you can visit a Voting Rights Trail Interpretive Centre, a stunningly vivid museum, which tells a story of entrenched racism in Lowndes County and of the confrontations between marchers and police with batons and tear gas and venomous white racism.
Then a visitor continues the journey to Selma, crossing Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of an annual Jubilee each March that has drawn candidates for the presidency such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Yet you keep encountering the Civil War. Driving north from Montgomery to Birmingham a visitor diverts to a compact but well organised museum of the Confederacy, originally a home for old soldiers, at 437 County Road 63, Marbury. It’s one of the most informative Civil War museums I’ve visited, showcasing the Alabama contribution to the war.
You are reminded of the fundamental reason for the Civil War: that in 1860 there were four million slaves, they were half the population of the South and they were worth $4 billion, more than all the factories and the railroads of the entire nation. There is a rich display of weaponry. You learn it took 20 seconds to reload a musket and that the first version of a repeating rifle was expensive and unreliable.
Back on Interstate 65 I tried southern cuisine at the Golden Rule Barbeque: for $9.49 a jumbo turkey plate with side dishes of collard greens and baked beans. Avoid fried food and cheese and southern cuisine can deliver a low carb diet.
Birmingham is an industrial city built on coal and iron-ore – and on savage racial segregation. You are reminded of this in the Civil Rights Institute museum. One simple display shows it all: drinking fountains marked “whites only” and “coloured”. This museum also highlights the dynamic black culture that thrived around Fourth Avenue, concentrating black enterprise and entertainment into six blocks.
The museum exhibits a grisly collection of newspaper cartoons and toys that caricatured blacks. Here, too, are the cell doors that imprisoned Martin Luther King in Birmingham jail.
From a plate glass window a visitor looks across at the 16th Avenue Baptist Church with its twin towers and Romanesque and Byzantine design, where in 1963 a bomb killed four girls attending Sunday school. The outrage swung American opinion decisively behind desegregation.
But Birmingham is a surprise, a city of jazz, art and fine food. The Birmingham Museum of Art is the largest free art museum in the south, their signature piece a monumental Albert Bierstadt panorama of the Yosemite Valley.
At Highlands Bar and Grill, regarded by some food critics as one of the five best restaurants in the United States, one sees State Senators and a candidate for Governor dining on produce from local farms. Frank Stitt’s Provencal-influenced Southern food is backed by 150 recipes. Well, for example: grilled quail with butternut squash and dried fig risotto; roast pork loin stuffed with rosemary, bacon and onions; and sweet potato tart with coconut crust and pecan streusel.
Today Alabama tourism rests heavily on a trail of 468 holes at 11 different golf sites, a trail designed to draw those seeking game-challenging landscapes.
There are extraordinary gardens: Jasmine Hill, Montgomery and at Bellingrath, Mobile.
At Huntsville the US Space and Rocket Center is, according to John Glenn, the finest rocket collection in the world. Here for example is displayed the Saturn V restored to its Apollo-era readiness and the Apollo 16 Command Module. In this part of Alabama the name of Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist recruited by America after the Second World War, is spoken of with reverence.
For this history buff, however, it’s Martin Luther King’s kitchen, a church with the scars of a bombing, Confederate battle flags and muskets and the museum devoted to Rosa Parks that made Alabama an excursion in American history.
The Spectator: “Bob Carr’s holidays walking through American history”
It’s a nondescript Dallas suburb. Here the boarding house where Lee Harvey Oswald scuttled after he’d shot the President. Here, the street corner where Oswald killed police officer JD Tippet and, around the corner, the now-dilapidated Texas Theatre where he was arrested.
Our guide is a retired security guard, a member of the “Dallas research community”. That is, an assassination nut.
Just as no gentleman wears brown, no serious person gets involved in this stuff. But driving from Love Field where the President’s plane landed, to City Hall where Oswald was gunned down, I feel a queasy fascination, even as I adhere to Norman Mailer’s thesis there is enough in Oswald’s biography to explain everything.
As for the museum in the former Book Depository, I had been expecting something gimcrack and amateur. But the presentation is intelligent and professional and will gradually fill any visitor with the sadness of this story.
Especially as you look from its windows over Dealey Plaza to a painted cross on the surface of Elm Street that marks the spot of the President’s vehicle.
I find myself thinking benignly on Jack Kennedy. He saved the world from a nuclear exchange in the Cuban missile crisis. He came down in favour of black civil rights. Both ennobled his life. By contrast what emerges from a visit to the Oswald sites is the sheer vulgarity of the killer and his existance. When Oswald squinted into his telescopic sight aimed at the back of the President’s head, this was nothing as elevated as a political assassination. Just a heartless murder, by an angry, thwarted, wife-beating nonentity
General Ulysses S Grant took Vicksburg, a town on a bluff above the Mississippi, in a siege that made his reputation and delivered President Lincoln a victory in the same week as Gettysburg. The battlefield earth works are preserved in an arc of parklands on the eastern side of the city. These stout Confederate defences repelled Grant’s assaults until he decided to poison the city’s water with animal carcasses and starved it into surrender. There were 4835 Northern dead because of Grant’s failed assaults. When was there a Grant victory that wasn’t murderous? I tick off another Civil War battlefield. I will do this I hope for the next 20 years.
Alabama is gun-toting, Palin-embracing and church-going but it contains a surprise. It now celebrates the turbulent struggle for black civil rights in a trail of extraordinarily good museums. Moreover it has done this without any white backlash, as if the heirs of Governor George Wallace – “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” – have now embraced black struggle as part of the state’s official history.
In Birmingham The Civil Rights Institute begins with an introductory film. Then the wall of the cinema rises to reveal two drinking fountains, one “whites only” and one “colored”. Passing them a visitor walks into a recreation of the 1920’s city with its savage apartheid.
The sit-ins at lunch counters and freedom rides in the 50’s and 60’s, detailed here, were a ground-up challenge to rigid white supremacy. And the white resistance was fierce. A visitor finds himself at a window looking across to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church where four girls attending Sunday school were killed by a bomb, one of 50 exploded by white supremacists.
Great objects can make a museum – great locations too.
In Montgomery you visit Martin Luther King’s home, the parsonage, preserved so that a visitor steps into the 1950’s. It, too, had been bombed. In the same city the Rosa Parks Museum tells of the 1955 bus boycott precipitated by a 42 year old seamstress defying a police order to give up her seat for a white. On the drive to Selma you divert to a museum dedicated to the 1965 voting rights march through cruelly racist Lowndes County.
So cruel that when the blacks won voting rights the white farmers retaliated by turning sharecroppers off their farms. Landless and jobless they were forced to gather in tent cities. This toxic current of race hatred, explicated in the museum, drags me deeper into Southern history. Later I pick up William Faulkner’s Light in August and imagine I now read the South’s greatest writer with something approaching real understanding.
Central Park West is New York’s most beautiful street, a massif of architectural solidity fronting the park. And below 96th street it stands, with two exceptions, precisely as in 1931.
At number 170 the New York Historical Society boasts a huge show entitled Lincoln and New York. It’s an under-appreciated institution. But there have been exhibitions in here that have illuminated aspects of America. It’s here I come before I contemplate MoMA with its Bauhaus show or the Guggenheim with Kandinsky.
Henry Kissinger told me at the closing ceremony of the Sydney 2000 Olympics that Australia was the one other country he could consider living in. I counted that generous praise.
Sitting in Bravo Gianni on East 63rd he asked me, “What do you think of Woodrow Wilson?”
“The worst president in US history.”
“You may be right”, he replies.
In condemning Wilson I’m thinking of his Anglo-Saxon racism which had him will America into World War I. Without Pershing’s armies there would have been an exhausted collapse on all sides, a peace without victors and no crushed, humiliated Germany with all that was to mean.
The canards aimed at Kissinger are strident because they are so weak, especially the allegation he engineered the 1973 coup in Chile. “Apart from everything else we were too busy with other things”, the Secretary of State says. “Historians sometimes think you only have one thing to deal with at a time”. His position on Chile is cogently supported in the just-published Kissinger 1973 by Alistair Horne. The author has some authority. He was writing in and about Chile as the Allende government was tottering.
Right about Chile, Horne’s book is nonetheless clumsily written, repetitive and cliché-laden, remarkably so given he’s written 22 histories. In Borders on Park Avenue I survey all the books on American history and buy none. I can’t find anything that meets a test of serious scholarship matched with engaging writing. Most books just re-work secondary sources. When will Joseph Ellis produce something as fine as Founding Brothers? Or the next Robert Caro volume land with a thump?
We obsessives wait.