Friday, 22 November 2013

(Off topic) The Dallas motorcade

There's been any amount of coverage of the Kennedy assassination on this, its 50th anniversary. Some of it has been enlightening, much of it nutter conspiracy rubbish. If you've been tempted by the conspiracy coverage, get your head back together and read 'Killing Conspiracy'.

It's only the tiniest of footnotes to the great sweep of history, but I have one small point I'd like to throw into the mix.

I'd been watching a documentary (originating, I think, from RTE, Ireland's public broadcaster), about President Kennedy's visit to Ireland in June, 1963. It became evident, first of all, that Kennedy's visit to Ireland was very much his own idea. The State Department handlers hadn't been so keen: they were still nursing grievances over Ireland's neutrality in the Second World War (and I don't blame them), and his political advisers didn't see much upside either (the Catholic and Irish-American votes were in the bag anyway). But he insisted (shades of President Bush Senior's "I'm the President of the United States and I don't have to eat broccoli if I don't want to").

The second thing that emerged from the documentary was that, somewhat to Kennedy's surprise, he was having a good time. He probably hadn't expected to, or not much. Part of his original motivation was purely political, even if the marginal benefit was low. Part of it was a superpower putting itself on display. None of that, however, necessarily made for a fun time for him personally, especially as his minders were going off their trolley with the touchy-feely access to Kennedy during the visit: security arrangements were primitive to non-existent for all four days of his visit.

But things began to perk up for him. He must have been gratified at the huge crowds that turned out for his motorcades. And they really were huge - proportionately, much bigger than the sort of reception he'd got on the famous 'Ich bin ein Berliner' visit to Germany he'd made just before coming to Ireland.

I was one of them. On June 26 1963 I was watching from the window (in the picture) as President Kennedy's motorcade turned right off Dame Street and came down Parliament Street, past the Sunlight Chambers where my father worked at the time. It illustrates the lack of security: I was a good deal closer to Kennedy than Oswald was to be five months later.

And then another element also kicked in for Kennedy, the personal 'where did I come from' quest. And that last bit, as the visit went on, came to be important for him, as you can see in particular from archive footage of his visit to County Wexford. He was a famously good schmoozer in the first place - in recent years, the best before Clinton - and it's not easy to tell when his reactions were artifice and when they were genuine, but the film from the time strongly suggests that for all its stage-managed hokum, the connection with his homeland came to mean something personal to him.

Fast forward to Dallas. Apparently, Texas Governor Connally had advised against an open-car motorcade through Dallas. He was obviously right, with the benefit of hindsight. But Kennedy at the time didn't agree. Maybe he'd have made the same call even if he'd never been to Ireland: the early Sixties were a simpler time with less of today's anxiety over terrorist attacks. But I also wonder if the warmth he'd experienced in Ireland (and Germany) hadn't lulled him into thinking that only good things could happen from driving, effectively unprotected, through cheering crowds.

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