Last Thursday, PJ and I visited three museums in Dallas. We knew beforehand that we were going to visit two of the museums, the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center, but we were killing time until our friend Greg got off work so we decided to throw in a third one for good measure.

We started at the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, a museum dedicated to remembering the events surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. It’s a fairly simple museum consisting mostly of time-lines and, of course, the actual site of the assassination, which is certainly no small potatoes.

Three things struck me about the museum. First, it’s really weird feeling to be able to stand almost in the same spot that Lee Harvey Oswald stood when he shot the president. I really felt torn about being there. On the one hand, I couldn’t help but imagine looking through a rifle scope and aiming it at the street below. I both can and can’t imagine someone really doing that. On the other hand, I kept thinking about Suzan-Lori Parks’s play Topdog/Underdog and Lincoln’s job letting people pretend to shoot him in a recreated Ford Theater. How would people respond if they set up a rifle scope and let people pretend to shoot the president below? To make sure that people don’t do anything like that, they have the actual spot enclosed behind a clear partition.

Second, I was struck by one part of the museum’s time-lines. One of them shows the hours after the shooting, emphasizing the transition to the new presidency and the swearing in of Lyndon Johnson. The time-line centered on this picture of LBJ being sworn in:

LBJ swearing in

This picture was taken on Air Force One as it was returning to Washington. You might notice that Jackie Kennedy is present. LBJ refused to leave Dallas without her, and she refused to leave without her husband’s body. The secret service therefore took possession of the body before the local authorities could conduct an autopsy, and they all flew back to D.C.

What stands out to me in this picture is Mrs. Kennedy’s face. Her devastation is even more apparent when you see a better image of the photograph. This picture was taken only two hours and eight minutes after the shooting.

As I stood in the museum, all I could think about as I looked at this image is that just two hour and a half hours before this, everything was fine. The president was alive, and he and Jackie were waving to the crowds. Now she stood here, surrounded by people but so utterly alone, the mechanisms of state power moving inextricably forward. There’s something even more tragic to me about that contrast.

Finally, I can’t help but wonder how people would respond if such an event occurred today. I’m an ardent Democrat, but I wonder how devastating it would have been to the country if George Bush had somehow been killed on 9/11, for example. I personally think he’s a terrible president and we all have been better off if he had never been appointed president, but I think right-wing Republicans would have threatened to destroy our country’s values and ideals even more than W and Cheney have subsequently done if he had been assassinated by terrorists. They used 9/11 to inflict their agenda on the nation, an agenda that we are increasingly discovering to be at odds with real American values (i.e., those found in the Constitution and in law). Imagine what they could have accomplished if they had had a dead president to hold up as a martyr! I’ve often heard people joking wish the president or vice president (or conversely the new speaker of the house — yeah, Pelosi!) ill. Being at this museum definitely reminded me that such such jokes aren’t really funny, certainly not in the Rove era.

I’ll write about the other two museums we visited sometime in the next few days.