Called the Sixth Floor Museum, it’s on the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository–where, on Nov. 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald stood when he shot JFK.
The museum is about more than the history of one fateful day; it’s total immersion into a time that is no more, set in in the exact spot where it came to an end. And the personality that permeates the museum is not the dead President, but his widow, even more stunning in tragedy than she had been in the gilded days of Camelot. By using photos, newspapers and magazines and old television broadcasts, the musuem surrounds you with the sights and sounds of the tumultuous early Sixties. You walk the museum with a headset, listening to the narrated guide of the museum. Your narrator is a radio reporter, who, after the shooting, bolted into the Book Depository to find a phone. He encountered a young man walking out, and asked him where the closest phone was. That man was Lee Harvey Oswald.
That kind of detail told first hand shows why this museum gives you such an intensive but easy-to-digest introduction into the era. It was the height of the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs had been a debacle and the Cuban Misslle Crisis brought the threat of nuclear war. Civil rights demonstrators battled police in the South; it took more than 300 state troopers and federal marshals had to escort James Meredith, a black student, to his first class at the University of Mississippi. Inflation was building. It wasn’t all bad, there was the excitement of the space program and the idealism of the Peace Corps. And that’s all there in this museum, along with all that Kennedy White House magic, giving context to visitors who all seemed to find it as absorbing as I did, even those born decades after it all happened.
As this musuem makes clear, Jack Kennedy thrived on it all, good and bad, and had begun campaigning for a second term. Jackie was a major asset–as he acknowledges in a famous clip that the musuem shows: “I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris,” he tells an adoring crowd. And she didn’t just wow Paris. She wowed my hometown of Sparta, Wis., set in a county where cows outnumbered people. During the 1960 campaign, Jack and Jackie Kennedy came through Sparta. After Jack Kennedy made a speech on the steps of City Hall, Jackie walked along the outskirts of the crowd, stopping to chat. One of the people she stopped to talk to was my mother, who still recalls watching Jackie bending over to greet my younger brother, then a toddler dressed up in a blue corduroy overalls with a matching jacket and hat on that fall day. To my mother’s pleasure, she admired that corduroy suit. Jackie herself was wearing a tweed suit with a little boxy jacket. As I I look back at the suits my mother and her contemporaries used to wear, I can see Jackie’s fashion influence, even on those who didn’t vote for her husband. And, who knows? Maybe they did! It was a tight and bitterly fought election, and the museum chronicles that (although it doesn’t cover the questions about the vote in Chicago and Texas–you’ll have to read Robert Caro’s “The Passage to Power,” to get the full story on that!).
I thought about that encounter as I walked through the exhibit. And then I came to the one corner of the sixth floor is as it was in 1963. It’s the corner where Lee Harvey Oswald stood among piles of boxes, taking aim with his $12 mail order rifle and firing at the President. The corner is glassed in, but you can stand in the windows right next to the area and get a clear view onto Elm Street to see the Xs on the road (painted there not by the museum staff; a helpful attendant told me that they don’t know who maintains that) that mark where the bullets hit.
But what I found most affecting were all of the images of Jackie Kennedy, unwavering at LBJ’s side as he’s sworn in, kneeling at her husband’s flag-draped coffin with Caroline at her side, prompting her son John to salute as his father’s coffin passes, and finally, striding down the street leading from the White House to St. Matthew’s Cathedral, flanked by her brothers-in-law.
And the exhibit doesn’t stop at 1963. It follows the work of the Warren Commission, complete with a video of Congressional testimony in 1978, when a witnesss declares, with “95 percent certainty” that there was a fourth shot that came, not from the Book Depository, but from the grassy knoll across the street.
What this museum does, which is what history, I think, should do. And that is to provide perspective. I think that world events are happening at a pace that is accelerating exponentially. And perhaps it is. But as this museum makes clear, the world has always been a place where life as we know it can change in an instant.