Yesterday was Thanksgiving, but it was also the 44th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy. Local blogger Jim Bouman, who has apparently returned from from Canossa, remembers where he was and what he thinks of the larger significance of the assassination. More on the latter later.
For boomers (although he's on a tad pre-boom and I'm in the latter half of it) talking about where we were on November 22, 1963 is just something we love to do. I was in second grade at Holy Family school in Whitefish Bay. The nuns told us the President had been shot and we prayed. I remember thinking that the President was in Washington and that Washington was up near Alaska and Alaska was near Russia. Maybe he went across enemy lines and got clipped. Later on I remember feeling chastened by how adult the whole thing was. Of course, I thought. The world was so much duller than I wanted it to be.
In any event, the nuns told us a bit later that the President was dead and that we were going home. After another prayer, I walked home down Hampton to my house on Oakland. I still remember stopping to cry under a birch tree on the corner of Cumberland and Hampton. If I can be permitted, my parents got divorced the next month and, for me, the tragedy of the assassination has always been bound up with that personal tragedy. Maybe for that reason, I've always been fascinated by the assassination.
So, as has often been the case, I've been reading a couple of books on the topic. One is When the News Went Live; Dallas 1963, a memoir of those few days by some Dallas journalists. That book, along with some historic material on John McAdams excellent assassination website and the rebroadcast of NBC's coverage a few years back, underscore how quickly it became obvious that day that Oswald was the shooter. If that doesn't convince you, this guy and this one have destroyed the conspiracy theories.
Here's where Jim Bouman's reaction to the assassination comes in. He is apparently not a conspiracy theorist. But one of the reasons that conspiracy theories have persisted in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary is that the assassination narrative flew in the face of the reigning liberal consensus that political violence was all on the right and that the Cold War had to be called off.
Yet Kennedy was shot by a communist. The other book I am reading is Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism by James Pierson. The fact of a violent act by a leftist didn't fit the story that left-liberals wanted to tell. Recall Jackie Kennedy's reaction: "He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. it had to be some silly little Communist."
So, the assassination had to be spun, not as a political slaying, but as a symptom of a country gone wrong. It wasn't so much Oswald that killed Kennedy but a violent America. Mr. Bouman states the correlation - if not the assertion of cause and effect:
From there, this benighted nation spiraled downward, through a decade of assassinations and escalations and cities-in-flames and profound alienation, then went on to decades of self-indulgent, self-congratulatory excess and hubris, arriving finally at today's sorry state of the American nation, it's leadership and its prospects.
In the standard liberal narrative, the assassination, in this view, becomes just another symptom of a sick culture rather than the act of a sick man consumed by ideology. Maybe that's what Bouman means. Or maybe he means that an act of political violence caused us to go off the rails.
But Pierson argues that it is not the death of JFK, but the recasting of the liberal narrative encouraged (although not entirely caused) by the reaction to the assassination that contributed to a societal sickness. Pierson argues (but I doubt Bouman would agree) that liberalism has paid a price for this reaction to the slaying, losing its confidence and its roots in commonly held American values.
I suppose there is a sense in which that lead to the leadership that we have now in that America has generally rejected the antinomian left (although I think we also needed to shed industrial age liberal economics as we moved into a post-industrial age.) Of course, Pierson and I might characterize that leadership (and America's prospects) much differently than Bouman, but look for agreement where you can find it.