Tuesday, November 26, 2013

JFK Remembered, Part II

Recollections of the Kennedy assassination often reveal more about 2013 and the psychic needs of those who write them than they do of the late President or the events in Dealey Plaza. 

As I’ve mentioned before, there have been repeated invocations – in major and supposedly reputable media outlets – of the silly meme that “Dallas” or “America” (expressly or implicitly meaning “the right”) was responsible for the assassination.  These accounts reflexively refer to supposed “Tea Party” anger as a reflection of the same phenomenon. 

This is ominous nonsense. It requires a studied avoidance of the facts and a dislocated logic to turn reality upside down. There was no right wing violence in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  There was only a deranged communist with a rifle.   

This twisting of the truth is not new. As James Pierson recounts in his excellent book Camelot & the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism, this distortion began almost immediately.  It reflected, in part, Jackie Kennedy’s horror that her husband had not even had the “satisfaction of dying for civil rights”, but was killed by a “silly communist.” While one would think that opposition to communism was a human rights issue of the first order, otherwise intelligent people insisted – over all available facts – that what they wanted to be true was true. 

But to avoid blaming the Marxist, liberals had to blame everyone.  Because they couldn’t concede that Oswald was motivated by what he actually believed, he had to become the product of a “sick society.”  Pierson argues that this contributed to the left’s embrace of transgression and an oppositional stance toward America and conventional values. 

It’s an interesting observation, but a bit overstated. In that sense it’s like the claim that Kennedy was really a conservative, most recently expressed by Ira Stoll in his book, JFK, Conservative.  Kennedy was certainly well to the right of today’s Democratic Party, but he wasn’t a twenty-first century conservative either. 

The reluctance to face the truth is a prime factor behind the continued vitality of conspiracy theories – which generally turn out to be based on a curious mix of credulity, half-truths and an adamant refusal to ask the next question.  If Oswald is an inconvenient assassin, it becomes necessary to find another. 

At its extreme, this desire to evade uncomfortable facts can amount to an assault on the very idea of truth.  Last Friday, this paper reprinted an op-ed by Syracuse Professor Douglas Brodie who suggested that, since we cannot deny that Oswald was shooting at someone from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, perhaps he was shooting at the real assassins in the grassy knoll and, alas, missed. 

My first reaction was to think he ripping off a Family Guy vignette that made the same point as a joke.  (But Oswald could not have voted for Kennedy in 1960 since he was living in the Soviet Union.) 

But Brode is apparently serious – not in the sense that he thinks he can prove it – but as the presentation of “a truth” that comports with what Douglas Brode thinks and is therefore “enlightening.” 

Brode is a novelist and film critic, so perhaps he can be excused.   

Others, not so much.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.

Friday, November 22, 2013

JFK Remembered, Part I

At the time of the assassination of President Kennedy, I was sitting in Sister Mary Mel’s class at Holy Family School.  We were told that the President had been shot and led in prayer.  My initial reaction was as follows. 

The President lives in Washington.   Washington was kind of up there near Alaska and Russia (I had Sarah Palin beat) and the President must have been on a reconnaissance mission across the border.  He was probably winged in the shoulder. He’ll be fine. 

After what seemed like a very short period of time, we were told that the President had died, prayed again and were sent home.  I remember stopping to cry next to a birch tree that was then at the intersection of Cumberland and Hampton. 

When I got home, I saw that the assassination was all so adult. Everyone was in suits.  Of course I was old enough to know that it had to be that way and chagrined that I had thought otherwise.  While I don’t buy much of the notion that American “lost its innocence” on November 22, 1963, the world did become a bit less enchanted for little Ricky Esenberg. 

Although I did not yet know it, my parents were beginning the process of a divorce and a few weeks later, we moved to a small apartment in Cudahy. Life certainly changed for me. But what was the larger significance of the event? 

Many of the narratives about that have always seemed overstated to me.  To be sure, as a piece of personal and national tragedy played out in what was then the still new medium of television, it was unprecedented.  It was sudden, brutal and public in a way that nothing like it had ever been.  It was the first time we all huddled around our TVs to share in something horrible.  Sadly, it was not the last. 

But in terms of the course of the country, the impact of the assassination seems less clear. JFK was, at best, a middling President; a deeply flawed but extremely attractive personality who can be – somewhat anachronistically – either claimed or eschewed by both sides of 2013’s political spectrum.  He was certainly a New Deal Liberal but not of the transgressive Left that has become mainstream today.  He was a committed Cold Warrior, but often clumsy in its execution.  Initially a reluctant advocate for civil rights, he did the right thing when he had to and, like Truman and Eisenhower before him and Johnson after him, deserves credit for helping to move America forward on race.   

Kennedy was, essentially, the author of our involvement in Vietnam but had not yet escalated it, so historians are able to argue about what he would have done there had he lived.  Committed to a larger government, he was the author of a supply side tax cut. He was hated by the extreme right (what became modern conservatism was only nascent in 1963) but murdered by a Marxist. 

Kennedy was charming and, there really is no other word for it, glamorous.  At the same time, he was the product of corruption and a reckless cheater.  He portrayed a public image of vigor, but was in extremely poor health. 

There is a sense in which JFK was, as National Review, recently put it, a “beautiful mediocrity.”  While it is a bit unfair to call anyone who becomes President of the United States mediocre, Kennedy was largely a figure of style and sensibility rather than substance.  His Presidency began as a metaphor for a post war confidence and ended in a tragedy that was achingly poignant.  He was a vessel into which we could pour whatever we wish.  Fifty years on, we continue to do precisely that.
Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin

Monday, November 11, 2013

Killing Kennedy Tells the Story

As we enter into the final run-up to the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I have a declaration to make. I am a buff.  I can hold forth on the single bullet theory and tell you why it is certainly true. I can tell you why the Zapruder film confirms, rather than contradicts, the theory of a single shooter in the rear of the motorcade. I can engage you in a conversation about the identities of Door Man, Umbrella Man and the Hoboes. I can go on for longer than anyone should be able about the odd life of Lee Harvey Oswald.

So I was taken aback by Duane Dudek's review of Killing Kennedy, a film version of Bill O'Reilly's book that aired last night on the National Geographic Channel.  The film, he writes, "doesn't tell us Jack."

Cute line but wrong.  The film is derivative but it tells a story that most of us have not heard.

One of the things that has always struck me is that there is a public narrative about the assassination that is spectacularly false. Kennedy is often claimed - or implied - to be a martyr to some generalized notion of "American" or even right wing violence.  Recently, there have recently been a few cringeworthy examples of that narrative in the liberal press (Salon, Slate and the New York Times) and the idea is advanced in a new book called Dallas 1963.

But the facts are these, Kennedy was shot by a Marxist who had defected to the Soviet Union and tried to defect to Cuba in the month before the assassination.  In March of 1963, he had tried to kill former General Edwin Walker, an extreme right wing figure living in Dallas. In the months before the assassination, he had been trying to engage the Communist Party USA, Fair Play for Cuba Committee and the Daily Worker (all of whom held him at arm's length) in support of his political activities.

I'll bet most of you didn't know that.

This isn't to say that the "left" killed Kennedy who was an enthusiastic Cold Warrior.  Oswald was an angry man with delusions of grandeur whose pathologies expressed themselves in left wing terms. He
was actually as ignorant of Marxist philosophy as he was of capitalism.

But it does undercut the Kennedy as a martyr of some American or right wing "sickness" and, for that reason, is useful to know. "Killing Kennedy" is a (mostly) accurate portrayal of those facts (there is a bit of dramatice license and compression) and, contrary to Dudek's claim, will tell most viewers quite a bit that they did not know.

Cross posted at Purple Wisconsin.