Assassinating Reality

The mythology survives the facts 48 years after JFK’s assassination

“The Kennedy cult,” Frank Rich writes in a New York Times Magazine piece, “generally gets a waiver on reality checks.” Perhaps this cultist, who confesses to finding the thousand-day presidency “beautiful, even erotic,” counted on such a waiver when writing his delusional commemoration of the 35th president’s assassination.

Take it from Frank Rich: Don’t blame a Communist for the president’s death. Blame the American Right.

Lee Harvey Oswald killed John F. Kennedy in Dallas forty-eight-years ago today. Even before Lyndon Johnson’s presidency began, the assassination narrative did. Did you know that the John Birch Society was big in Dallas? That Dallas was once in the Confederacy and Kennedy hailed from the capital of Yankee America? That Victor Lasky’s anti-Camelot JFK: The Man & the Myth topped the city’s bestseller lists? Such is the flimsy stuff of connect-the-dots historiography.

“What defines the Kennedy legacy today is less the fallen president’s short, often admirable life than the particular strain of virulent hatred that helped bring him down,” Rich writes. “After JFK was killed, that hate went into only temporary hiding. It has been a growth industry ever since and has been flourishing in the Obama years. There are plenty of comparisons to be made between the two men, but the most telling is the vitriol that engulfed both their presidencies.” Alas, the vitriol that engulfed John Kennedy’s two successors, and Barack Obama’s two predecessors, dwarfed the vitriol directed at either of America’s most recent Democratic presidents from the North.

For Rich, understanding why has less to do with who the assassin was than with where the assassination occurred. He implores readers to remember “the role played in Oswald’s psyche by the torrid atmosphere of political rage in Dallas.” But he presumably wants them to forget that the “political rage” Kennedy’s assassin tapped into emanated from Moscow and Havana, not Dallas. Rich devotes one line to debunking, or at least deflating, the notion that Oswald’s activism as a Communist motivated his noxious act. “Immediately after the assassination and ever since, the right has tried to deflect any connection between its fevered Kennedy hatred and Oswald’s addled psyche with the fact that the assassin had briefly defected to the Soviet Union,” Rich writes. But West-to-East migration was hardly a pedestrian occurrence at the height of the Cold War. Can one credibly dismiss the defection as a minor bit of information mitigated by its brevity, particularly when one makes the curious case that right-wing extremism fueled the left-wing assassin?

It’s telling that a primary source for the fantastical article is Stephen King’s new novel 11/22/63. “As the time-traveling [Jake] Epping gets settled in that past, he describes an inferno of seething citizens, anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish storefronts, and angry billboards demanding the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and equating racial integration with communism,” Rich summarizes of the current bestseller. “That last one, King’s protagonist observes, ‘had been paid for by something called The Tea Party Society.’” This final bit, Rich concedes, was artistic license. But the rest is realer than “Carrie.” Trust him.

A lively imagination is a hallmark of great fiction writers. In political prose, it’s the stuff of cranks and conspiracy theorists. Had a Bircher murdered the president, then this ensuing discussion of the role of right-wing rhetoric in motivating the killer would have been relevant. But the facts failed that narrative. Oswald’s previous attempt on the life of a prominent member of the John Birch Society, whose rhetoric was certainly of the extremist type that Rich contends inspired rather than infuriated Oswald, makes Rich’s contention, well, rich. The most resilient survivor of the Kennedy assassination is the narrative.

It not only lives on forty-eight years later, it has reincarnated as events have demanded. The rush to blame this year’s Tucson shooting spree on right-wing rhetoric backfired when Jared Lee Loughner’s classmates described him as a “political radical” and “quite liberal” and evidence of his insanity made his political proclivities moot. Nearly a decade earlier, when three-thousand people perished on 9/11, the extreme Left blamed the attacks not on the Islamic terrorists who claimed credit but the Republican president. In the wake of Jonestown, which witnessed the greatest loss of American civilian life prior to 9/11, observers initially blamed evangelical Christianity though it turned out the cult’s Communist leader had banned Bibles, willed his possessions to the Soviet Union, and practiced Marxism as a religion within the jungle commune.

These memes proved less enduring, and found fewer believers, than the one surrounding the Kennedy assassination. But they relied on the same template: imagine political enemies behind horrific events. The template tells us little of the events themselves but much about the political obsessions of those relying upon it. So strong is the faith of true believers that they discount inconvenient facts when they clash with the narrative. For the Frank Rich-segment of the population that relies on mindless, a priori assessments of events, the pull of a story that is comforting is greater than the pull of the story that is true.

Even as jealous a guardian of the Camelot legacy as Jacqueline Kennedy rejected the comforting revisionism of the Kennedy cultists. “Oh, God,” reacted the First Lady to the identity of her husband’s killer. “Some silly little Communist. He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights.”

Don’t dare tell that to Frank Rich.

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