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Revisiting the Kennedy Assassination: Frank Rich and the Paranoid Style

By James Piereson - November 22, 2011

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It is hard to fathom, in this age of secular rationality, that so many people can believe a tale so obviously contradicted by the facts. President Kennedy, to the extent he was a martyr at all, was a martyr in the Cold War struggle against communism. Oswald was not in any way, shape, or form a product of a "climate of hate" as found in Dallas or anywhere else in the United States. Nor was Oswald a bigot; he supported the civil rights movement and attended meetings in Dallas of the American Civil Liberties Union. Seven months before he shot President Kennedy, in April, 1963, he took a shot (and missed) at retired Gen. Edwin Walker, the head of the Dallas chapter of the John Birch Society. He married a Russian woman, and longed to return to the Soviet Union. In the months leading up to the assassination, he was active in a front group supporting Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba. Two months before the assassination, he travelled to Mexico City to visit the Soviet and Cuban embassies in pursuit of a visa that would allow him to travel to Cuba. In one of those visits he threatened the life of President Kennedy. His motives in shooting President Kennedy were undoubtedly linked to a wish to protect Castro against efforts by the Kennedy administration to overturn his government. It was not publicly known in 1963 that the Kennedy administration (in an expression of hard-headed real politik) was trying to assassinate Castro. But it is possible that Oswald was aware of these clandestine plans.

In the latest effort to recycle the Camelot myths, Frank Rich has published a delusional article in New York Magazine under the title, "What Killed JFK: The Hate That Ended His Presidency is Eerily Familiar" in which he draws a straight line from Kennedy's assassination to imagined threats against President Obama arising from conservatives and the tea party movement. The occasion for Mr. Rich's ruminations is a review of several recently published books about President Kennedy and the assassination, including one by Stephen King in which the novelest dispatches a time traveller on a mission to intercept Oswald before he can commit his deed so that history might be redirected on a more hopeful path. Mr. King, however is a writer of fiction and thus entitled to invent his facts. Mr. Rich, as a journalist, does not have the same license.

His tortured logic runs like this: President Kennedy was a victim of hatred coming from the far right; President Obama ran for election in 2008 as a reincarnation of JFK, supported by surviving members of the Kennedy family; his mission was to restore the ideals of Camelot, and thus to reinvigorate liberalism; now he is the target of the same vitriol from the right that brought down Kennedy. Therefore, the tea party movement, the far right, and conservatives in general are dangers to the public welfare. It is probably useless to point out to Mr. Rich that none of the things he believes about Kennedy or the Kennedy assassination is remotely true so that none of them has anything to do with the politics of the present time.

The late Richard Hofstadter, writing about the Kennedy assassination in 1964, coined the term "the paranoid style in American politics" to describe a mindset prone to concocting conspiracies and to connecting events by tenuous threads of logic and evidence. Hofstadter was thinking primarily of the far right, mostly anti-communists, when he developed this insight, though he cited applications to the far left as well. In retrospect, the Kennedy assassination was an event though which the paranoid-style was grafted on to modern liberalism, thereby giving to it a conspiratorial, and irrational outlook, particularly where "the right" is concerned. Mr. Rich's depiction of "the right" as a menace and a public danger is not that far removed from the portrayal of communism as a threat to the republic among the followers of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. In keeping to this script, Mr. Rich invents a series of "facts" about the Kennedy assassination and then lists them in an indicment of conservatives as parties to the crime. It is a near textbook application of the paranoid style.

It was wrong for national leaders in 1963 to fabricate a tale of President Kennedy's assassination that deflected responsibility from the real assassin to a group of Americans who had nothing to do with the event and who played no role in the president's death. In concocting a story that fit comfortably with the assumptions of the time, even though it was at variance with the facts, they sowed the seeds for distrust and division in the body politic that are still with us today. Mr. Rich is only rewriting and revising a script that was first written in 1963.

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James Piereson is president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute.

James Piereson

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