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Revisiting the Kennedy Assassination: Frank Rich and the Paranoid Style

Revisiting the Kennedy Assassination: Frank Rich and the Paranoid Style

By James Piereson - November 22, 2011

It has now been 48 years since President John F. Kennedy was cut down on the streets of Dallas by rifle shots fired by Lee Harvey Oswald, a self-described Marxist, recent defector to the Soviet Union, and ardent admirer of Fidel Castro. The evidence condemning Oswald was overwhelming: the bullets that killed President Kennedy were fired from his rifle, the rifle was found on the sixth floor of the warehouse where he worked and were he was seen moments before the shooting, and witnesses on the street described a man firing shots from that location. When a policeman stopped Oswald on foot to question him about the assassination, Oswald pulled out a pistol and shot him before fleeing to a nearby movie theater where he was arrested, still carrying the pistol with which he had killed the policeman. Two days later Oswald was himself assassinated while in police custody by a night club owner distraught over Kennedy's death. For understandable reasons, these events had a disorienting effect on the public mind.

For many who came of age during that era and were taken with Kennedy's style and idealistic rhetoric, his very public murder, recorded in amateur films and news photos, was a shock that they could never quite get over. Returning to it again and again as the years passed, they could not help but feel that the disasters that followed -- the war in Vietnam, the urban riots, the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Nixon's election -- were somehow connected to that irrational act of violence that claimed President Kennedy's life. If somehow the act could be undone or understood, or blame for it fairly apportioned and punishment meted out, then the world might again be set right, or at least partly so. But it could not be undone, and it proved nearly as difficult to understand or explain, at least in terms satisfactory to the assumptions of the age. And so before long the JFK assassination came to be encrusted in layers of myth, illusion, and disinformation strong enough to deflect every attempt to understand it from a rational point of view.

The central myth of the JFK assassination was that a climate of hate inspired by the far right created the conditions for President Kennedy's murder. A single assassin may have pulled the trigger, but he was put up to it by an undercurrent of hatred and bigotry that President Kennedy tried but failed to subdue. On this view President Kennedy was a martyr, somewhat like Abraham Lincoln, to the causes of civil rights, racial justice, and an elevated liberalism. JFK's assassination was a tragic but richly symbolic event for many Americans who saw it as a vivid expression of an ongoing battle in American life between the forces of light and darkness.

This explanation for the assassination did not drop out of thin air but was circulated immediately after the event by influential leaders, journalists, and journalistic outlets, including Mrs. Kennedy, President Johnson, Chief Justice Earl Warren, Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, James Reston, Russell Baker, and the editorial page of the New York Times, columnist Drew Pearson, and any number of other liberal spokesmen. Mrs. Kennedy took the lead in insisting that her husband was martyred by agents of hatred and bigotry. Within days of the assassination, she elaborated the symbolism of Camelot and King Arthur's court to frame the Kennedy presidency as a special and near-magical enterprise guided by the highest ideals. The eternal flame she placed on his grave site invokes King Arthur's candle in the wind as imagined by T. H. White in his Arthurian novel, The Once and Future King, later the basis of a Broadway musical that was popular during the Kennedy years.

These were the myths, illusions, and outright fabrications in which the Kennedy assassination came to be encrusted. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they are still widely believed. In fact, the Kennedy legend, incorporating the myths about his assassination, is closely intertwined with the history of modern liberalism: JFK has come to represent a liberal ideal and his assassination the threat posed to it by the forces of the far right.

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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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