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The afternoon of November 22, 1963, found the two of us—my college roommate and I—on a turnpike outside Albany, headed west. We stopped for gas. As I dealt with the attendant, he went into the station to buy something—I don't remember what but I bet he does. He returned to the car slowly and silently. "They got him," he said.
There was no radio in my old Studebaker so we made a plan: to get to Syracuse in time to stop at a motel and watch the evening news. There would be nothing but news for the next four days, but it was too soon for that to have sunk in.
Last week the Tribune published a George Will column arguing that an inconvenient fact suppressed by doctrine and emotion is that John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a Communist. He did not die because reactionary nativists and plutocrats hated him. He did not die because arch-segregationists hated him. He died—if it can be said he died for any reason beyond getting in the sights of a misfit ex-marine—because Fidel Castro hated him.
But that was unacceptable to liberals—both on November 22 and the days afterward and for years to come. Will notes that the New York Times promptly offered its own explanation in the editorial "Spiral of Hate": at fault was "the spirit of madness and hate that struck down" Kennedy, for which all Americans must bear the "shame." Comments Will, "Hitherto a doctrine of American celebration and optimism, liberalism would now become a scowling indictment: Kennedy was killed by America's social climate whose sickness required 'punitive liberalism.'" Liberals became scolds, and scolds they would remain.
This isn't a new idea and Will doesn't pretend it is. He has dusted off as his bible a much debated 2007 book by James Piereson called Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. I've read only bits and pieces of Piereson's book online, so my fire isn't aimed there. But Will's column puzzles me.
First of all, the book is six years old and the events it examines half a century past, so why is Will bringing them up now? What is he trying to say about our present difficulties in Washington, which he does not address at all but which, I suppose, if looked at in a certain way through the right tinted lenses, could be called another moment of punitive liberal scolding? Certainly there is no shortage of liberals who believe President Obama, Washington, and the country are beset by right-wing madness and hate. A friend who recently made the trip tells me that if I were to drive south all the way to the Gulf listening to local talk radio stations, the din of ignorant rage would curl my toes.
"They got him," said my college roommate. There was a they, and it wasn't the same they that today's conspiracy theorists like to bandy about, and that Kevin Trudeau made a fortune off by writing books with titles like The Weight Loss Cure "They" Don't Want You to Know About and Free Money "They" Don't Want You to Know About.
"In the months leading up to President Kennedy's trip to Dallas," Piereson allows in his book, "violent acts committed by representatives of the radical right seemed to be escalating. In May of 1963, Americans were horrified to see photos in the newspaper of police in Birmingham, Alabama, turning fire hoses and police dogs against civil rights demonstrators. In June of 1963, the civil rights leader and NAACP official Medgar Evers was assassinated by gunfire outside his home in Jackson, Mississippi. A week later, in a demonstration of sympathy, Kennedy met with the Evers family in the White House. A few months after that, in September, a bomb was set off in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young black girls. The Ku Klux Klan was linked both to the Evers shooting and to the Birmingham bombing.
"This latter attack occurred barely two weeks after the historic civil rights march in Washington D.C., where on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King delivered his historic 'I Have a Dream' speech, and only a week after George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, openly defied a federal court order to integrate the public schools of Birmingham."
In late October, Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visited Dallas to speak. He was met by chanting right-wing demonstrators, and "heckled during his formal remarks, jostled and spat upon by protesters as he tried to depart the auditorium where he spoke, and finally hit over the head with a cardboard placard." He told Kennedy to stay out of Dallas, and so did Chief Justice Earl Warren and Senator William Fullbright. "Dallas is a very dangerous place," Fullbright told Kennedy. A day or two before the president arrived, some 5,000 copies of a "Wanted for Treason" handbill, with Kennedy pictured both full-face and in profile, were circulated in the city. "He is turning the sovereignty of the U.S. over to the communist-controlled United Nations," said the bill of particulars. "He has given support and encouragement to the Communist inspired racial riots."
My roommate (and a ton of journalists) were wrong in 1963—wrong in roughly the same way Mike Royko and a ton of journalists were wrong in May of 1995. The federal building in Oklahoma City was blown up, and Royko wrote, "I would have no objection if we picked out a country that is a likely suspect and bombed some oil fields, refineries, bridges, highways, industrial complexes, airports, military bases, and anything else that is of great value but doesn't shelter innocent civilians. If it happens to be the wrong country, well, too bad, but it's likely it did something to deserve it anyway. Or would in the future." Syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer: "The indisputable fact is that it has every single earmark of the Islamic car-bombers of the Middle East—from the blowing up of the American Embassy in Beirut to the destruction of the Marine Corps barracks there." A.M. Rosenthal, New York Times: "Police do not know for certain whether the bombing is foreign terrorism or domestic. Either way, the fact remains that whatever we are doing to destroy Mideast terrorism, the chief terrorist threat against Americans, has not been working." Mike Barnicle, Boston Globe: "Listen to the president, the attorney general or the Oklahoma City mayor giving out casualty figures . . . and remember the soldiers slaughtered in a Somalia ambush or the Marines eviscerated in the Beirut barracks." Jim Hoagland, Washington Post: "While the public has been obsessed by each small detail of a sensational double-murder case in Los Angeles, relatively little attention has been devoted by the public—or the media—to the World Trade Center bombing trial now going on in New York, in which a clear and present campaign of terror against America as a nation is being sketched."
In a Hot Type column written in response, I recited these reactions, and more, and commented smugly, "A day later speculation on international terrorism was gone from the papers. Journalism and the rest of America had awakened to a homegrown rage adequate to the carnage." What these mistaken pundits had actually awakened to, well before the rest of the country, was the urgent need to confront international jihadi terrorism. The Oklahoma City bombing simply turned out not to be an example of this jihad: it had been perpetrated instead by—well, by right-wing crazies.
Americans who supported Kennedy and feared the right-wing crazies who might be lurking in Dallas didn't tell themselves, when he went there anyway and Lee Harvey Oswald shot him, "A communist nut did it so we need to rethink everything." The way they'd been primed to understand his death proved so irresistible that myth became the truth Piereson pointed out 44 years later wasn't actually true. Whether this myth caused liberalism to rot from within could make for a lively debate. But Will's mind is made up. After 1963, he writes, "to be a liberal would mean being a scold. Liberalism would become the doctrine of grievance groups owed redress for cumulative inherited injuries inflicted by the nation's tawdry history, toxic present and ominous future."
In fact, in Will's view, the rot was setting in even before the assassination. "Under Kennedy, liberalism began to become more stylistic than programmatic. After him—especially after his successor, Lyndon Johnson, drove to enactment the Civil Rights Acts, Medicare and Medicaid—liberalism became less concerned with material well-being than with lifestyle, and cultural issues such as feminism, abortion and sexual freedom."
This passing mention of civil rights legislation is the only suggestion that Will has even the dimmest memory of the most epochal, fundamental upheaval that the 1960s unleashed on America—the collapse of Jim Crow, which by November 1963 had barely begun. Does Will think the legislation Johnson then passed put Jim Crow straightaway in the dustbin—or should have—and the troubles that followed, such as the urban riots and rise of black power and George Wallace, and Nixon's triumphant southern strategy, and the fundamental realignment of American politics, can be laid to liberals being scolds?
Let's remember that Jim Crow was, to millions of Americans north and south, simply one of those lifestyle issues Will is dismissive about. "If it is doubtful what enduring benefits the Southern Negro would receive from the intervention of government on the scale needed to, say, integrate the schools in South Carolina," wrote William Buckley in 1961, "it is less doubtful what the consequences would be to the ideal of local government and the sense of community, ideals which I am not ready to abandon, even to kill Jim Crow." Buckley's hope was simply "that when the Negroes have finally realized their long dream of attaining to the status of the white man, the white man will still be free."
And Adlai Stevenson told Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in 1956 that, in Schlesinger's words, "the only Negro hope was to reduce tension and let the moderate-minded southerners assume local leadership and work out the problems of adjustment in a gradualist way." To Buckley and Stevenson, Jim Crow wasn't about violence, humiliation, and the denial of constitutional rights; it was about white people understandably reluctant to compromise a way of life that suited them fine. Sensible people in high places in every walk of life viewed the matter this way. That "historic civil rights march in Washington D.C." was opposed by both the Tribune and the Sun-Times, whose editorialists warned that all it would do was stir up trouble.
And what is feminism to Will—a lifestyle issue that has nothing to do with the material well-being of earning a living wage? What is abortion—a cultural issue? Abortion, last time I looked, was a debate over differing views of life and death. And if Medicare focused on material well-being, what's the focus of Obamacare and the considerably more popular Affordable Care Act? In dusting off a 2007 book in order to revisit an historical moment in 1963 when liberals laid Kennedy's assassination to "the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots" (Warren) and to "the violence of the extremists on the right" (the Times's James Reston), Will is amusing himself with a dollop of déjà vu: today isn't the first time liberals have accused a conservative fringe of being reckless and irresponsible Neanderthals. But the case he makes that we've heard it all before is the wrong case; wake me when he explains why the accusation isn't true.