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Death and Politics

On the use and abuse of grief as a partisan weapon.

Feb 28, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 23 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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Death and Politics

What’s in a political death? Whatever you want or need to see in it. Some deaths​—​those of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley​—​mean what they seem to, and are taken accordingly. But others​—​the assassinations of John and of Robert F. Kennedy and the attempted assassination on January 8, 2011, of Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords​—​become points of entry into realms of distortion, in which facts are misread, causes mistaken, conclusions jumped to, guilt wrongly assigned. When did this begin? It started in Dallas, with John Kennedy’s murder. Why did it happen? Because people see what they expect that they will see, not things that contradict their assumptions​—​and other people want to use those assumptions for their own ends. James Piereson, in his remarkable book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, recounts in detail what went on.

Late in 1963, resistance in some parts of the South to the racial integration being pushed by the federal government had become angry and violent: Blood had been shed, people beaten and threatened and murdered. At the same time the John Birch Society, which believed Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower were guilty of treason, had become confrontational: In Dallas, U.N. ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson was spat on and pushed. So when President Kennedy was shot dead in Dallas only weeks after the Stevenson incident, the initial assumption that he had been killed by a segregationist and/or a right-winger seemed only logical and was therefore widely held. The strange thing was that it remained widely held even after the killer was revealed to be Lee Harvey Oswald, a supporter of Castro’s Cuba who had opposed segregation and who hated Kennedy not because he was a liberal who pursued “social justice,” but because he was a hawk who opposed the Communist powers and had forced the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba during the missile crisis of October 1962. As Piereson notes, these facts failed to derail the narrative, which simply rolled over and went on without them. There were seven major reasons they failed to take hold:

First, the political violence of the time had come from the right and from segregationists; domestic Communists were viewed as apt to be spies, not killers. Second, the Cold War had thawed since the missile crisis had ended, and no one wished to re-chill it. Third, no one wanted to revive the McCarthy era, during which Tail Gunner Joe had wreaked hell on both parties. Fourth, Jacqueline Kennedy, emotionally invested in the civil rights movement, modeled her husband’s funeral on Abraham Lincoln’s to drive home her belief that the two men had died for much the same causes. Fifth, Kennedy was a Democrat (if a centrist one), and the idea that he had been killed by a left-wing instead of a right-wing fanatic created cognitive dissonance. Sixth, resistance to integration had been both so intense and so violent that when the president was killed in a Southern state at a critical point in the struggle, it was incomprehensible to many Americans who were neither liberals nor Democrats that it could have arisen from any other cause. Finally, the real truth contained contradictions that would have both confused the mourners and defused the emotional moment: The segregationists had done horrible things, but not this horrible thing. And Lee Harvey Oswald was neither a racist nor a bigot but a man who supported the civil rights movement: possibly the only one among Kennedy’s causes of which he might have approved. 

Deprived of the villain the moment required, the culture looked for a blameworthy object, and came up with the “climate of hate”: If the killer wasn’t urged on by the appropriate motive, he could still be said to be moved by it somehow, as if anger could flow freely from one cause to another, and the fury stirred up against forced integration could drive even a Marxist to kill. Hate was contagious, and if the far right was not guilty, it could still be at fault: People acknowledged Oswald’s Communist background while placing the real blame elsewhere. “The cultural and political understanding of the assassination had become detached from the details of the event,” as Piereson puts it. Opinion makers “acknowledged in November of 1963 that Kennedy had been shot by a Communist, but said at the same time that he was a victim of bigotry .  .  . or of the radical right, or (more broadly) of a deep violent streak in the nation. Oswald shot the president but was not responsible for it. Prominent liberal figures said this openly and repeatedly with the entire nation listening in.”

With Oswald himself an unsatisfactory object of loathing, the search was on for a substitute villain, most often someone the mourners already despised. “The president’s men showed as much bitterness toward Texas as they did toward Lee Harvey Oswald,” writes Jeff Shesol in Mutual Contempt, the story of the feud between Lyndon Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy. “More than misplaced grief, it articulated deeply held antagonisms that lingered for years.” Large, coarse, and vulgar (as opposed to the reserved, slender Kennedy), thought (in those days) to be a conservative, a symbol of the state in which the crime happened, and the one man who visibly stood to gain from the murder, President Johnson was soon the object of rage deflected from the actual killer. 

Chief mourner Robert F. Kennedy viewed LBJ from the start as an unworthy usurper, and even a guilty one, looking at him as Hamlet looked at Claudius or the sons of Duncan at Macbeth. Consciously or not, he would deliver himself of a remarkable paraphrase of Hamlet’s comparison of his father to Claudius: “Our president was a gentleman and a human being, .  .  . this man is not. He’s mean, bitter, vicious​—​an animal in many ways.” This feeling was not uncommon among the late president’s fans. The first draft of William Manchester’s Death of a President opened with a scene that placed Johnson with a shotgun in John Kennedy’s presence, forcing Kennedy, during a visit to his ranch down in Texas, to join him in shooting a deer. “Some critics may write that the unconscious argument is that Johnson killed Kennedy,” as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. told Manchester’s editor, that he was “an expression of the forces of violence and irrationality which ran rampant through his native state.” This theme was expressed undisguised in the drama MacBird! by Barbara Garson, in which Johnson (Macbeth) kills John Kennedy (Duncan), and is killed in the end not by MacDuff but by Robert F. Kennedy. The play ran in New York for 386 performances between February 22, 1967, and January 21, 1968. By that time, Johnson was viewed by the left as a war criminal, and he and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were at open political war.

By the time Robert Kennedy himself was shot in June 1968, assassination sadly had lost its shock value, but the template for shifting blame had survived. The killing was ascribed once again to a “climate of violence,” which this time was nationwide and much more pervasive than it had been five years earlier, the circumscribed resistance to desegregation having given way to a national rupture over culture and mores and the war being waged in Vietnam. 

Once again, the assassin​—​a Palestinian activist named Sirhan Sirhan​—​was not in fact moved by the larger political wars but was wholly obsessed with Middle East issues. His complaint against Kennedy was that he had promised to sell jet bombers to Israel; Sirhan had vowed to kill him before the first anniversary of the Six Day War. In some ways his obsessions mirrored those of Lee Harvey Oswald: His notebooks, Piereson says, were filled with “pro-communist, anti-capitalist, and anti-United States” sentiments, and notes of support for Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, an anti-Western Third World demagogue known in some circles as “the Castro of the Middle East.” 

As Piereson writes,

Liberals understood the Kennedys in terms of their domestic liberalism, but Oswald and Sirhan judged them in relation to their foreign policies. .  .  . There was indeed a climate of lawlessness .  .  . but Sirhan’s act was quite unrelated to it. Assassins do not always strike according to the logic of popular opinion or the political narratives of pundits and scholars. It might be more justly said that Sirhan was the first of a wave of terrorists from the Middle East to strike out against the United States.

The view of both of the Kennedys was filtered through the myths that attended their murders, making them liberal martyrs to political hatred in this country, instead of two men killed by America’s enemies for trying to safeguard their allies and countrymen. This was not without consequence. “By this route,” Piereson says, “the excessively idealistic version of liberalism that earned the rebuke of all the leading postwar liberals in the 1950s, including Kennedy himself on many occasions, .  .  . moved into the mainstream of liberal thought.”

In 1964 and 1965, Lyndon Johnson used the grief and guilt from the death of John Kennedy to push through Congress the historic Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, which had faced obstructions during the president’s lifetime but after his murder would breeze through with ease. In 2002, when Paul Wellstone, his wife, daughter, and aides died in an accident, Democrats tried to leverage grief into success in the midterm elections. (“Before long, Democrats may view Paul Wellstone’s death in a plane crash as the beginning of their resurrection,” Jonathan Alter would say.) Even before this, a template had been laid down for how to turn a personal loss to a political gain. “Most of these tragedies did not come about because of the fanaticism of one man,” Drew Pearson wrote in the wake of the JFK murder. “They came about because powerful influence molders in the nation had preached disrespect for the government and the man in the White House who symbolized [it].” But Oswald didn’t have disrespect for the government. And in certain hands, “disrespect for the government” could be read to mean “disrespect for the party of government,” or for any act of the government the party in power proposed. 

And so in April 1995, when a federal office building in Oklahoma City was blown up by domestic terrorists, killing 168 people and injuring hundreds of others, Bill Clinton, who six months before had lost both houses of Congress to Republicans vowing to cut back the government, knew just how to handle it: link talk radio and the Republican House to the catastrophe as part and parcel of an inescapable “climate of hate.” Antigovernment talk​—​coming from Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and various others​—​had reached the ears of unstable people and moved them to violence. “There’s nothing patriotic about hating your country, or pretending you can love your country but despise your government,” Clinton said, equating “the government” with his own agenda, and his political critics with “dangerous” speech. This was the start of the Clinton recovery, taking him from the irrelevant state he was in after the 1994 campaign to his reelection two years later. “Temporary gain: boost in ratings. .  .  . Permanent possible gain: sets up Extremist issue vs. Republicans,” was how pollster Dick Morris framed the issue in a memo to Clinton. 

So successful did this prove for Clinton that in 2010 some Democrats argued that another disaster was just what Obama needed to regain his footing after his midterm “shellacking.” “No one wants the country to suffer another catastrophe” like Oklahoma City or 9/11, Time’s Mark Halperin wrote after the 2010 midterms, while implying that one was just what the president needed. “President Clinton reconnected with Oklahoma [City],” Clinton’s pollster Mark Penn said to MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. “Obama needs a similar kind of .  .  . yeah.”

And so, the blood had not dried on the pavement in Tucson before the old template kicked in. “They need to deftly pin this on the Tea Partiers, just like the Clinton White House deftly pinned the Oklahoma City bombing on the militia and the anti-government people,” a “veteran Democrat” told Politico. And they certainly tried. Before anyone knew who the assailant was, Pima County sheriff Clarence Dupnik (a Democrat), who was investigating the shootings, said that his state had become a “Mecca for prejudice,” condemning “the vitriol that comes out of certain mouths about tearing down the government​—​the anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on.” It was Dallas all over again. “Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ blood is on Sarah Palin’s hands,” pronounced the New York Daily News the day after the shooting, because Palin’s website during the 2010 midterms had “targeted” Gifford’s district as one of several picked out as vulnerable because in 2008 John McCain carried it. Jonathan Alter revisited the Wellstone memorial, suggesting a wounded Representative Giffords could be a potent political force. 

Was there a “climate of violence”? There was of a sort​—​stemming from the hot-button law against illegal immigrants, signed by the Republican governor. Was there an assailant who was unconcerned with these issues? Yes. Jared Loughner, the 22-year-old killer, was to all appearances a paranoid schizophrenic, who lacked even the ideological motives of an Oswald or Sirhan, and was closer in type to John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan, Mark David Chapman, who murdered John Lennon, and Dennis Sweeney, who shot former congressman Allard K. Lowenstein because he believed sinister forces were controlling his thoughts through his teeth. Loughner was moved to shoot Giffords not because of any stand or votes she had taken but because she had failed to answer to his satisfaction an incomprehensible question (not about politics) he had asked her in 2007. 

When the criminal failed to fit the preferred story line​—​to be a conservative, a Tea Partier, or an anti-immigrant activist​—​was a substitute villain located? You -betcha. With the actual criminal being unfit for his purpose, Sarah Palin was drafted instead. Did this defy reason, like the “belief” that Lyndon Johnson killed Kennedy? Yes, but who cared? Two days after the shooting, a rare sensible guest on Hardball​—​Brian Levin, an expert on extremism from California State University​—​told a disappointed Chris Matthews that Jared Loughner’s act had not been political, and he had not been influenced by Palin, or Limbaugh, or anyone else. “Ideology is the gift-wrapping on the pathology,” Levin said. “He might have been a school shooter .  .  . he would have gone after a Democrat or a Republican who .  .  . was not being part of his belief system.” This did not stop Matthews and his other guests from talking for the next three weeks about Palin’s collusion, extending the blame to Rep. Michele Bachmann​—​who once said she wanted her followers “well armed” [with facts] and “dangerous” in debate.

Did cognitive dissonance, as well as hypocrisy, follow? If in 1963 the New York Times ran stories about Oswald’s Communist ties alongside stories that blamed right-wing hate-merchants for Kennedy’s murder, in 2011 the Times, the New Yorker, the New Republic, and other liberal outlets ran stories that conceded that the political right played no part in the shootings, while saying in the next paragraph that in some ways it did. “MSNBC was crucial in driving the narrative that the killer was egged on by violent political rhetoric, particularly by Palin,” Paul Bond wrote on January 27 in the Hollywood Reporter. “Even after it was learned that the shooter was an atheist, flag-burning, Bush-hating, 9/11 Truther who enjoyed joking about abortion .  .  . MSNBC still did not let up.” JFK torchbearer “Arthur Schlesinger, in his thousand page history of the Kennedy administration, could not bring himself to mention Oswald at all .  .  . but allocated several paragraphs to a description of Dallas’s hate-filled atmosphere,” as James Piereson tells us. And as Bond has it, “Four days after the shooting, the day Obama cautioned the nation to discuss the issue ‘with a good dose of humility rather than pointing fingers,’ MSNBC over the course of five hours mentioned Palin in connection with the massacre 166 times, while mentioning the alleged killer .  .  . only 18.”

But this time, however, the old template failed. People did not blame the bloodshed on a “climate of hate.” They did not think the assassin had been “given permission” to kill by talk radio or the Internet. A fairly small audience reads political blogs, and those who do take the frequent online calls to arms or to battle as the metaphorical speech that they are. In 1995, when Bill Clinton blamed Rush Limbaugh and the Tea Party’s forebears for inciting the Oklahoma City bombing, the Internet was in its infancy, and no counterattack had been possible. In 2011, the first attacks on Sarah Palin and her target map of the midterms had barely been leveled before conservative bloggers produced similar “target” maps made by Democrats, recalled incendiary remarks from the left, and reprinted frequent calls to (metaphorical) violence issued by liberal bloggers and TV and radio hosts. They also recalled the vitriolic attacks on George W. Bush when he was president, the blogs, films, and plays that had urged his assassination; the wistful appeals for the return of Lee Harvey Oswald; the hanging in effigy of Sarah Palin in a Hollywood enclave on Halloween 2008. 

In 1995, people hadn’t thought to connect the bombings to conservative boilerplate until Clinton raised the subject himself days later. In 2011, liberal bloggers and hosts were out of the gate so fast​—​and so crudely​—​that they generated a furious counterreaction, and the White House was forced, ever so gently, to calm them down. Obama won praise for his nice speech at Tucson, but did not get the Clintonesque lift his fans hoped for. Repetition, and crassness, had blunted the impact. The era of making hay out of horror may now be ending at last.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.

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