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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.”

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