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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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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.”

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