The 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy is nearly upon us, and it feels as if Camelot has returned like Brigadoon. Many a navel is currently being gazed upon in the media in an attempt to wring some contemporary meaning out of JFK’s tragic end. Some of this was inevitable—the shelves of The Weekly Standard’s book section are straining under the weight of the latest conspiracy tomes—but an unsettling amount of the commentary has amounted to taking an American tragedy and using it as an excuse for partisan jeremiads.
On October 11, the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote an essay, “The John Birchers’ Tea Party,” dedicated to chronicling how Dallas in 1963 was “clotted . . . with right-wing types in the period before Kennedy’s fatal visit.” The not-so-subtle implication is that this played a role in JFK’s death, and that these same right-wing crazies are alive and well in American politics today. A week later, Gopnik’s New Yorker colleague George Packer did him one better by filing a dispatch from Dallas that advanced this thesis even more explicitly:
Oswald was an avowed Marxist, which might seem to absolve the city’s right wing of any responsibility. But [the book] “Dallas 1963” places the assassin in context as a malleable, unstable figure breathing the city’s extraordinarily feverish air. . . .
American politics today isn’t haunted by the same fear of sudden, shattering violence. But, as for nut country, it’s migrated from the John Birch Society bookstores to the halls of Congress, where angry talk of socialism and impeachment is almost routine. Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Louie Gohmert are the spiritual descendants of [billionaire oilman H.L. Hunt and right-wing zealot General Edwin Walker]. Fifty years later, Dallas would like to move on from Dealey Plaza. This is normal and right. What’s holding it back is the Republican Party.
Connecting a line between Ted Cruz and the assassination of a president that occurred before the 42-year-old senator was born is laughable at best, not to say a falsification of history. A recent George Will column noted that Jacqueline Kennedy didn’t seem too confused about who her husband’s killer was. “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It’s—it had to be some silly little Communist,” she said shortly after her husband’s death. Also telling is the fact that a spokesman for the Soviet Union, seeking to divert attention from Lee Harvey Oswald’s defection and two-year sojourn in Minsk, rushed to lay blame on “Barry Goldwater and other extremists on the right.”
Now The Scrapbook, along with most sane people, is happy to grant that Oswald’s questionable mental state probably bears the bulk of the responsibility for the shooting. But it says something that contemporary liberals are so quick to shift the blame for violence to the opposite end of the political spectrum whenever communism might be the more relevant topic to examine. Of course, the left has never been that troubled by violence in the service of left-wing causes. After all, Columbia University recently gave Kathy Boudin, a member of the Weather Underground and convicted murderer, a teaching position. And Robert Redford just made a film about the plight of Boudin and her violent fellow travelers.
At the very least, we hope that Packer and Gopnik realize how passé their argument is. It was prevalent in 1963 and has been periodically revived ever since. In 2011, Frank Rich wrote a tortured essay for New York magazine lamely connecting the same dots. This pseudo-conspiracy has even received the imprimatur of the Kennedy family. Shortly after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, as the media rushed en masse to slanderously pin it on the Tea Party, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. chimed in with the claim that “Uncle Jack’s” death was a result of right-wing talk radio in Dallas and the suggestion that the “hate merchants at Fox News” might bear responsibility for Giffords’s shooting. We’ll give the left this: They are peerless finger-pointers.
So long as we’re pondering the effects of “breathing extraordinarily feverish air,” it might behoove Packer and his colleagues straining to pin the Kennedy assassination on the political right to check the ventilation systems in their own newsrooms.