An American president, feted as the inviolable creature of Camelot, accompanied by a pristine, porcelain wife and a sense of opportunity, is felled by an assassin while touring Dallas on November 22, 1963. John F. Kennedy needed to make a showing in Texas ahead of the next presidential campaign. To carry Texas, much work would have to be done to stay tensions within the Democrats in that state. Instead of a rise in the polls, he got two bullets, supposedly fired by Lee Harvey Oswald.
It has been fifty years and little has changed since the assassination. The Kennedy script has been elaborated upon, redrawn, re-dramatised and reworked. Fittingly, his death was dealt with as his life, a public relations montage of supposition and suggestion. All of them end up in a cul-de-sac by design, because there is, at the end of this, no worked out solution, or at the very least, a solution that is deemed feasible. Neither the general public, nor many of the specialists engaged in the Kennedy industry, would tolerate it. Conspiracy theories tend to offer curious comfort.
The occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination is auspicious. 75 years ago, Orson Welles jabbed and prodded the American public with his broadcast in an adaptation of H. G. Well’s War of the Worlds (1898). Martians had become a reality – at least to the terrified listeners. American society was been terrorised by imagination on the air ways. Paranoids shall always have their day.
Richard Hoftstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” (1964) remains the masterwork on the subject of how studied obstinacy tends to get in the way of sober analysis. “American politics,” he observers, “has often been an arena for angry minds.” Hofstadter is quick to note that this paranoia is not specific to a particular political wing, nor is it even the product of lunacy per se. It suffuses the fabric; soaks through the debates of American cultural and political life. “It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.”
Conspiracy thrives in such an environment. As Hofstadter points out, conspiracy finds form in Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist mania in the 1950s. It takes shape in the manifesto signed by various leaders of the Populist party in 1895, which proclaimed that, “As early as 1865-66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America.” It is expressed, rather colourfully, by a Texas newspaper article from 1855 that accepts the “notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions.”
Publications on that fateful day have proliferated, just as they always do around anniversary periods. Like stuffed and fragrant bouquets that arrive at the silver or golden jubilee, we can always expect an abundance of floral tribute. JFK mania fills the shelves, a publisher’s excuse for quick sales and loose thinking.
Speculating about the death of the American president has become a digest of talking heads, a registry of hypotheses. None, in the end, are that relevant, because a solution to the conundrum irrelevant and undesirable. The very suggestion that a solution might be found is deemed absurd in advance.
Central to these assumptions is a vital premise: nothing can be trusted, however accurate it might be. In 2003, an ABC News Poll found that 70 percent of Americans believed that some broader plot lay behind Kennedy’s killing. In the History Channel documentary JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide, the percentage is even higher: 80 percent.
The Warren Commission is the piece de resistance on this. Its existence is that of the vital bogeyman, the mother of necessity. Ostensibly established to investigate the circumstances of Kennedy’s killing, it was, in the standard sceptic’s account, created to conceal, to sift through material only to bury it. There is invariably going to be some truth to such claims: commissions are created less to shed light than control the type of beam shone on the subject matter. Its 1964 report has been under heavy fire every since.
The Warren Commission remains the target of numerous portrayals, either directly, or by implication. Oliver Stone’s JFK in 1991 is particularly ruthless in how it dispatches the findings of the Commission, but he was already tilling a used and very crowded paddock, one filled with Cubans, vengeful CIA agents, the FBI, LBJ and the mob.
By the 1970s, it was acceptable to mock the findings of a body that had become part caricature and part Big Foot. The supposed plot behind the assassination is given form in Executive Drama (1973), featuring Robert Ryan as a wealthy businessman and his efforts in leading a group of oilmen and conservatives to rid the country of Camelot’s presence. Alan J. Pakulka’s The Parallax View (1974) focuses on clandestine committees doing dirty deeds against democracy in the killing of an independent minded senator. Warren Beatty, the reporter who attempts to shed light among the shadows, is a paranoid who turns out to be right. Reporter becomes the reported, the writer who makes the news.
Then comes the claim made by comedy. Woody Allen does so as the character of Alvy Singer in Annie Hall (1977). Oswald, he conjectures, did not work alone – there had to have been another assassin at work. His lover’s reaction: “You’re using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid sex with me.”
One of this year’s better efforts must be the comedian Stephen Colbert, who decided to link the shooting with the historical trajectory of syphilis. “Historically, syphilis is right up there with the German. It wiped out the Romanovs. It decimated our fleet at Pearl Harbour. And of course, Fidel Castro impersonated Marilyn Monroe and gave President Kennedy a case of syphilis so severe that eventually it blew the back of his head off.”
The popularisation of the assassination motif, riddled with cinematography, forensics, politics, mythology, is the perfect subject matter for the sitcom Seinfeld, which lampoons the entire discussion about the Kennedy shooting through the prism of the “magic loogie”. As Ian Crouch discusses in his New Yorker piece (Nov 22), “There is something darkly comedic, and readily mockable, about the conspiracy theorist considered as a type: the lonerism, the eager dot-connecting, and thinly-veiled death curiosity masked by a supposed quest for the truth.”
Another narrative that has gotten some purchase is that of the accidental shooting. Conspiracy, in this view, is strong drink watered down. The documentary JFK: The Smoking Gun, runs with the line of accident, bumbling and a desperate cover-up. The program features the investigative handiwork of Australian police detective Colin McClaren. His conclusion: the moral wound was caused by the accidental discharge of a weapon in the possession of the Secret Service.
Like much in the Kennedy death saga, this is not new. Howard Donahue spent two decades on the subject and his work became the subject of Bonar Menninger’s 1992 book Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK. The Secret Service was implicated – a seedy Agent George Hickey (who had been drinking the night before) had, in a nervous jolt, pulled the trigger of AR-15 as he was trying to identify the origins of the initial shots from the Texas School Book Depository. The ensuing cover-up, involving individuals as high as Robert Kennedy, occurred to save face: it would hardly seem appropriate to have the US president killed by one of his protectors. Evidence was lost or destroyed. Witnesses were not called.
The theory has not had the traction of others. Rufus W. Youngblood, responsible for the Secret Service detail protecting Vice President Lyndon Johnson that day, claimed in the Georgia Tech alumni magazine in 1992 that the theory was “ridiculous”.
Because of its innocuousness, because it is seemingly devoid of malice and filled with human error, such an account is bound to prove unattractive. No one wants to embrace an idea that sees the killing of a prince because of the negligence of a courtier. Dark forces and motives must be imputed.
The end result of this pondering: no one wants to know how the president actually died, let alone the circumstances behind his slaying. His killing will never be accepted as accidental – even in part. Lee Harvey Oswald could not have worked alone – great events cannot be the outcome of little men. Nor is the ordinary ever tolerable. The paradox in American mythology is that the embrace of a fierce individualism invariably leads to a fear of collectively engineered conspiracy.