THE NEW YORK TIMES
November 30, 2011
A Stephen King Thriller: What Motivated Oswald?
To the Editor:
I wouldn't presume to argue with Ross Douthat's negative appraisal of the Kennedy presidency ("The Enduring Cult of Kennedy," column, Nov. 27), although labeling those who view that presidency in a favorable light as cultists seems rather shrill, and I won't bother arguing with his characterization of John F. Kennedy as a cold warrior who would have only deepened our involvement in Vietnam, because in light of Kennedy's murder, such a conclusion is blatant speculation.
What I do argue with is his assertion that Lee Harvey Oswald killed the president because of Oswald's Marxist beliefs, and the concomitant conclusion that the highly volatile political atmosphere of Dallas (and the entire Deep South) thus had nothing to do with his actions. This is as ridiculous as the old canard that guns don't kill people, people kill people.
Like many conservative writers who look at that day in Dallas, Mr. Douthat has concentrated on Oswald's political actions and statements, and ignored the man's severely damaged personality. Conspiracies like the one that resulted in the death of Abraham Lincoln, or the one that almost resulted in the death of Hitler are political.
Lone gunmen like Oswald act for other reasons, no matter what they may say in an effort to look rational. If Oswald really was politically motivated, why did he not take responsibility for the murder at some point during the 40 hours between his arrest and his own death at the hands of Jack Ruby? Surely if his prime motivation had been political, he would have thrown up his hands and said, "Yes, it was me, I rid the world of the capitalist warmonger." (Timothy McVeigh is a good case in point for this sort of behavior.)
Oswald's Communist beliefs were never more than skin-deep. His real interest was in being viewed as a rebel, an extraordinary fellow who could see the real truth when those all about him were blindfolded. The most important figure in his life was his domineering mother, Marguerite, in whose bed he slept until he was 11 and who alternately praised and belittled him.
When he read "Das Kapital" while on post with the Marines in the Pacific or tried to "organize" his fellow workers in various low-paying jobs, he was acting out the rebellion of which he was incapable with his mother. When he was handing out Fair Play for Cuba leaflets in New Orleans, he was also vacationing from his wife.
Oswald's guiding star wasn't Marxism or Communism but the true American cult: renown. He defected to the Soviet Union because he believed that it would make him famous, even exalted. When the Soviet bureaucracy allowed him to stay, but put him to work in a Minsk factory just another prole sticking vacuum tubes in radios he became disenchanted with Communism and worked to come back to America. Before landing in Dallas, he instructed his wife, Marina, on how they should respond to the hordes of reporters who would want to talk to them. When there were no reporters, he was furious.
Like many disturbed personalities who fix on political causes, Oswald was a malleable creature who always saw nirvana just beyond the next bend in the road. His infatuation with Russia morphed into an infatuation with Cuba. His Fair Play for Cuba "organization" existed solely in a few post office boxes and his own grandiose imagination. Still, it got him some of what he wanted: media notice, a brief stint in jail and attention, attention, attention.
In Dallas, he drew the regard (through his Russian wife, which must have galled him) of a minor Central Intelligence Agency asset and major dilettante named George de Mohrenschildt, who found the skinny Southerner amusing and decided to wind him up. It was de Mohrenschildt a self-interested political chameleon, the very spirit of Dallas who pointed Oswald at the far-right segregationist Edwin Walker, and it was de Mohrenschildt who changed Oswald's mind about Kennedy, whom Oswald had at first fervently admired as a standard-bearer for the nascent civil rights movement.
De Mohrenschildt knew that Cuba was Oswald's new city on the hill, and so he, de Mohrenschildt, harped on Kennedy's efforts to oust Fidel Castro, by fair means or foul. In the end, I would argue, Oswald killed J.F.K. when all his other efforts at making headlines had failed.
To say that the overheated atmosphere of Dallas played no part in Oswald's final and probably spur-of-the-moment decision to shoot from that sixth-floor window is a beautiful example of the conservative determination to avoid the obvious at all costs. Mr. Douthat might as well assert that Squeaky Fromme or Sara Jane Moore tried to assassinate President Gerald R. Ford for political reasons. That was not the case with them, and it wasn't the case with Oswald. Lone shooters do what they do because they are damaged people, and damaged people are uniquely susceptible to the environment in which they exist.
If Oswald had been truly political, we might discount the thundercloud that coalesced over John F. Kennedy on that day in Dallas. Because Oswald was not truly political, we cannot. Damaged, dangerous people like Lee Harvey Oswald are loaded guns; the combination of hatred and political extremism is the trigger.
Bangor, Me., Nov. 28, 2011
The writer is the author, most recently, of "11/22/63."
THE NEW YORK TIMES
November 26, 2011
The Enduring Cult of Kennedy
By ROSS DOUTHAT
THE cult of John F. Kennedy has the resilience of a horror-movie villain. No matter how many times the myths of Camelot are seemingly interred by history, they always come shambling back to life in another television special, another Vanity Fair cover story, another hardcover hagiography.
It's fitting, then, that the latest exhumation comes courtesy of Stephen King himself. King serves a dual role in our popular culture: He's at once the master of horror and the bard of the baby boom, writing his way through the twilit borderlands where the experiences of the post-World War II generation are stalked by nightmares and shadowed by metaphysical dread.
In this landscape, the death of J.F.K. looms up like the Overlook Hotel. The gauzy fantasy of the Kennedy White House endures precisely because the reality of the assassination still feels like a primal catastrophe an irruption of inexplicable evil as horrifying as any supernatural bogeyman.
At its best, King's new Kennedy assassination novel, "11/22/63" which sends its protagonist back in time to change that November day's events offers an implicit critique of this generational obsession. (I am not giving much away when I reveal that the time-traveling hero does not succeed in freeing '60s America from the cruel snares of history.) But its narrative power still depends on accepting the false premises of the Kennedy cult premises that will no doubt endure so long as the 1960s generation does, but still deserve to be challenged at every opportunity.
The first premise is that Kennedy was a very good president, and might have been a great one if he'd lived. Few serious historians take this view: It belongs to Camelot's surviving court stenographers, and to popularizers like Chris Matthews, whose new best seller "Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero" works hard to gloss over the thinness of the 35th president's actual accomplishments. Yet there is no escaping the myth's hold on the popular imagination. In Gallup's "greatest president" polling, J.F.K. still regularly jostles with Lincoln and Reagan for the top spot.
In reality, the kindest interpretation of Kennedy's presidency is that he was a mediocrity whose death left his final grade as "incomplete." The harsher view would deem him a near disaster ineffective in domestic policy, evasive on civil rights and a serial blunderer in foreign policy, who barely avoided a nuclear war that his own brinksmanship had pushed us toward. (And the latter judgment doesn't even take account of the medical problems that arguably made him unfit for the presidency, or the adulteries that eclipsed Bill Clinton's for sheer recklessness.)
The second false premise is that Kennedy would have kept us out of Vietnam. Or as a character puts it in "11/22/63," making the case for killing Lee Harvey Oswald: "Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives."
Actually, it would be more accurate to describe the Vietnam War as Kennedy's darkest legacy. His Churchillian rhetoric ("pay any price, bear any burden ...") provided the war's rhetorical frame as surely as George W. Bush's post-9/11 speeches did for our intervention in Iraq. His slow-motion military escalation established the strategic template that Lyndon Johnson followed so disastrously. And the war's architects were all Kennedy people: It was the Whiz Kids' mix of messianism and technocratic confidence, not Oswald's fatal bullet, that sent so many Americans to die in Indochina.
The third myth is that Kennedy was a martyr to right-wing unreason. Writing on J.F.K. in the latest issue of New York magazine, Frank Rich half-acknowledges the mediocrity of Kennedy's presidency. But he cannot resist joining a generation of liberals in drawing a connection between the right-wing "atmosphere of hate" in early-1960s Dallas and the assassination itself and then linking both to today's anti-Obama zeal. Neither can King, whose "11/22/63" explicitly compares right-wing Dallas to his own fictional territory of Derry, Me. home of the murderous Pennywise the Clown from "It," among other demons.
This connection is the purest fantasy, made particularly ridiculous by the fact that both Rich and King acknowledge that Oswald was a leftist a pro-Castro agitator whose other assassination target was the far-right segregationist Edwin Walker. The idea that an atmosphere of right-wing hate somehow inspired a Marxist radical to murder a famously hawkish cold war president is even more implausible than the widespread suggestion that the schizophrenic Jared Lee Loughner shot his congresswoman because Sarah Palin put some targets on an online political map.
This last example suggests why the J.F.K. cult matters because its myths still shape how we interpret politics today. We confuse charisma with competence, rhetoric with results, celebrity with genuine achievement. We find convenient scapegoats for national tragedies, and let our personal icons escape the blame. And we imagine that the worst evils can be blamed exclusively on subterranean demons, rather than on the follies that often flow from fine words and high ideals.