June 7, 2007
Why are we still talking about it?
Two new books, totaling almost 2000 pages, about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, both by reputable authors, are in the book stores. Texas A&M University has released a 26-page study of the bullet fragments found in JFK’s car. And the online magazine Slate has devoted 2600 words to exploring the issues they raise about whether Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK on his own initiative or at someone else’s behest, and alone or with accomplices
It’s been 44 years since JFK was killed. You have to be going on sixty to have any first-hand recollection of the events. So why do scientists still study the killing? Why do publishers anticipate profit in bringing out books on it?
I think that what people have been seeking ever since November 22, 1963, has been not a second assassin but meaning.
I was not a big fan of John Kennedy, but the country felt different during those first three years of the ‘sixties. The combination of the soaring rhetoric, the pledge to go to the moon “not because [it is] easy, but because [it is] hard,” the framing of civil rights as “a moral issue…as old as the scriptures and…as clear as the American Constitution,” the nuclear test-ban treaty—all created an intoxicating atmosphere. If the country had problems, it was to pose challenges for us to overcome.
After 1963, it all seemed to fall apart. Civil rights marches were replaced by inner-city riots. Daring counterinsurgency in Viet Nam was replaced by the military equivalent of blunt-force trauma. The crisp Boston accent was replaced by a Texas hill-country drawl and the soaring rhetoric was replaced by the awkward syntax of a career politician trying to dress up the language of compromise and politics.
It was never fair to Lyndon Johnson. It was Johnson who anted up a career’s-worth of political capital to get federal laws passed against discrimination in employment, housing, hotels and restaurants and voting rights and to declare war on poverty. Kennedy’s approach to such controversial issues was eloquently captured by a Herblock cartoon that showed Robert Kennedy, JFK’s point man on civil rights, as a waiter, serving up a plate that contained not a thick steak but a cooked-beyond-recognition piece of burnt meat, with the caption: “Politics is the art of the possible.”
But fair or not, to many who lived through it, including me, the assassination of JFK seemed to change everything, and all for the worse. And we can’t stand to think that the change was precipitated by the act of a crackpot, a nobody, either acting alone or in concert with other crackpots and nobodies. So we keep writing and reading books and magazine articles about the assassination, hoping that that we will turn a corner and run into Castro, or the mob, or the CIA, some malign force of sufficient stature to endow what gives every appearance of being a historical accident with a magnitude of meaning that matches the significance of what came before and of what came after.