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What Killed JFK

A flyer distributed in downtown Dallas in the days prior to the Kennedy assassination.  

Judged against this clear-eyed report card, the post-honeymoon Obama who has disappointed so many liberals looks a bit more Kennedyesque after all. JFK’s reviews back in the day also have a familiar ring. At the two-year mark of February 1963, the Times Washington bureau chief James Reston lamented that the “exuberant optimism of the first few months of the Kennedy administration” had given way “to doubt and drift” in a Washington nearing “the point of paralysis.” The president, Reston wrote, was “a moderate confronted by radical facts,” among them “a whopping budget deficit and an alarming army of the unemployed.” Kennedy was in “trouble both with the conservatives who think he has gone too far and the liberals who think he has not gone far enough.”

Unlike Obama, JFK enjoyed consistently high poll numbers, still hovering near a 60 percent approval rating in November 1963. But that fall, both Newsweek and Look speculated he could lose his bid for reelection in 1964. The hatred he aroused, while from a minority of voters, was heated and ominous. On Sunday, November 24, 1963, the Times was packed with elegiac coverage of the leader who had been slain that Friday. But the No. 1 book on the nonfiction best-seller list, as it had been for weeks, was JFK: The Man & the Myth, by Victor Lasky, a newspaperman who would years later enjoy a second vogue on the right as a die-hard Nixon defender after Watergate. Lasky’s thick slash-and-burn Kennedy book, which even questioned his World War II heroism as the skipper of PT-109, was a precursor of the Swift Boat hatchet job on John Kerry. After the assassination, Lasky declared that “Kennedy is no longer subject to criticism on my part,” and his publisher stopped promoting the book (but quickly resumed shipping it). It started to descend on the Times list. But as the New Year arrived, and post-assassination America got moving again, JFK: The Man & the Myth was still the top seller in Dallas.

In the decades to come, America would be riveted by the Warren Commission report, whose finding that Oswald was the lone assassin has been challenged by all manner of conspiracy theorists, amateur historians, ideologues, nuts, novelists, and provocateurs. In 11/22/63, Stephen King writes that he consulted much of the assassination literature, “reading a stack of books and articles on the subject almost as tall as I am” before putting the probability that Oswald acted alone “at ninety-eight percent, maybe even ninety-nine.” His fictional alter ego, the schoolteacher Jake Epping, is, mercifully, not on an Oliver Stone crusade to subvert that math.

But another controversy from the assassination—one that has never received remotely the attention generated by the endless “grassy knoll” and “second gunmen” debates—is forcefully revived by King: the role played in Oswald’s psyche by the torrid atmosphere of political rage in Dallas, where both Lady Bird Johnson and Adlai Stevenson had been spat upon by mobs of demonstrators in notorious incidents before Kennedy’s fateful 1963 trip. As the time-traveling Epping gets settled in that past, he describes an inferno of seething citizens, anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish storefronts, and angry billboards demanding the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and equating racial integration with communism. That last one, King’s protagonist observes, “had been paid for by something called The Tea Party Society.”

That “Tea Party Society” is the novelist’s own mischievous invention, but the rest of his description is accurate. King’s touchstone is The Death of a President, by William Manchester, a meticulous biographer and historian who was chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy to write the authorized account of the assassination. Manchester received cooperation from almost every conceivable party, the Warren Commission included, but after the Kennedy camp read the manuscript and objected to the disparaging treatment of Lyndon Johnson, as well as some (G-rated) domestic details about the First Couple, Mrs. Kennedy filed a quixotic injunction to halt publication. Her brief, failed effort only enhanced the book’s blockbuster appeal; soon after its release in 1967, The Death of a President became arguably more prominent than the Bible in middle-class American households. In his afterword to 11/22/63, King says he was “deeply impressed—and moved, and shaken” when rereading it. It’s hard to disagree. But what also struck me in a rereading was Manchester’s stern rejection of one major Warren Commission finding. Though he was onboard for its conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin, he did not buy its verdict that there was “no evidence” of any connection between Oswald’s crime and Dallas’s “general atmosphere of hate.”

Manchester is uncharacteristically contentious about this point. He writes that “individual commissioners had strong reservations” about exonerating Dallas but decided to hedge rather than stir up any controversy that might detract from the report’s “widest possible acceptance.” While Manchester adds that “obviously, it is impossible to define the exact relationship between an individual and his environment,” he strongly rejected the universal description of Oswald as “a loner.” No man, he writes, is quarantined from his time and place. Dallas was toxic. The atmosphere was “something unrelated to conventional politics—a stridency, a disease of the spirit, a shrill, hysterical note suggestive of a deeply troubled society.” Duly observing that even the greatest presidents have been vilified in their time—Lincoln as a baboon and Jefferson as “Mad Tom”—Manchester saw something “more than partisan zeal” at work in this case. He detected “a chiaroscuro that existed outside the two parties, a virulence which had infected members of both.” Dallas had become the gaudy big top for a growing national movement—“the mecca for medicine-show evangelists of the National Indignation Convention, the Christian Crusaders, the Minutemen, the John Birch and Patrick Henry societies.”