Immediately after the assassination and ever since, the right has tried to deflect any connection between its fevered Kennedy hatred and Oswald’s addled psyche with the fact that the assassin had briefly defected to the Soviet Union. But at the time even some Texans weren’t buying that defense. An editorial in the Dallas Times Herald chastised its own city for supplying “the seeds of hate” and “the atmosphere for tragedy.” The editor of the Austin American wrote that “hatred and fanaticism, the flabby spirit of complacency that has permitted the preachers of fanatical hatred to appear respectable, and the self-righteousness that labels all who disagree with us as traitors or dolts, provided the way for the vile deed that snuffed out John Kennedy’s life.”
That atmosphere doesn’t surface arbitrarily in 11/22/63. Though King had first considered writing the book in 1971, what inspired him to finally do so was the spectacle of that Republican backbencher shouting out “You lie!” when Obama addressed Congress in the fall of 2009. “One of the reasons to write the book was because there’s so much hate in the air now,” he told the filmmaker Errol Morris (also at work on a Kennedy-assassination project) in a recent interview for the Times website, and “a lot of it’s directed at Obama.”
Unlike Obama, JFK enjoyed consistently high poll numbers. But in the fall of 1963, both Newsweek and Look speculated that he could lose his bid for reelection.
Whatever the similarities between Obama and JFK, the differences are substantial. Kennedy devoted little attention to domestic affairs, and Obama has no interest in replicating JFK’s entertaining give-and-takes with the press. Obama has yet to show bravery to match JFK’s standoff with Khrushchev, but he can boast the legislative achievements that eluded Kennedy. But this much is certain: Both presidents were centrists in the Democratic parties of their respective eras. Neither could be remotely described as radical, let alone “socialist,” as critics of both have contended. Both are ardent capitalists largely content to leave corporate America to its own devices. Both are wary of the institutional left. Both are hawkish by their party’s standards. But for all this moderation, they, like the similarly centrist Bill Clinton, who was accused of enabling drug running and murder on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, have inspired a hatred so nightmarishly disproportionate to their actual beliefs, actions, and policies that it’s worthy of Stephen King’s fiction.
The culture wars that Americans have been fighting since the sixties are generally thought to have begun in the late sixties—in the paroxysms of student revolt and urban riots sparked by the spiraling of Vietnam and the twin murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968. At the start of 11/22/63, King’s schoolteacher hero is implored by his old buddy Al, a dying Maine diner proprietor, to go back in time to bend the arc of history away from the catastrophic fallout that Oswald’s crime would unleash. “If you ever wanted to change the world,” Al says, “this is your chance. Save Kennedy, save his brother. Save Martin Luther King. Stop the race riots. Stop Vietnam, maybe … Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives.”
Or not. In truth, it was already too late. America’s violent culture wars had started before JFK was shot. They were all on display in Oswald’s Dallas. At least in 1963, polling showed that only 5 percent of the country—a fringe—subscribed to the radical anti-government views championed by the John Birch Society and other militants of the right. These days, that fringe, whether in the form of birthers or the tea party or the hosts of Fox & Friends, gives marching orders to a major political party.
As a boomer who grew up in Washington, D.C., I was an eyewitness to the JFK inaugural on that bone-chilling January morning. My adolescence ended with the unfathomable news of that Friday afternoon of 11/22/63. My family was not in politics or journalism, but I had seen the young president with his wife at the theater one night, dazzling a startled audience with that ski instructor’s tan and those amazingly white teeth. Like almost every other American, I spent four straight days after the assassination watching television, and getting up to speed on the noirish Dallas atmosphere that would soon be compounded by Jack Ruby’s assassination of the assassin, the only murder I have seen broadcast live on television.