Friday, November 22, 2013

The Long, Long View

Memory is not history. In his memoirs, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones goes so far as to call memory "fiction."

In Greek mythology, Mnemosyne, the personification of memory, may have been Clio's mother, but Clio is the Greek muse of history; her mother Mnemosyne is not.

And the Greeks wisely made Clio mute.

The late comedian Mort Sahl called November 22, 1963 "The Day The Music Died."

Sahl co-opted songwriter Don McLean when he said that, because McLean's 1971 song American Pie did NOT refer to November 22, 1963 when it mentioned "the day the music died." McLean's threnody for the good old days was about February 3, 1959, the day that rock n' roll legend Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash in Mason City, Iowa.

Today, November 22, 2013, is the fiftieth anniversary of that day in Dallas, Texas that none of us over the age of 58 (my current age) will ever forget, the day President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in broad daylight, in front of a large crowd that had turned out to watch him ride past in an open limousine.

For a month now, everybody my age has been sharing those where-were-you-when-you-heard-about-it stories. I won't bother you with that. Suffice it to say that I was eight years old and it was a Friday afternoon. So I was in school.

The fiftieth anniversary also falls on a Friday. I'm living in Turkey at the moment. Six degrees of historic separation: it was his administration's plan to put nuclear warheads in Turkey that laid the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 at Kennedy's feet. The Soviets didn't like the idea of the U.S. having missiles in Turkey, where they could reach Moscow in minutes, so Nikita Kruschchev, who was running the show in the Kremlin in those days, announced that he was going to stick Soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba, from which Washington could be vaporized in minutes.

Kennedy and Kruschchev went eyeball-to-eyeball over this issue. Kruschchev sent the missiles across the sea. Kennedy ordered a naval blockade so the warheads couldn't reach Cuba. For a couple of days the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.

Then Kruschchev blinked. The Soviet missiles were withdrawn.

Thirteen months later, Kennedy was killed by a woolly-brained Marxist named Lee Harvey Oswald, who thought he was striking a blow for the revolution of his hero, Fidel Castro.

And....less than a year after that, (a detail often overlooked) Nikita Kruschchev was ousted in a coup in Moscow and replaced with Leonid Brezhnev. The Soviet Politboro was not happy with Kruschchev for having knuckled under to Kennedy, so it replaced him with someone more hard-line.
A cold, sad day in the America of my childhood.

No question about it to anyone who remembers. November 22, 1963 was a sad and tragic day for America. The Second World War had been over for less than 20 years. America had emerged from that war triumphant, more powerful and richer than she had ever been. 1945 began what some were calling "The American Century." America was the leader of the free world. The sky was the limit.

And then her movie-star handsome, charismatic president was shot dead, in cold blood and in broad daylight.

We are so politically polarized these days, so utterly partisan, that if such a thing were to happen today, or if such a thing had happened six years ago, the president's supporters would mourn and the president's haters would cheer. Not in 1963. The killing of Kennedy was such an unthinkable event that his supporters and his critics were equally shocked. My parents did not like Kennedy especially. They didn't vote for him in 1960. But when I came home from school that afternoon, they were subdued. Quiet. Had little to say. I've heard this over and over again for the past 50 years. It was less important to the nation at that moment which political party the president belonged to than it was that such a thing could happen, to us. And that meant all of us. Democrats, Republicans, all of us. America had not yet become the "cafeteria republic" that it is today, in which we are Americans second and members of ethnic, racial or special interest groups first. In 2013 there are only "hyphenated" Americans. In 1963 there were truly none.  We still believed in the idea of "E pluribus Unum." We no longer do.

There are many among us who, for whatever reason, whether it's shameless romanticism or simple mistrust of government, want to believe that Oswald could not possibly have done this, or at least, not by himself. There had to be a conspiracy. Even before the blood from her husband's wounds had dried on her dress, first lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy expressed dismay over the apparent evidence that her husband had been murdered "by some silly little communist," and not by some reactionary hater of Kennedy's "New Frontier." The death of such a luminary simply could not be the result of some tawdry "lone nut" scenario. There had to be a conspiracy. Emotions demanded it.

And no one's emotions were more exercised than those of the American Left, which in the years after his death made Kennedy the object of hagiography. He was one of their saints, and therefore he simply could not have been killed by a Marxist kook. That notion did not jive with the left's wide-eyed worship of its fallen hero. (Not to mention the soft spot the left has in its collective heart for Marxism.)

So the conspiracy theories began. Some wanted to believe that Texas right-wingers were behind JFK's murder. To gently nudge this absurd idea into the public's consciousness, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo churned out the script for an extremely meretricious low-budget 1973 film called Executive Action. The film disingenuously hid its real agenda by stating at the outset that it meant to show only how such a conspiracy could have existed. (For the record, Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, but he was, in fact, a card-carrying Communist for years.) Some wanted to think oil interests were behind it. Or the CIA. Or the mafia. And on and on and on.

I've read the books. I read Anthony Summers' Conspiracy  more than 30 years ago. More recently I've read Gerald Posner's Case Closed and Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History.

In between, I went to see Norman Mailer in person.

In April, 1995, Mailer had just published his own entry in the JFK sweepstakes, Oswald's Tale. It was not a conspiracy book, nor was it an anti-conspiracy book. It was simply a study of Oswald's life and character. Mailer came to Olsson's Books in Washington, D.C. that spring on a book tour, to give a reading and have a Q&A. I was in the audience.

"After doing the research and interviewing the principals for this book," Mailer said, "I'm prepared to believe that Oswald did it." Then he added, "but I also believe that if I had been Oswald's attorney, I might have been able to get him off, this case has so many holes in it."

Fair enough. But there's also something called Ockham's Razor. Philosopher William of Ockham (1287-1347) formulated the famous principle of logic which states that among any group of explanations for a given phenomenon, the one which involves the fewest assumptions is probably the right one.

Or, as it is often mis-stated, the simplest solution is probably the right one.

One theory recently re-floated in a book (I've heard it before) is that Lyndon Baines Johnson, Kennedy's vice-president, was involved in a plot against JFK. The logic goes like this: Johnson wanted to be president. Johnson was from Texas. Johnson had connections in Texas. Kennedy was thinking of dumping Johnson in 1964 and going with another VP candidate. Therefore...LBJ was involved in a plot to kill Kennedy.

The problem is, this theory is based on the highly questionable whisperings-at-parties of a woman who claimed to be LBJ's mistress. Toss it.

Other theories also involve bushel-baskets of assumptions. Oswald couldn't have gotten off three shots in the time allotted. (Never mind the fact that he had been in the Marine Corps and knew how to handle a rifle.) The "magic bullet" theory is impossible because a bullet couldn't pass through one man's body and hit another's. (Oh, yeah? High-powered rifles can do amazing things at short range.)

Other theories, involving everything from a shadow someone glimpsed on the grassy knoll to a group of tramps who were detained near the railroad tracks sometime later, have fed the public's imagination, and the imagination of a political left unwilling to face the simple facts about the death of its saint, to the point where you could implicate almost anybody in this 50 year-old murder that you chose to, from Texaco to the Book-of-the-Month Club.

I find it incredible that there are still people who get emotional over this, who will not admit the simple fact that Lee Harvey Oswald was probably the model for the character Travis Bickle in Martin Scorsese's 1976 film Taxi Driver: a Dostoevskian "nobody who wanted to be a somebody." These are people whose rose-colored glasses have such telescopic sights that they still, after half a century, want to think that Kennedy was not the pragmatic politician that he really was, and want to think of him as a martyred saint of the Civil Rights movement.

This notion is romantic hogwash, nothing more than the Woodstock Generation getting all soppy for its childhood. If you look at the record, Kennedy was as hard-nosed a cold warrior as his contemporary Richard Nixon (the Cuban Missile Crisis clearly illustrates that.) He was an anti-communist, and his "support" for the civil rights movement was mostly lip-service. The truth is that, despite his charisma and charm, Kennedy did not get along very well with Congress. It was ironically left to his successor as president, Lyndon Johnson, a graceless, unattractive boor who nevertheless knew how to read people and how to twist nuts, to get Kennedy's vaunted civil rights legislation passed.

There was no "Camelot." Kennedy's Thousand Days were not a Golden Age. But in America you can get very far if you're good-looking. After all, we are the nation that invented the "movie star." JFK and his wife Jackie were both as good-looking as movie stars, and for that reason alone were venerated in our nation of besotted moviegoers. We were still in the midst of our postwar innocence and optimism in 1963, and these beautiful youngsters seemed to be the very embodiment of that. Therein was born the legend of Camelot, and of course JFK made the brilliant marketing move of getting killed at age 46. As it was once said of Franz Schubert, "He died young, and so, for us, he will never get old."

For decades, each November 22 there has been a memorial gathering in Arlington Cemetery, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., where Kennedy is buried. As the years have gone by, the crowds at this memorial gathering have thinned and thinned. My guess would be that today's gathering will be well-attended, if only because we are so fond of round numbers, and "50," after all, is half a hundred.

But I'd be willing to bet that the swollen crowd at today's vigil will feature many bald heads, stooped backs, wrinkles, dewlaps and a lot of arthritis. The generation (mine) that made a folk hero of Kennedy is beginning to die off. As long ago as 1995, when the 33rd anniversary of the tragedy loomed, WETA radio in Washington mentioned that less than half of the current U.S. population had even been born yet on November 22, 1963. Despite the efforts of Oliver Stone and his fellow mythologizers to keep the romance of conspiracy burning, for the majority of currently-living Americans, the Kennedy years are as remote as the administration of Woodrow Wilson.

Yes, yes. We love round numbers, so today in Arlington Cemetery there will no doubt be a teary and sentimental, if somewhat geriatric party. But my guess would be that next year, when we mark Anniversary 51, the crowd will be smaller than ever before.