Poets are not the unacknowledged legislators of the world, lucky for us, but they can be worldly judges of poetic legislators. Lincoln’s soul survives in Whitman’s words, and the response of American poets to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, fifty years ago, suggests that there really was, beyond the hype and the teeth, an interesting man in there. An entire volume of mostly elegiac poems, “Of Poetry and Power,” with a Rauschenberg silk-screen portrait of the President for its cover, came out within months of his murder. (It was even recorded, complete, on Folkways Records.)
John Berryman wrote a “Formal Elegy” for the President (“Yes. it looks like wilderness”); Auden an “Elegy for J.F.K.,” originally accompanied by twelve-tone music by Stravinsky. Robert Lowell—who in the Second World War had gone to prison as a conscientious objector, and in the late sixties became a Pentagon-bashing radical hero—wrote to Elizabeth Bishop that the murder left him “weeping through the first afternoon,” and then “three days of television uninterrupted by advertising till the grand, almost unbearable funeral.” The country, he said, “went through a moment of terror and passionate chaos.” Lowell’s friend and fellow-poet Randall Jarrell called it the “saddest” public event that he could remember. Jarrell tried to write an elegy but could get no further than “The shining brown head.”
This passionate chaos was set loose, then, in every back yard. It is easy to be cynical about it in retrospect—being cynical about it in retrospect is by now a branch of American historical studies—and say that the poets’ overwrought grief was the product of a sleight of hand worked by Jackie, no other group so easily bought as American writers. (Even the Salingers were invited to the White House—and Mrs. Salinger wanted to go!) But there was more than that. The death of J.F.K. marked the last time the highbrow reaches of the American imagination were complicit in the dignity of the Presidency. In Norman Mailer’s “Presidential Papers,” published the month Kennedy died, the point is that there was a “fissure in the national psyche,”* a divide between the passionate inner life of America and its conformist, repressed official life: “The life of politics and the life of myth had diverged too far.” For Mailer, Kennedy’s Presidency supplied the hope of an epiphany wherein the romantic-hero President would somehow lead his people on an “existential” quest to heal this breach. It sounded just as ridiculous then, but there was something gorgeous in the absurdity.
Of course, people made fun of Kennedy—the Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader was the single biggest loser after the assassination. (“Poor Vaughn Meader,” Lenny Bruce is said to have muttered in his standup act on the night of the killing.) And the John Birch right wingers hated him as implacably as their children do Obama. But the king always has his fool, and the haters were largely marginalized. Lowell wondered what character in Shakespeare Bobby, the dour younger brother, most resembled. Finding Shakespearean dimensions in politicians was an accepted sport. This kind of contemplation became increasingly incredible in the years that followed. (L.B.J. could be Macbeth, but only as the burlesque MacBird.) Reagan and Clinton were both larger-than-life figures drawn from simpler American entertainments—Mr. Deeds and the Music Man, the wise innocent in power or the lovable fast-talking con man who turns out to be essential to everyone’s happiness. Kennedy, by contrast, was still seen as a king of divine right out of the seventeenth century—the subject of endless reverie about his capacity to renew the world. And so the obsession with his body, that shining head, recalling the seventeenth-century French court watching the King sleep and rise and defecate, leads in the end to the grisly conspiracy-theory compulsion to review every square inch of his autopsied body. (One conspiracy theorist, David Lifton, said once that he never married because every would-be bride realized that he was more interested in the President’s dead body than in her living one.
The nation really did get turned inside out when Kennedy was killed, as nations do at the death of kings. But what altered? In many ways, it was a time more past than present. Though it’s said that the event marked the decisive move from page to screen, newspaper to television, all the crucial information was channelled through the wire-service reporters, who, riding six cars back from the President’s, were the first to get and send the news of the shots, and were still thought of as the authoritative source. Walter Cronkite’s two most famous moments—breaking into “As the World Turns” to announce, “In Dallas, Texas, three shots were fired”; and his later, holding-back-tears “From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time”—were in both cases simply read from the wire-service copy. You can see the assistants ripping the copy from the teleprinter and rushing it to the anchorman.
Yet an imbalance between the flood of information and the uncertainty of our understanding—the sense that we know so much and grasp so little, and that reality becomes an image passing—does seem to have begun then: the postmodern suspicion that the more we see, the less we know. A compulsive “hyperperspicacity,” in the term of one assassination researcher—the tendency to look harder for pattern than the thing looked at will ever provide—became the motif of the time. To dive into the assassination literature fifty years on—to read the hundreds of books, with their hundreds of theories, fingering everyone from Melvin Belli to the Mossad; to visit Dealey Plaza on trips to Dallas; and to venture in the middle of the night onto the assassination forums and chat rooms—is to find two truths overlaid. The first truth is that the evidence that the American security services gathered, within the first hours and weeks and months, to persuade the world of the sole guilt of Lee Harvey Oswald remains formidable: ballistics evidence, eyewitness evidence, ear-witness evidence, fingerprint evidence, firearms evidence, circumstantial evidence, fibre evidence. The second truth of the assassination, just as inarguable, is that the security services collecting that evidence were themselves up to their armpits in sinister behavior, even conspiring with some of the worst people in the world to kill the Presidents of other countries. The accepted division of American life into two orders—an official one of rectitude, a seedy lower order of crime—collapses under scrutiny, like the alibi in a classic film noir.
“Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes?” the guilty Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) tells his virtuous insurance colleague Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) at the end of the great “Double Indemnity,” in a taunting confession. “I’ll tell ya. Because the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya.” Keyes’s beautiful, enigmatic rejoinder is: “Closer than that, Walter.” He means that the cop and the killer share more than they knew before the crime, that temptations that lead to murder are available to us all; the lure of transgression makes us closer than we think.
These two truths lead you not so much to different claims as to different worlds. Every decade or so, the Oswald-incriminating facts are comprehensively reviewed—most recently by Vincent Bugliosi, in a thousand-plus-page volume, “Reclaiming History” (Norton)—and, every decade, people who don’t care tend to accept those facts, while the people who care most remain furious and unpersuaded. The world of the conspiracy buffs has a bibliography and a set of fixed points that run parallel to but separate from reality as it is usually conceived. The buffs, for instance, rely heavily on the memoir of Madeleine Brown, who claims to have been one of L.B.J.’s mistresses, and to have been told by him, the night before the murder, “Those goddam Kennedys will never embarrass me again!” The buffs debate whether she is wholly, largely, or only sporadically reliable. In the latest volume of Robert Caro’s L.B.J. biography, by contrast, Brown is not thought worth mentioning, even to disprove. (In any case, the key conspiracy scene she paints, a kind of pre-assassination party at the millionaire Clint Murchison’s Dallas house, attended by Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, and Richard Nixon, has been conclusively debunked. No record of it exists in any Dallas newspaper, and Johnson can be safely placed in Houston that night.) In the same way, the buffs take for granted the role of Joseph Kennedy, first as a bootlegger, then as a campaign fund-raiser for his son entangled with the Mafia, and argue about whether the Mafia alone was the killer or the Mafia in league with the C.I.A. Joe Kennedy’s guilty past is the entire pivot of the assassination in a new conspiracy book, ominously titled “The Poison Patriarch,” by Mark Shaw (Skyhorse); and the same idea is dramatized in the screenwriter William Mastrosimone’s Broadway-bound play “Ride the Tiger.” Yet David Nasaw’s recent, far-from-admiring biography of old Joe dismisses as complete legend the notion that he ever made a penny as a bootlegger or worked closely with the Mob. (He made his money in Hollywood and on Wall Street, mobs of their own.)
Bugliosi handles the conspiracy theorists with a relentless note of sarcastic condescension. But there are ways in which the pattern-seeking is a meaningful index of the event, and gives us more insight into its hold fifty years on than the evidence does. A web without a spider still catches the light. There are distinct period styles in paranoia. The first generation of assassination obsessives—Josiah Thompson, still writing; Harold Weisberg, long dead—were essentially hopeful proceduralists, men and women with thick files and endless clippings, convinced that due scrutiny of the record would reveal sufficient inconsistencies, opacities, and falsehoods to compel the reopening of the entire case. Their model was journalists of the I. F. Stone kind, the isolated man of integrity who could find the truth by scrutinizing the record.
The second kind of assassination obsessive emerged only later, in the mid-seventies. Where the proceduralists believe that the truth is in there, buried in some forgotten file folder, the fantasists believe, “X Files” style, that the truth is out there—available to those bold enough to imagine on the right scale of American extravagance. An exemplar here was David Lifton’s book “Best Evidence,” published in 1981, but his theories percolated at lectures and conferences throughout the seventies. He put forward an obviously mad idea with admirable logic: that the President’s body was secreted away between the killing and the autopsy, and his wounds altered.
The paradox is that, just as Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo dramatizes paranoia with a texture of specificity, the paranoid types are, in their own way, often much more empirically minded—willing to follow the evidence where it leads, even if that is right through the looking-glass—than their more cautious confrères. It is, in other words, possible to construct an intricate scenario that is both cautiously inferential, richly detailed, on its own terms complete, and yet utterly delusional. The J.F.K. conspiracy theorists are the first and hardiest of those movements—the truthers and birthers and moon walkers being their stepchildren—in which the old American paranoid style, once largely marginal and murmuring, married pseudoscience and became articulate, academic, systematized, and loud.
No matter how improbable it may seem that all the hard evidence could have been planted, faked, or coerced—and that hundreds of the distinct acts of concealment and coercion necessary would have been left unconfessed for more than half a century—it does not affect the production of assassination literature, which depends not on confronting the evidence but on discovering new patterns of connection and coincidence. The buffs’ books—Lamar Waldron and Thom Hartmann’s “Legacy of Secrecy,” in development as a major Hollywood film, is a perfect instance—lay out ever more intricate and multiple patterns of apparent intention and reaction among Mafia dons and C.I.A. agents, all pointing toward Dealey Plaza. “Had ties with . . .” is the favored phrase, used to connect with sinister overtones any two personalities within the web. Waldron and Hartmann dismiss even Oswald’s murder of the Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit, forty-five minutes after J.F.K.’s assassination, despite the many witnesses who saw him shoot Tippit, or identified him as the man with the gun running from the scene.
Arguments like this tend to lead toward the same cul-de-sac, where the skeptic insists on being shown the spider and the buffs insist that it is enough to point to the web. One argument can stand for a hundred like it: a key early piece of evidence for conspiracy is that many of the doctors in the emergency ward at Parkland Memorial Hospital, where the President was brought from the fatal motorcade, said that they saw a large wound to the back of J.F.K.’s head, instead of the right front side, where the later autopsy and X-rays locate it. This is not really hard to explain. The wound was enormous, and the doctors never examined it, or turned J.F.K. over to verify that there was a rear head wound. The Zapruder film of the assassination shows, unmistakably, that the horrible wound was indeed to the right front side of his skull, while the back remained intact (aside from the small, almost invisible entrance wound).
So for the claim of a “rear head wound” to be accurate, it would be necessary for the Zapruder film to have somehow been altered and turned into a cunning animated cartoon. That is exactly what the “second generation” of theorists insist—that the Zapruder film itself is a fabrication, produced, in the words of one buff, “in a sophisticated C.I.A. photo lab at the Kodak main industrial plant in Rochester, New York.” Nor is this idea simply asserted. It is patiently argued, step by step, with the name of the optical printer detailed, even though Kodak’s own expert on 8-mm. film, Roland Zavada, has dismissed the idea of introducing complex optical-printer effects onto 8-mm. film in 1963, and declared that “there is no detectable evidence of manipulation or image alteration on the Zapruder in-camera original and all supporting evidence precludes any forgery thereto.” A theory that has the Zapruder film altered is absurd—but a theory that doesn’t have the Zapruder film altered has to accept that Kennedy had no rear-exit head wound, and therefore must have been shot from above and behind.
This constant cycle of sense and speculation is not about to end. Josiah Thompson, one of the most rational of the skeptics, wrote once that “you pull any single thread, any single fact, and you’re soon besieged with a tangle of subsidiary questions.” And this is true: any fact asserted can be met with a counter-fact—some of them plausible, many disputed, most creating contradictions that are unresolvable. But this is not a fact about conspiracies. It is a fact about facts. All facts in all inquiries come at us with their own shakiness, their own shimmer of uncertainty. The threads of evidence usually seem separate and sure only because life mostly comes at us in finished fabrics, and nothing requires us to pull the thread. When we do, whenever we do, there’s a tangle waiting.
Bugliosi makes this point in a practical, prosecutor’s spirit, saying that, once you are sure of the conclusion, you have to live with the evidentiary inconsistencies: you may not know the answer to a question, but that does not mean that the question is unanswerable. To take one of many that arise in the assassination case: much used to be made of the mysterious “three tramps” who were arrested shortly after the shots. They turned out to be, after long years of speculation . . . three tramps, with knowable names and mundane histories. It is a safe, though not a certain, bet that the remaining mysteries will resolve just as mundanely. In the meantime, though, every fact in the case, no matter how solid-seeming, can be countered by some other fact, however speculative. Facts provoke new patterns even as they disprove old ones.
Yet the foundational sense that there were bizarre forces at work in the period, paranoid and violent and tightly interlocked in the strangest imaginable ways, and by their nature resistant to the common-sense impulses of ordinary explanation—this is, as far as one can tell, true. As J.F.K. himself is claimed to have said, apropos of the then popular coup-d’état thriller “Seven Days in May,” such a coup in the United States was far from being unthinkable: “It’s possible. It could happen in this country. But the conditions would have to be right. If, for example, the country had a young president and he had a Bay of Pigs, there would be a certain uneasiness. . . . Then if there were another Bay of Pigs, the reaction of the country would be, ‘Is he too young and inexperienced?’ The military would almost feel that it was their patriotic obligation to stand ready to preserve the integrity of the nation, and only God knows just what segment of democracy they would be defending if they overthrew the elected establishment.” (He added that he intended it not to happen “on his watch.”)
By J.F.K.’s own accounting, the Bay of Pigs was the first failure. In the eyes of the national-security hawks, the Cuban missile crisis, though presented to the public as a showdown that Kennedy won, was the second, an exercise in abject appeasement. Kennedy had refused the unanimous advice of his generals and admirals to bomb Cuba, and had settled the crisis by giving the Russians what they wanted, the removal of missiles from Turkey. (This was kept quiet, but the people who knew knew.) The notion that the Cold War national-security state, which Eisenhower warned against, might have decided to kill the President is not as difficult to credit as one wishes. There were C.I.A. operatives prepared to kill foreign leaders, some of them previously friendly, for acts they didn’t like, and to recruit gangsters to do it, and generals who were eager to invade Cuba even at the risk of nuclear war, and who resented Kennedy for restraining them. (A veteran journalist, Jefferson Morley, has been pursuing the trail of a now dead C.I.A. agent named George Joannides through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, believing that, at a minimum, the C.I.A. was keeping a much sharper eye on Oswald than it ever wanted known. Relevant documents are supposed to be released in 2017.)
Oddly, there’s confirmation of this in the work of the Kennedy brothers’ house historian, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. An establishment figure devoted to maintaining the image of the Kennedys, and no friend to the conspiracy theorists, Schlesinger made plain that the Kennedys really did believe themselves to be subject to a hostile alliance of the military and the C.I.A., largely outside their direct control. “Intelligence operatives, in the CIA as well as the FBI, had begun to see themselves as the appointed guardians of the Republic, infinitely more devoted than transient elected officials, morally authorized to do on their own whatever the nation’s security demanded,” Schlesinger concludes. Ted Sorensen, another Kennedy intimate, wrote in his memoir that when Jimmy Carter nominated him, in 1977, to be the director of central intelligence, agency officials worked furiously (and successfully) to get the nomination withdrawn, quite possibly because there was evidence about J.F.K.’s death that they didn’t want him to see. Vincent Bugliosi’s confidence that these things don’t happen here isn’t shared by those closest to the case.
An assassination should be significant for more than its atmospherics. Kennedy’s should also matter for people who weren’t there, because something happened in America that would not have happened had Kennedy lived. The conventional claim is that optimistic liberalism died in Dallas. Ira Stoll, in his new book, “J.F.K.: Conservative” (Houghton Mifflin), makes this claim in reverse: he believes that the path of true conservatism would have gone more smoothly if Kennedy had not been killed. Stoll sincerely believes that Kennedy’s spiritual heir was Reagan, while shifty Nixon was the real liberal, whose heir is—who else?—shifty Obama.
Of course, every American President is in some sense a conservative—there are no Léon Blums or Salvador Allendes in our record. But Kennedy was a classic Cold War liberal: someone who believed in confronting the Communists (nonviolently, if at all possible) and creating a network of social welfare to relieve social anxiety. The real conservatives of the time, the John Birch Society and the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party, believed in confronting Communism violently, and in abjuring any federal programs of civil rights and social welfare, since these were certainly left-wing and possibly Communist. (Ronald Reagan, after all, came to notice for crusading against Medicare, the way his successors crusade against Obamacare.) Unable to explain why the actual right-wingers hated J.F.K. as much as they did, Stoll insists that a conspiracy of leftish doves who surrounded J.F.K.—Sorensen and Schlesinger, in particular—warped his words and purposes retrospectively: a conspiracy theory every bit as loony as any from the buffs.
At the other end of the spectrum, Thurston Clarke, in his new book, “J.F.K.’s Last Hundred Days” (Penguin), argues passionately that J.F.K. was moving ever more decisively left, flapping his wings like a dove, just before he was killed. The evidence is that Kennedy began to argue, more loudly than he had before, that American politicians should do everything possible to avoid provoking a nuclear holocaust that would destroy civilization. One would think this a minimal ground of sanity, rather than a radical departure from orthodoxy—but, as Clarke reminds us, driving to the very edge of universal destruction was widely seen as an opportunity to outsmart the Soviets. Conversations about how many million casualties the United States could endure were not just material for “Dr. Strangelove.” More specifically, the line goes, Kennedy was planning to get out of Vietnam by the end of 1965, or at least had made up his mind not to get drawn any farther in. Accounts of private conversations and notes from National Security Council meetings are played as cards in this game. Jeff Greenfield, in his new counterfactual book “If Kennedy Lived” (Putnam), asserts, along with many other larksome predictions (the Beatles would have gone to the White House; Ronald Reagan would have got the Republican nomination in 1968), that J.F.K. would never have escalated the war in Vietnam.
It is hard to take these claims as much more than wishful thinking projected retrospectively onto a pragmatic politician, whose commitment to Cold War verities, while less nihilistic than that of some others, was still complete. It’s true that Kennedy was not inclined, as his two immediate successors were, to see foreign affairs as a series of challenges to his manhood; a true war hero, he truly hated war. But though the compulsions of personality are strong, the logic of American politics is stronger. Kennedy might well have felt little of the insecurity that troubled Johnson’s soul as he escalated the war. But exactly the same political circumstances would have confronted him. Had the North Vietnamese Army been allowed to march into Saigon in 1965 instead of in 1975, the Goldwater Republicans would not have said, “Thank God for Kennedy’s wisdom in not wasting tens of thousands of American lives and millions of Vietnamese ones in an effort to stop what was sure to happen in any case!” They would have said, “Another country, another region, fecklessly lost to Communism, and on your watch!” The truth, that the fate of Vietnam, of crucial importance to the Vietnamese, was of little consequence to America, or to its struggle with the Soviet Union, was simply a taboo statement on every side.
Paranoid as the period was, it was in ways more open. Oswald’s captors decided that he would have to be shown to the press, and arranged a midnight press conference for him—not something that would happen today—while a lawyer for the Warren Commission met at length with a Communist pushing a conspiracy theory. (One doubts that a 9/11 commissioner ever felt obliged to meet with a truther.) The national-security state might have been in place, but the national-surveillance state wasn’t, quite.
Oswald was a kind of wooden pawn of the Cold War era who seemed always on the verge of being sacrificed. As a teen-ager, he educated himself as a Marxist, and he remained a fantasist who feasted on James Bond novels—just like the President!—and subscribed to both mainline Communist and Trotskyite papers, without ever really grasping the difference between them. When he decided to flee, as a teen-age marine, to what he imagined to be the socialist paradise of Russia, the K.G.B. seemed so bewildered that it sent him off to work in a factory in Minsk, and watched him as unhappily as the American security services did later.
Once again, the problem is not an absence of intelligence; the problem is having too much intelligence to add up intelligently. Another thousand Oswalds, long since lost to time, were under scrutiny, too. To take a specific instance: the man whom Oswald sat next to on the bus to Mexico City turned out to be, certainly unknown to him, a con man and onetime fanatical Hitler supporter named Albert Osborne. Osborne earned an appendix in the Warren report; he appears briefly and then vanishes into history again. Had he shot someone, we would ask what he was doing there, and why no one knew more about him than about the odd, long-forgotten defector Oswald. Oswald’s life reminds us that modernity in America, with its rootless wanderings and instant connections, permanent dislocations and endless reinventions, is a kind of coincidence machine, generating two or three degrees of separation between the unlikeliest of fellows.
What is true of Oswald is true as well of his own assassin, that lesser mystery figure Jack Ruby. Ruby is cast in the buff literature as a sinister Mafia hit man, there to silence Oswald before he could speak. (The killing of Hyman Roth, in “The Godfather Part II,” seems modelled on Ruby’s act.) Jack Ruby did seek out Mafia-connected characters in the months before the assassination—but he seems to have been trying to get help to put pressure on the American Guild of Variety Artists to enforce its rules about using unpaid strippers. (He considered his rivals’ amateur striptease shows to be unfair competition to the polished pro acts at his own joint.)
Again and again, the investigation discloses bizarre figures and coincidences within a web of incident that seem significant in themselves. The case of Judith Campbell Exner is famous. She really was J.F.K.’s mistress, and a Sinatra girlfriend, and the mistress of the Chicago Mob boss Sam Giancana, all within a few years. Even if she wasn’t actually a go-between from one to the other, that would not alter the reality that she had slept with all three, and so lived in worlds that, in 1963, no one would have quite believed could penetrate each other so easily. Still more startling is the case of the painter Mary Pinchot Meyer, who was also unquestionably one of Kennedy’s mistresses. She was the ex-wife of a high-ranking C.I.A. officer (who himself had once had pacifist leanings), an intimate of Timothy Leary, at Harvard, and an LSD user. She was murdered, in 1964, on the towpath in D.C., in murky circumstances. Even if none of this points toward a larger occult truth—even if her death was just a mugging gone wrong—the existence of such a figure says something about the weave of American experience. Worlds that seemed far apart at the time are now shown to have been close together, unified by men and women of multiple identities, subject to electric coincidences—no one more multiple than J.F.K. himself, the prudent political pragmatist who was also the reckless erotic adventurer, in bed with molls and Marilyns, and maybe even East German spies.
The passion of J.F.K. may lie in the overlay of all those strands and circles. The pattern—weaving and unweaving in front of our eyes, placing unlikely people in near proximity and then removing them again—is its own point. Mailer was right when he claimed that the official life of the country and the real life had come apart, but who could have seen that it would take a single violent act, rather than “existential” accomplishment, to reveal how close they really were? Oswald acted alone, but the hidden country acted through Oswald. This is the perpetual film-noir moral lesson: that the American hierarchy is far more unstable than it seems, and that the small-time crook in his garret and the big-time social leader in his mansion are intimately linked. When Kennedy died, and the mystery of his murder began, we took for granted that the patrician in tails with the perfect family and the sordid Oswald belonged to different worlds, just as Ruby’s Carousel Club and the White House seemed light-years apart. When Kennedy was shot, the dignified hierarchy seemed plausible. Afterward, it no longer did. What turned inside out, after his death, was that reality: the inner surface and the outer show, like a magician’s bag, were revealed to be interchangeable. That’s why the death of J.F.K., even as it fades into history, remains so close, close as can be, and closer than that. ♦
*“The Presidential Papers” was published the month Kennedy died, not soon after Kennedy’s death, as originally stated.