Earlier this month Rachel Maddow told the little-known story of how Senator John F. Kennedy introduced legislation to ban the importation of weapons produced for foreign armies, only to be thwarted by pro-gun legislators. Then, on November 22, 1963, Maddow said, Lee Oswald used an Italian-made military rifle to shoot and kill President Kennedy. For the popular MSNBC anchor, this story illuminates the enduring and pernicious effects of the gun lobby from Dallas to Newtown.
As a contemporary polemic, this novel interpretation of JFK’s assassination — the Gun Lobby Did It — is strong. As history it is weak. It’s hard not to agree with Maddow’s broad point: the gun manufacturers and gun violence have had a pernicious effect on American life for a long time. She is correct that an Italian-made rifle, cheap and easily obtained under permissive U.S. gun laws, played a central role in the JFK assassination story.
But her implication that the gun lobby, as a power sector in American politics, was an important causal factor in enabling JFK’s assassination is not founded in historical fact.
Few blamed the gun lobby or weak gun laws in the sorrowful days after Kennedy’s death. Within a week polls showed that most people in Dallas and nationwide thought there had been a conspiracy. As the White House, the FBI, and the Dallas Police Department scrambled to convince the public otherwise, the CIA concealed the fact that certain senior agency officials had closely tracked and monitored the accused assassin in the summer and fall of 1963. Within the U.S. government, it was the prerogatives of the CIA, not the gun lobby, that were protected after JFK’s death.
In other words, the secrecy system, of which Maddow is usually a trenchant critic, shaped the lone gunman narrative that she now uncritically accepts and deploys to promote a progressive political agenda. Like all of Americans, Maddow has been deceived. For her mistake, she is accused of deception.
“Rachel Maddow Deliberately Lies about JFK and Lee Harvy (sic) Oswald,” says Trunk XV, an orthographically challenged individual who purports to be a “representative of Jesus Christ on youtube.” The bloggers at Stop Making Sense made more sense when they noted that the MSNBC anchor was using JFK’s assassination “to push for more gun control laws.”
Maddow’s take on JFK is clever, opportunistic and misleading, but that’s not the same as deliberately lying. We have solid evidence that Fox News talk show host Bill O’Reilly fibbed about his JFK story. We have no evidence Maddow has intentionally misrepresented the historical record. She’s just expressed her limited understanding of it.
Like it or not, Maddow’s commentary illustrates an indisputable reality of American political culture: People use the JFK assassination story to explain and justify the way they understand the world of politics and power.
Some Ron Paulites claim (with zero evidence) “the Fed Did It.”
People who dislike the legacy of the Bush family dynasty insinuate (without much evidence, in my view) that George H.W. Bush was somehow complicit in the assassination of JFK.
Those who dislike the government of Cuba claim (with even less evidence) that “Fidel Let It Happen.”
The Cui Bono school of history (and many a Texan) points a righteous finger at Lyndon Johnson, a scenario first propounded by playwright Barbara Garson in her witty 1967 satire, “MacBird.”
Maddow holds the gun lobby responsible.
Most of these people are mistaken, but there’s nothing irrational or deceitful about their efforts. It is hardly surprising that people use the events of November 22, 1963, to explain and confirm their beliefs about the motive forces in American history. As I wrote for the LA Times, JFK’s assassination is the Rohrschach Test of American politics: Tell me who you think killed JFK, and I’ll tell you what you think about the nature of American power.
This is democracy in action. The belligerents of the Internet, and the anti-conspiracy theorists with access to the White House (that would be you, Cass Sunstein), are loathe to admit it, but most Americans who seek the truth about JFK’s assassination are not liars, nor are they nuts, nor are they dangerous to public thinking. Quite the contrary.
Yes, you can find irrational and deceptive people on all sides of the perennial conspiracy debate. But I’ve been reporting on the issue for 30 years and the observable fact is that the vast majority of those with JFK opinions are sincere people with legitimate questions about a supremely important event in American history.
My own view is this: Kennedy’s wrongful death was the result of actions taken by a faction in his own government whose leaders cannot be indentified individually but who were aided and abetted by two top CIA officials, Richard Helms and James Angleton, and by certain undercover officers reporting to them, including but not limited to George Joannides, a decorated psychological warfare specialist who served in Miami in 1963.
This is neither a conspiracy theory nor Historical Truth. It is my informed opinion, subject to verification or refutation if and when CIA and the Obama administration make public the agency’s operational files on certain anti-Castro operations in 1963.
I could be wrong. The arithmetic logic of the subject is harsh. There are dozens of implausible JFK conspiracy theories and (as Maddow shows) more than a few implausible anti-conspiracy theories. What is indisputable is that all of them — every single one of them — are wrong, except for one. The one JFK theory that is correct is the one that most accurately describes the causes of November 22, 1963.
Like a lot of people, Maddow thinks she has the answer but lacks the facts to back it up.
We all do. The CIA’s continuing secrecy around the JFK story in 2013 distorts popular understanding, fosters confusion and suspicion, and blocks consensus. That’s the problem, not Rachel Maddow.