The notion of JFK’s assassination was a turning point is a touchstone of American culture. From the Blabbaholic Right (that would be Rush Limbaugh) to the Latte Sipping, Obamacare-Loving, Liberal Left (that would be me), we agree that things changed on November 22, 1963.
Here’s what Rush said the other day: The America of the JFK Era Died with him – The Rush Limbaugh Show.
For Limbaugh, and the intellectual right in general, there are two keys to the JFK assassination story.
The first is Oswald’s identity as a communist and man of the left. That proves both the treachery of the left. Oswald embodies the threat that leftism and liberalism poses to all that was good and American. And JFK, now that he’s dead, is one of things that is good and American.
When he was alive, of course, President Kennedy was reviled as threat to all things good and American by the Rush Limbaughs and Bill O’Reillys of the early 1960s. On the right Kennedy was viewed as an effeminate, nigger-loving, liberal dupe of Moscow who preferred riding Caroline’s tricycle to leading the Free World.
The right-wing interpretation of November 22, 1963, usually omits mention that JFK’s murder was greeted with cheers in many places in the South and West. When Vince Salandria went to Dealey Plaza for the first time in 1965, a stranger reminded him that the area had been built during the New Deal. “A socialist president got killed in a socialist plaza,” the man said, pleased with the ways things worked out on November 22. The conservatives who lionize JFK today rarely talk about how the political right violently loathed JFK with the same fervor now directed at the anti-colonialist socialist weakling tyrant who now lives in the White House.
A second common feature of the right-wing interpretations of November 22 is the claim that the liberal response to JFK’s assassination also reveals something essential about liberalism: its decadent and corrupted state. This is Limbaugh’s theme. He’s a gasbag but others make the point more coherently. The looney left of JFK conspiracy theorists embodies something that is wrong with liberalism. In the work of a thoughtful conservative writer like Thom Mallon or a generally conservative Hollywood mythmaker like Tom Hanks, a disdain for JFK conspiracy theorists is part and parcel of a disdain for moralistic liberalism.
The problem with this theme is mostly factual.
First the leading leftist writers in my lifetime (I.F. Stone, Noam Chomsky, Alexander Cockburn, the young Christopher Hitchens) were all adamantly anti-conspiratorial in their understanding of the JFK story. Liberal intellectuals who are open to the idea of a JFK conspiracy (historians Arthur Schlesinger, Douglas Brinkley and Garry Wills for example) are usually not vocal in their belief.
Second, opinion polls have shown that belief in JFK conspiracy theories is common across the political spectrum. And that matches my experience.The liberal left is well-represented in the JFK research community — but so are libertarians. In my experience, many people interested in the JFK story describe themselves as independent, moderate, or middle of the road. This fact will never penetrate the closed mind of a John McAdams, but it is a fact.
Third, there were plenty of highly conservative, non-liberal, steely-eyed political realists on the right who believed JFK had been killed by his enemies. When we speak of Lyndon Johnson or Fletcher Prouty or Win Scott, the label of “looney left” is risible.
Johnson was a corporate Democrat par excellence. Prouty, chief of Pentagon Special Operations in 1963, was an anti-JFK military man. Win Scott, the CIA’s Mexico City station chief, was “to the right of George Wallace,” his assistant Anne Goodpasture told me. Johnson, Prouty, and Scott all came to the conclusion that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy of his enemies. Liberalism or leftism cannot explain their views.
That’s what’s wrong with right-wing take on JFK.