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The Fate of the Union: Kennedy and After

Of the three political assassinations in my time that have most appalled me, that of President Kennedy was in some ways the most horrible. Gandhi and Trotsky were old men who had played out their historical roles: India was free, Russia was Communist. They were also disillusioned old men; the communal massacres, the rise of Stalin showed the solutions they had devoted their lives to realizing were at best superficial—“You are late,” were Gandhi’s last words, addressed to his murderer. But Kennedy was a young man who had just begun to assume his role on the great stage, whose work was still undone. A handsome, vigorous young man with a great deal of style, married to a woman who went through the days immediately after her widowing with style that approached heroism. The debutante beauty proved to be a Roman matron.

As might be expected, the assassination stimulated a good deal of cant—much of it doubtless sincere cant, an American specialty. Perhaps the low point was John Crosby’s November 27th column in the Herald Tribune, written from London, in which he tells how he was called out of a theater by a message with the news: “They all had their eyes on me; I will never forget the look of deepest compassion for a stunned, forlorn American who has just heard that his President had been shot.” I can’t believe in those universal looks “of deepest compassion.” and the concept of “My President” seems to me either too arrogant (“my car,” “my dog”) or too humble (as if the President owns you). Anyway not my style. It is as a man brutally killed and not as a President that I mourn John Kennedy.

Whatever his virtues may prove to be, however faithfully he carries out Kennedy’s program, the new President will bring the White House back to what an earlier President called “normalcy.” Kennedy was an aristocrat—we speed up the process over here—Johnson is a…politican. “One could not imagine President Kennedy ending a speech with the chorus of America, the Beautiful,” Anthony Lewis wrote in the Times apropos of Johnson’s address to Congress. “For President Johnson, this homely and emotional touch was entirely natural…He took 27 minutes to read a speech that would have taken Mr. Kennedy not more than 15, pausing often and ringing changes in his voice for dramatic emphasis. He was applauded 32 times. Delivering the same speech, one observer said, President Kennedy would have left gaps for applause only four or five times.”

But style is not everything—perhaps, in American politics, not much. My guess is that Johnson will do about what Kennedy would have done. Ours is a mass democracy, which is a contradiction in terms since the masses are too big and unwieldy to express themselves democratically. All the varied interests and aspirations of a hundred million voters (or rather citizens eligible to vote—almost half of them don’t take the trouble in most elections, which is perhaps the most significant esingle fact about “American democracy”) must be squeezed flat into two package deals labelled Rep, and Dem. The best that can be said is that it’s better than Their system. So the President does what he must, not what he would. There are today, for example, three major domestic problems, complexly interrelated: racial equality, economic stagnation, and poverty. Of these only the first is also a political issue, and this not because of anything Kennedy did but because the Negroes have admirably insisted on making it one. On none of the three did the Kennedy administration show much leadership, on none of them did Kennedy himself (aside from two fine speeches—the one at Yale on deficit financing and the one last spring on racial equality) make any systematic attempt to educate the public. Instead he relied on “realistic” power-politics, ie., deals with the Republican-cum-Southern-Democrat bloc in Congress, deals which rarely paid off since the reactionaries had the Congressional votes and the President didn’t. (An essay, a book could be written on the unrealism of liberal real-politik in America.) While Johnson is not a “liberal,” whatever that tired term means by now, neither was Kennedy until he became President. And if it continues to be a matter of horse-trading with Congress, I would expect Johnson to be more adept at this dirty business than were Kennedy and his bright young men. At least he has had more experience.

The sniper’s bullet left one wound that is not healed, a wound to our consciousness of ourselves as Americans. Despite all the evidence in the newspapers, the daily stories of senseless brutality and casual murder, we have continued to think of ourselves as a civilized nation where law and order prevail. Like, say, England (whose police have to cope with about 100 murders a year, or one-fourth as many as are committed annually in New York City alone.) But now we see we are more in the class of Guatemala or the Congo. And not because of the murder of the President, ghastly though that was, since a single lunatic or fanatic, given enough skill and luck, always has a chance of killing a head of state. But rather because of the murder, two days later, in the Dallas police station itself, of Lee Oswald, the chief (and so far only) suspect. And because of the massive ineptitude with which the Dallas police handled the case from the beginning. Or was it ineptitude? Almost every one I have talked to has assumed there is more to the case than a single paranoiac “Marxist” with a cheap rifle, an even cheaper Japanese telescopic sight, and a fantastic amount of luck (firing three shots in five seconds and hitting the President with two and the Governor of Texas with the third). When the news first came through, we all assumed it was a lunatic Birchite racist, of the kind that infests Dallas. Then an hour later Oswald was captured and it turned out that Oswald was a self-proclaimed “Marxist,” a renegade Marine with ultra-left notions who had become disillusioned with Soviet Communism after living two years in Russia, and who had then rallied to Castro’s revolution as The Real Thing. The picture is filled in more every day—by now this wretched psychopath has been more extensively researched than most major historical figures; we are learning everything about his past, down to his report cards in a Bronx high school and the books he took out of a public library in New Orleans last summer—and it is always the same political portrait. (He even subscribed to a Trotskyist paper, he even became a member, briefly, of the American Civil Liberties Union, of whose New York affiliate I am a board member.) This was disturbing enough; it would seem the Left has its potential of crackpot violence, just as the Right has. And then when Jack Ruby, the strip-tease-club owner, killed Oswald by no more complicated a strategem than running up to him in the police station and putting a gun to his belly, it seemed likely that the cops had connived with the murder in order to avoid embarassing revelations. This theory implies that Oswald was a patsy who had been set up as the killer, with police connivance, because of his left-wing record; it also implies a conspiracy, probably of that lunatic right-wing that is endemic in Dallas, which either used the demented Oswald as the killer or else, possibly, placed him conveniently at the scene of the crime and had the actual shooting done by more skilled marksmen with better weapons.

Agreeable as this theory is to one’s political prejudices, I think it is probably wrong. At least the known facts so far revealed would seem to be more simply explained by the hypothesis that Oswald was a lone psychopath—and that he was phenomenally lucky in his marksmanship. That the Dallas police, instead of having guards walking ahead and behind Oswald on that last trip through the corridor (which would have made Ruby’s sortie difficult if not impossible), guarded him only by two cops on each side (who were looking the other way at the crucial moment, perhaps to let the television cameras get a full-face view of them)—this negligence, while criminal, was not, I think, conspiratorial. In the two days between the assassination and the murder of Oswald, for instance, the television cameras showed the corridors of the Dallas police station as a wild mob scene in which reporters, cameramen and God knows who else were milling around, shouting questions to Oswald as he was led handcuffed from one place to another; it seemed to me at the time that this was a hell of a way to run a police station. But it also seemed clear that the Dallas cops, right up to Chief Fritz, were hogs for publicity and willing to say or do anything that would get them into the limelight, including frequent assertions of Oswald’s guilt before he was tried and even before he had a lawyer. This last nicety was never granted the “suspect”—I wonder what the Supreme Court would have ruled on the case had it come to trial and had Oswald been convicted. If ever a defendant was denied “due process,” it was Lee Oswald. These fantastic guardians of law and order couldn’t even protect him against lynching. The final twist of the screw was the excuse offered by one of the cops after Ruby’s attentat: “We all knew Jack Ruby; he was around Friday and Saturday and so we didn’t think anything of it when he came around Sunday too.” Or words to that effect—I quote from TV memory.

When normally intelligent people are confronted with bungling on this scale, they tend to over-interpret, to explain such behavior rationally. They try to imagine why they themselves would have acted so and they come up with ingenious theories of conspiracy. There may have been a conspiracy, of course; we shall have to wait until the findings of the F.B.I. and of the Presidential Commission have been made public to know whether there are any grounds for this hypothesis. Meanwhile, I think that what we have learned of Oswald’s background and psychology is the simplest, therefore the best, explanation of the assassination; and that what we have seen of the stupidity of the Dallas police—and of their callousness about a suspect’s civil rights—is enough to account for the Ruby murder. But however the whole nightmare is finally explained we are left with the question: is Dallas America or is it merely Texas? It would be comfortable to think the latter, but I am not at all sure.

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