Commentary Magazine


The Left’s JFK Conspiracy Theories Matter

It’s understandable if many chose to pass on Frank Rich’s rambling attempt to rekindle the flame of speculation around who was really responsible for killing John F. Kennedy.

But the article, which relies mostly on pure tendentious fantasy (even using Stephen King’s science fiction reimagining of the crime as a source), is still worthwhile as a revealing expression of the pathologies of the left. And while Rich proclaims the assassination to be relevant to current events, he’s not entirely wrong. Only the parallels are not what he thinks.

There are two elements of modern liberalism Rich expresses in his conspiratorial rant, and they are both visible in the following paragraph:

While [William] Manchester adds that “obviously, it is impossible to define the exact relationship between an individual and his environment,” he strongly rejected the universal description of Oswald as “a loner.” No man, he writes, is quarantined from his time and place. Dallas was toxic. The atmosphere was “something unrelated to conventional politics—a stridency, a disease of the spirit, a shrill, hysterical note suggestive of a deeply troubled society.” Duly observing that even the greatest presidents have been vilified in their time—Lincoln as a baboon and Jefferson as “Mad Tom”—Manchester saw something “more than partisan zeal” at work in this case. He detected “a chiaroscuro that existed outside the two parties, a virulence which had infected members of both.”

Talk of the “atmosphere” of hate will be familiar to anyone who read the left’s reaction to the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. But whereas Jared Loughner was a nonideological madman, Lee Harvey Oswald was a communist bent on assassinating an anticommunist American president. At Hot Air, Allahpundit wondered why on earth Democrats wouldn’t just blame Oswald’s communism:

Oswald wasn’t a mainstream liberal or, Lord knows, a mainstream Democrat. He was a fringe leftist, an honest-to-goodness commie. The Oswald apologists could, if they liked, simply emphasize his ideological extremism — his fringiness — as the key to his anti-Kennedy mania.

But they didn’t–just as they defend the Occupy Wall Street protesters, whose movement has been marked by violence, rape, and in one case sympathy for–you guessed it–a would-be assassin who shot at the White House. This is one reason anticommunists had mostly left or avoided the Democratic party. Ralph de Toledano, Whittaker Chambers, and others like them argued there was a design flaw in the American left which would forever hamper their ability and willingness to cast out the crazies, even when they didn’t sympathize with them.

They argued, as the historian of the right George Nash once aptly put it, “that there was a philosophical continuity on the left and that this was disabling to American liberalism, because it could not quite bring itself to have a vigorous enough response to the communists.”

Frank Rich is not a communist, so why can’t he just admit the reality of what happened? Kennedy’s opposition to communism was a noble virtue, so why not say as much? Because though communist radicalism is far from the mainstream of the Democratic party, strident anticommunism is just as far.

The second reason is the last sentence in the paragraph I quoted from Rich’s article–Manchester’s observation of “a chiaroscuro that existed outside the two parties, a virulence which had infected members of both.” The left harbors hallucinogenic hate for the right, but it only underscores something even more rancid: a general suspicion of the American public and American culture. Manchester says it all: something was terribly wrong with people, and it had nothing to do with party affiliation or ideology–it was “suggestive of a deeply troubled society.” The public was sick, and no one–Democrat or Republican–could be trusted. Everyone was a threat, and someone finally emerged to pull the trigger.

But to blame that one man is to get it all wrong, according to writers Rich and Manchester and their ilk. Oswald, so the left’s theory goes, was himself a weapon, a gun, and America pulled the trigger.

Last year, Jonah Goldberg wrote a brief article for National Review (it’s not online) in which he asked why liberals are so protective of other cultures–even ones that execute gay men and women–yet get up in arms whenever someone suggests the existence of an inherent American culture. Perhaps, he offered, it’s because if liberals can convince people there is no American culture, when they replace it with their own version it won’t look as though they are destroying anything, but rather filling a void.

But maybe there’s another explanation. Frank Rich and his colleagues believe there is an inherent American culture–and it killed JFK. It tried to kill Gabrielle Giffords. It created the Tea Party. And it doesn’t much approve of Barack Obama’s presidency. Frank Rich sees a culture that clings to guns and God. It’s bitter, and, of course, so is he.

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