Sunday, November 10, 2013

Conspiracy Theories--How JFK's Assassination Explains It All

Conspiracy Theories—How JFK’s Assassination Explains It All

It was all downhill after the Warren Commission. 

I have been participating in Professor Larry Sabato’s online course “The Kennedy Half-Century, and there is a segment covering the investigation of the assassination of JFK.  Sabato makes a point that is rather startling in its scope; that the findings of the Warren Commission led to the pervasive cynicism that so many Americans have about their government.

It is a fascinating story. The nation is traumatized by the public execution of their young, energetic, impossibly charismatic President.  It is all played out on television; the early cut-in to regular programming, the gripping moment when Walter Cronkite announces that JFK has been declared dead, the elegant, mournful funeral with John-John saluting his father’s casket, and the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby. 

We live in a culture where violence is ritualized and glamorized to the point where it like empty calories, but watch this clip of CBS’s coverage.  The grainy black and white, the stunned reporter for the CBS Dallas affiliate almost incoherently repeating himself, the well-dressed crowd in the Dallas Trade Mart (JFK was headed there to give a speech) moving back and forth without direction, the African-American waiter mopping away his tears.

That is reality, unscripted, chaotic, and human.  The feelings of shock and of loss feel real, because they are real.  Watch Cronkite’s intensely personal reaction:  how he takes his glasses off, how he dips his head, how his voice catches.

People wanted answers.  There were wild rumors floating around of vast conspiracies.  President Johnson needs an authoritative determination about the events surrounding JFK’s death to bring an end to the speculation, and he wants it wrapped up before the following year’s election.  He brings in the respected Supreme Court Chief Justice, Earl Warren to head a commission that will bring finality.  Faced with a time-line, the Commission’s review is anything but exhaustive, and many of the members don’t even show up for the majority of the meetings.  Numerous witnesses are never interviewed.  Contrary data is discarded. A desire for closure leads to a convenient conclusion.

The Chief Justice goes to the White House to present the report. The iconography is right—the portentous music and voice-over, the white haired and distinguished Warren trailed by his Commission, the backlit Oval Office, the grim-faced LBJ and the solemn handshake.  But the conclusions are immediately mocked.  No conspiracy.  Oswald acted alone and his secret (if there was any) died with him.  The Zapruder Film that shows the impact on JFK and Texas Governor John Connelly to be too close in time for Oswald to have fired two shots (he was using a single-action bolt rifle) leads to the so-called “single bullet” theory.  A lawyer for the commission (34 year old Arlen Specter) concludes that a single shot from Oswald’s rifle took off the top of Kennedy’s head, tore through his throat, and then hit Connelly, causing additional serious injuries.

And yet, while Specter might have been right (and he has his defenders) the feeling in the country was that Commission’s conclusions were political.  The people weren’t being told the truth by their government, and the cover-up began at the very top--the President and the Chief Justice. 

Why?  Adults understood that there was always a little chicanery in politics, and a little secrecy in foreign and military affairs. But there is a fundamental difference between the small-bore fabrications that make up a politician’s daily life and a whopper on a topic of universal interest.  Why would our government lie?  What purpose is to be served?  What is the hidden secret that is so damaging that these supposedly wiser heads think the country cannot be trusted with the truth?

Fifty years later, we just don’t know.  The conclusions of the Warren Report, even those not entirely substantiated by the evidence, might very well be true.  But there remains clamminess; the discomforting sense the government, our government, either didn’t look hard enough, or if it did, decided not to share.  If we cared so much, what does it say that they cared so little?

This mistrust has never left us. It’s been passed on like an untreatable virus from generation to generation.  It is amplified by ambitious politicians and by opinion makers looking for votes and attention.  It runs amok on the web, where any distortion can go viral, and any set of data-points can be arranged to “prove” even the most outlandish.

A healthy mistrust of government isn’t a bad thing--I briefly considered reciting one of the truly crazy rumors, but edited it out when I realized that the mere mention of it might get me on some NSA list of crackpots.  But pure paranoia, seeing conspiracies everywhere, is a little too much for most rational people. So they align themselves around a set of truths—political truths—that permit them to focus their fears. It leads to a different type of bi-polarity: government is not to be trusted, but their guys are the moral ones.  This also allows them to live with the inherent dissonance in some of their positions; combatting evil requires a strong hand, and a virtuous end justifies the means.   

So, if you truly believe that (Democratic, of course) vote fraud is pervasive, it was perfectly fine that Ken Cuccinelli purged 40,000 voters from the ranks in the weeks before the election.  And, if you are convinced that the only electoral result that is valid is the one that supports your candidate, you have absolutely no problem with the Virginia State Electoral Board issuing a ruling this last Friday (that would be three days after the election) that requires provisional voters (including some just purged) to physically appear on their own behalf (on a work day) to plead their cases, instead of having a representative.  This despite long accepted bipartisan practice.  And which county is this being applied to?  Fairfax County, which went heavily for the Democratic candidate for Attorney General. How many provisional votes in question?  About 400.  Who cares about 400 votes?  Well, Democrat Mark Herring trails Republican Mark Obenshain by about 130 votes Statewide, and Fairfax County has gone more than 2/1 for Herring.  You can do the math.  So, apparently, can others.  Just why did the Virginia State Electoral Board change the rules after the election? On the order of the Attorney General, a Mr. Ken Cuccinelli.

Put the purge and the sudden fealty to voting rules together in a tight election, and you have a bit of a conspiracy, if one would want to see it.  Put together a promise by a President “if you like it, you can keep it” and the enactment of a controversial program, and you can see another. 

Perhaps that is the true legacy of the investigation into JFK’s assassination; an expectation that those in power, or who want power, trim constantly to meet a personal or political agenda.  Government that is not so much immoral, as it is amoral. 

I would say Professor Sabato is on to something.  Let’s call it the single bullet theory of governing.  Take your shot, truthful or not.  You never know who will believe it.

Michael Liss (MM)

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