What’s hate got to do with it?: Frank Rich gets the Kennedy assassination wrong

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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It is absurd to argue, as Frank Rich does, that the city of Dallas had anything to do with Lee Harvey Oswald’s decision to kill President John F. Kennedy.

Oswald, of course, was a nut and a communist. It was not conservative Dallas that caused him to earn an undesirable discharge from the Marine Corps Reserve. Nor was it the “toxic” environment of Dallas that led Oswald to move to Russia — or that fueled his attempted assassination of an outspokenly anti-communist general named Edwin Walker.

Again, Rich’s notion is patently absurd. But he is correct about a couple things: 1. The self flagellation that took place following Kennedy’s assassination was immediate, and 2. Adlai Stevenson had been previously heckled and spat on in Dallas in October of 1963 — an incident that caused some to (wrongly) assume a right-winger must be to blame for the Kennedy assassination, too.

There were other reasons for the confusion. One might even say that events “conspired” to hide the truth.

Oswald didn’t look or seem like what one would expect from a “communist” in America; he was not intellectual or urbane. Additionally, Hoover and the FBI weren’t particularly interested in advancing the notion that a subversive (whom they presumably should have been monitoring more closely) had killed the president.

But perhaps the most important reason for the confusion regarding the type of person who killed President Kennedy was the First Lady’s concerted effort to tie John F. Kennedy to Abraham Lincoln.

As James Piereson explains in his book “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution,”

Mrs. Kennedy, when informed that Oswald had been arrested in connection with the assassination, lamented bitterly that her husband may have been shot by a warped and misguided communist. “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights,” she said. “It had to be some silly little communist. It even robs his death of any meaning.” Mrs. Kennedy, too, like everyone else, had simply assumed that the killing had been the work of right-wingers.  She was sure that her husband, like Lincoln one hundred years before, had been killed because of his support for racial justice and equal rights. Oswald, she seemed to understand, had intervened in history against the expected flow of events. Mrs. Kennedy also spoke instinctively for many liberal Americans for whom civil rights at home was a far more urgent issue than the Cold war, which (they felt) had been blown out of proportion by the far right.

… The thought that Kennedy was a martyr to the Cold War was never seriously considered, though it fit the known facts better than any alternative interpretation. As between the two causes–civil rights versus anticommunism–there was little question in Mrs. Kennedy’s mind as to which would bear the more honorable legacy. Her remark suggested that she was already thinking of how President Kennedy’s legacy should be framed and that she sensed the identity of the assassin might prove inconvenient in this regard. She would shortly instruct White House aides to plan President Kennedy’s obsequies on the model of Abraham Lincoln’s.

It’s easy to understand how — in the days immediately following Kennedy’s assassination — there was great confusion. That is perfectly understandable, especially considering the public relations effort to associate Kennedy with Lincoln (or, more appropriately, Oswald with Booth). What is not understandable, however, is how — with the benefit of hindsight and history — Frank Rich could advance such a provably false assertion, so many years later.

Matt K. Lewis