George Will: How Kennedy's death changed liberalism
"Ex-Marine Asks Soviet Citizenship"
— Washington Post headline, Nov. 1, 1959 (concerning a Lee Harvey Oswald)
"He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It's — it had to be some silly little Communist."
— Jacqueline Kennedy, Nov. 22, 1963
She thought it robbed his death of any meaning. But a meaning would be quickly manufactured to serve a new politics. First, however, an inconvenient fact — Oswald — had to be expunged from the story. So, just 24 months after the assassination, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the Kennedys' kept historian, published a thousand-page history of the thousand-day presidency without mentioning the assassin.
The transformation of a murder by a marginal man into a killing by a sick culture began instantly — before Kennedy was buried. The afternoon of the assassination, Chief Justice Earl Warren ascribed Kennedy's "martyrdom" to "the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots." The next day, James Reston, the New York Times luminary, wrote in a front-page story that Kennedy was a victim of a "streak of violence in the American character," but especially of "the violence of the extremists on the right."
Never mind that adjacent to Reston's article was a Times report on Oswald's communist convictions and associations. A Soviet spokesman, too, assigned "moral responsibility" for Kennedy's death to "Barry Goldwater and other extremists on the right."
Three days after the assassination, a Times editorial, "Spiral of Hate," identified Kennedy's killer as a "spirit": The Times deplored "the shame all America must bear for the spirit of madness and hate that struck down" Kennedy. The editorialists were, presumably, immune to this spirit. The new liberalism-as-paternalism would be about correcting other people's defects.
Hitherto a doctrine of American celebration and optimism, liberalism would now become a scowling indictment: Kennedy was killed by America's social climate whose sickness required "punitive liberalism." That phrase is from James Piereson of the Manhattan Institute, whose 2007 book "Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism" is a profound meditation on the reverberations of the rifle shots in Dealey Plaza.
The bullets of Nov. 22, 1963, altered the nation's trajectory less by killing a President than by giving birth to a destructive narrative about America. Fittingly, the narrative was most injurious to the narrators. Their recasting of the tragedy in order to validate their curdled conception of the nation marked a ruinous turn for liberalism, beginning its decline from political dominance.
Punitive liberalism preached the necessity of national repentance for a history of crimes and misdeeds that had produced a present so poisonous that it murdered a President. To be a liberal would mean being a scold. Liberalism would become the doctrine of grievance groups owed redress for cumulative inherited injuries inflicted by the nation's tawdry history, toxic present and ominous future.
Kennedy's posthumous reputation — Americans often place him, absurdly, atop the presidential rankings — reflects regrets about might-have-beens. To reread Robert Frost's banal poem written for Kennedy's inauguration ("A golden age of poetry and power of which this noonday's the beginning hour") is to wince at its clunky attempt to conjure an Augustan age from the melding of politics and celebrity that the Kennedys used to pioneer the presidency-as-entertainment.
Under Kennedy, liberalism began to become more stylistic than programmatic. After him — especially after his successor, Lyndon Johnson, a child of the New Deal, drove to enactment the Civil Rights Acts, Medicare and Medicaid — liberalism became less concerned with material well-being than with lifestyle, and cultural issues such as feminism, abortion and sexual freedom.
The bullets fired on Nov. 22, 1963, could shatter the social consensus that characterized the 1950s only because powerful new forces of an adversarial culture were about to erupt through society's crust. Foremost among these forces was the college-bound population bulge — baby boomers with their sense of entitlement and moral superiority, vanities encouraged by an intelligentsia bored by peace and prosperity and hungry for heroic politics.
Liberalism's disarray during the late 1960s, combined with Americans' recoil from liberal hectoring, catalyzed the revival of conservatism in the 1970s. As Piereson writes, the retreat of liberalism from a doctrine of American affirmation left a void that would be filled by Ronald Reagan 17 years after the assassination.
The moral of liberalism's explanation of Kennedy's murder is that there is a human instinct to reject the fact that large events can have small, squalid causes; there is an intellectual itch to discern large hidden meanings in events. And political opportunism is perennial.
George Will's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.