Po­lit­i­cal as­sas­si­na­tion: Lib­er­al­ism ‘shat­tered’ over JFK

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By El­iz­a­beth Miller

Nearly a half-cen­tury af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Kennedy in 1963, that fate­ful Novem­ber day in Dal­las has pro­duced nu­mer­ous books and movies pro­mot­ing or de­bunk­ing con­spir­acy the­o­ries sur­round­ing his death.

But one new book fo­cuses on the af­ter­math of Mr. Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion and how this changed the en­vi­ron­ment of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

In “Camelot and the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion: How the As­sas­si­na­tion of John F. Kennedy Shat­tered Amer­i­can Lib­er­al­ism,” James Piereson said many lib­er­als in the 1960s re­fused to ac­cept that Mr. Kennedy was killed by a com­mu­nist gun­man, Lee Har­vey Oswald, and in­flu­enced pub­lic opin­ion about the as­sas­si­na­tion in such a way as to por­tray Mr. Kennedy as a civil rights mar­tyr.

“When Kennedy was as­sas­si­nated, they pro­ceeded to in­ter­pret his death in that civil rights con­text even though Kennedy was killed by a com­mu­nist,” Mr. Piereson said. “Kennedy was ob­vi­ously a ca­su­alty of the Cold War, and the lib­er­als were re­luc­tant to ac­knowl­edge that fact.”

Mr. Piereson said lib­eral thinkers of the 1950s were con­vinced that the chief dan­ger to the United States wasn’t com­mu­nism, but the “rad­i­cal right” and “McCarthy­ism.” Sus­pi­cions of com­mu­nist in­flu­ence in the United States raised by Sen. Joseph McCarthy had been ridiculed by some lib­er­als.

“In cer­tain ways, the Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion re­in­forced what McCarthy had said, that com­mu­nism was a threat in­ter­nally, not just abroad,” said Mr. Piereson, pres­i­dent of the William E. Si­mon Foun­da­tion. “The Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion shat­tered the as­sump­tions of lib­er­al­ism as it had de­vel­oped from the New Deal on­ward.”

The lib­er­als of the pe­riod were con­vinced that the fu­ture be­longed to them and that the New Deal was just the first step in per­fect­ing Amer­i­can democ­racy, Mr. Piereson said.

“For the lib­er­als of that pe­riod, the right was ir­ra­tional, it was fight­ing against moder­nity, op­posed to democ­racy and progress and in some ways, anti-Amer­i­can,” Mr. Piereson said. The as­sas­si­na­tion in Dal­las, he said, “also un­der­mined their faith in the na­tion, they couldn’t ac­cept the fact that a com­mu­nist killed Pres­i­dent Kennedy [so] they de­flected the blame onto the coun­try and they said Kennedy was caused by a cli­mate of in­jus­tice and big­otry.”

Mr. Piereson said Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion drained a lot of po­lit­i­cal en­ergy out of the lib­eral move­ment, caus­ing many lib­er­als to fo­cus more on so­cial ideals.

“How do we get from 1963, where the coun­try is rel­a­tively con­ser­va­tive cul­tur­ally, but lib­er­al­ism is in the sad­dle as the dom­i­nant phys­i­cal phi­los­o­phy of the coun­try, to 1968, when the coun­try is un­rav­el­ing, there are cam­pus demon­stra­tions, ur­ban ri­ots, crime had es­ca­lated, and the lib­er­als and left­ists were de­nounc­ing the U.S. as a sick so­ci­ety?” Mr. Piereson said.

When the pres­i­dent’s brother, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was as­sas­si­nated in 1968 — shortly af­ter win­ning the Cal­i­for­nia pri­mary — by Sirhan Sirhan, Mr. Piereson said, lib­eral lead­ers again tried to change the pub­lic’s view of events.

“Robert Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion was again viewed in con­text of civil rights, even though his as­sas­sin had noth­ing to do with civil rights,” Mr. Piereson said.

Sirhan Sirhan was a Pales­tinian na­tion­al­ist who wanted to kill Kennedy be­cause of his sup­port for Is­rael dur­ing the 1967 Six-Day War, Mr. Piereson said.

“The lib­er­als in the coun­try in­ter­preted both th­ese events as mar­tyrs to civil rights and judged the na­tion to be guilty of th­ese crimes when, in fact, both as­sas­sins were Amer­i­can haters. [. . . ] They didn’t re­flect Amer­ica,” Mr. Piereson said.

Mr. Piereson com­pares the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Kennedy with the as­sas­si­na­tion of Pres­i­dent Lin­coln. The Lin­coln as­sas­si­na­tion made moral and po­lit­i­cal sense, Mr. Piereson said, in that Con­fed­er­ate sym­pa­thizer John Wilkes Booth killed Lin­coln, the leader of the Union cause.

“It fit into the story per­fectly, but Kennedy be­ing shot by a com­mu­nist made no sense to the lib­er­als,” Mr. Piereson said. “If an aboli- tion­ist had come and killed Lin­coln, that would have been dif­fi­cult for the North to un­der­stand within the frame­work of the Civil War.”

Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion by a com­mu­nist, in a way, vi­o­lated the script the lib­er­als had writ­ten in the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Piereson said, caus­ing them to in­vent a new script.

“Lin­coln’s as­sas­si­na­tion united the coun­try around eman­ci­pa­tion and free­dom, but Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion di­vided the coun­try and in many ways turned lib­er­als against the coun­try,” Mr. Piereson said. “It bred a kind of anti-Amer­i­can­ism [that] said Amer­i­can cul­ture is deeply flawed.”

Kennedy’s funeral was or­ga­nized sim­i­lar to Lin­coln’s funeral, Mr. Piereson said, in or­der to “re­in­force the im­agery of the brave leader slain for his sup­port of racial jus­tice and equal rights.”

Kennedy’s cof­fin was placed in the East Room for private view­ing, just like Lin­coln’s and then the flag-draped cof­fin was taken down Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue to the Capi­tol Ro­tunda and placed for pub­lic view­ing on a catafalque orig­i­nally con­structed for Lin­coln’s funeral.

“The Lin­coln funeral was used to pro­mote the Union cause to es­tab­lish Lin­coln as a mar­tyr to the Union and demon­strate what the South­ern­ers were ca­pa­ble of, it was that funeral to some ex­tent that turned him into the great mar­tyr we re­mem­ber him as to­day,” Mr. Piereson said.

Just as lib­er­al­ism of the 1930s is iden­ti­fied with Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, Mr. Piereson said, the lib­er­al­ism of the 1960s is as- so­ci­ated with the Kennedys.

“The lib­er­al­ism we see to­day is very much shaped by the events of the 1960s,” he said. “That pe­riod con­tin­ues to be a de­ci­sive fac­tor now, much like the New Deal shaped things for decades af­ter.”

Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s Novem­ber 1963 as­sas­si­na­tion prompted many the­o­ries, in­clud­ing those es­poused in a new book, “Camelot and the Cul­tural Revo­lu­tion” by James Piereson.

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