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22 November 2023

JFK and the myth of the great martyr-saviour

How the assassination of President Kennedy began the age of American conspiracy.

By Phil Tinline

It has been 60 years since President John F Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. But the shots that rung out around the world on 22 November 1963 still echo through American politics. One recent afternoon I walked along Elm Street as it runs through Dealey Plaza, from the old Texas School Book Depository to the underpass, past three guided tours, and there, in the middle of the road, I saw a painted “X”. This is where the presidential limousine was caught at the fatal moment, at least according to whoever it is who daubed it on the tarmac. For some, that “X” marks the spot on a treasure map where a dark secret is revealed. For others, it’s more like a cross: the holy site where the saviour of the United States was cruelly cut down.

Both these stories have endured, because each expresses a tenacious belief about how power works in America. Covert forces are scheming to control everything; heroic leaders can save us. Between them, these two ideas have shaped US history. The 1776 Declaration of Independence warns of the “absolute Tyranny” that King George III was plotting to impose on the colonists. The men who defeated his troops and wrote the Republic’s constitution are known as the “Founding Fathers”. But the US is different even than it was in 1963. So why does Kennedy, who died at a time when American power and prosperity seemed limitless, still haunt the nation?

When the terrible news from Dallas reached the New York Military Academy, the cadets reportedly wept. One of them was a 17-year-old Donald Trump. That same afternoon, in a maths class at his Arkansas high school, Bill Clinton, also 17, was left “totally bereft”. He had been dazzled to meet the great leader just months before; now, he felt, America’s future had been “snuffed out”. When I visited the Sixth Floor Museum commemorating the assassination, housed in the old Book Depository building, its chief curator, Stephen Fagin, told me that the teenage Clinton’s lament remains a common refrain. “People, perhaps naively, assume that so much of the violence and scepticism that punctuated the 1960s came about because of some watershed moment like the president being shot in Dealey Plaza,” he explained. “Had Kennedy lived – I’ve heard this so many times – he would not have escalated the war in Vietnam…” Along with his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, both assassinated in 1968, JFK remains an icon: “These martyrs, these secular saints, are found in homes all across the country.”

The assassination is often said to have destroyed an age of innocence. But tracing the motorcade route back up Main Street – just beyond Philip Johnson’s abstract Kennedy Memorial – I found another commemoration, erected in 2021. It records the lynching of a “59-year-old Black handyman named Allen Brooks” in 1910 by “at least 3,000 white men”. This was not a crime for which Dallas was distinctive, but the idea that some sort of innocence was shattered down the street 53 years later suggests a strong American appetite for myth, for telling comforting stories about itself even before Kennedy became the fourth US president to be shot dead.

Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Kennedy’s public image had been expertly constructed, with the help of his dubious father’s deep pockets: the super-healthy moral genius of media acclaim was, we now know, a sickly sex addict. He was brave, and noble, and his rhetoric could soar, but his legislative record was thin, and despite packing his administration with “the best and the brightest” it is not obvious that he would have avoided calamity in Vietnam.

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But his public murder sealed his myth. As the historian Steven Gillon, author of America’s Reluctant Prince, a biography of Kennedy’s son John F Kennedy Junior, told me: “We have transformed Kennedy into a metaphor of American greatness and judged all of his successors by that standard. Not surprisingly, they look dull by comparison. Politicians, eager to win the hearts of American voters, have tried to mimic Kennedy’s style and to steal his message.”

After Clinton became president in 1993, journalists spent much of his two terms mapping the chasm between his Kennedy-esque charismatic idealism and his (also Kennedy-esque) personal and political compromises. Even Barack Obama’s victory speech in 2008 was soon lost to messy political reality. By the time he gave a speech to mark 50 years since Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, some of his own supporters were disillusioned.

Yet while Obama hinted at the myth by saying Kennedy was remembered as a “larger-than-life figure who graced this Earth for one brief and shining moment”, he made no mention of the immense frustration felt by 1960s civil rights leaders towards the great man’s infuriating caution.

Joe Biden, another East Coast Catholic, began his political career in the 1970s by modelling himself on Kennedy. To Gillon, the biographer, Obama and Biden alike “flexed their political and legislative muscle to push through legislation that was far more ambitious than anything JFK could have imagined, yet even they, and their accomplishments, appear diminished by the comparison to a mythical Kennedy”.

[See also: Is Nikki Haley a real threat to Donald Trump?]

So even now, for many Americans, Dealey Plaza holds all Kennedy’s “unfulfilled hope and promise in this perpetual bubble”, Fagin told me, making it a place of “necessary pilgrimage” for people from across the US. The museum preserves images of the groups who have been drawn to the plaza to “express themselves the way John F Kennedy helped them understand they needed to as Americans”. In 2008-09, for instance, when supporters of the Occupy movement, born decades after the assassination, stood in the plaza with their placards, the curator was moved to see that “a lot of those signs were Kennedy quotes”. This, he said, was “extraordinary 45 years after the man’s death – his words are still helping to inspire people in their own active social engagement”.

In 1972, Dallas’s first gay pride parade started at the Kennedy Memorial, even though Kennedy himself was no particular champion of the cause. The rationale, Fagin said, is that “it is something he would have supported”. Dealey Plaza has seen demonstrations both for and against the Vietnam War, and pro- and anti-immigration. The name “Kennedy”, it seems, can now mean anything you want. As Gillon points out, “Republicans have invoked Kennedy’s memory to sell programmes – supply-side economics, for example – that were antithetical to JFK’s own policies.”

Amid the ructions of the 2016 election, the museum was promoting an exhibition about the presidential race of 1960: the one that brought Kennedy to power. Up went a billboard sporting that megawatt face and the slogan “Kennedy for President, 1960 – A Time for Greatness”. “We got a lot of positive comments on that from people all across the political spectrum,” Fagin recalled, “and to a person, they all said, ‘Oh, I wish John F Kennedy was alive today.’”

It was not like that in 1960. As Biden remembered in 2013, people now “talk about it like this guy was so overwhelmingly popular”, but Kennedy scraped to victory. In Dallas, a vocal minority grew to loathe his tentative approach to the Soviet Union, and his openness to civil rights reform. On the morning of his death, a handbill had appeared on windshields along the motorcade route. Under mock-mugshots of the evil liberal president was the incendiary heading: “WANTED FOR TREASON”. No wonder many assumed he had been murdered by “the right”.

Yet now the martyr-saviour myth is available to everyone – even descendants of those right-wing conspiracists. On 2 November 2021, Michael Williams, a young journalist at the Dallas Morning News, went to Dealey Plaza to report on a pro-Donald Trump rally. There were the usual slogans – “Q Sent Me”, “Where We Go One, We Go All” – for the QAnon conspiracy, which believes America is controlled by a secret network of leftist paedophiles. But among the hundreds of people standing on the grass in the rain, he came upon something even stranger. Those he spoke to were convinced that by midnight, John F Kennedy Jr – the dead president’s son – was going to reveal himself at the sacral spot where his father was killed, ushering in the triumphant return of Trump to the presidency.

[See also: Is Nikki Haley a threat to Donald Trump?]

John Jr died in a plane crash in 1999, but according to those in the crowd, he had been in hiding the whole time. (This was not the first time QAnon supporters had talked this way; some believe that John Jr is their mysterious leader, “Q”.) Over the painted “X”, a woman dressed as Captain America called Micki Larson-Olson waved a flag reading “TRUMP 2021 JFK JR”. (She had worn the same costume when she invaded the Capitol building in Washington on 6 January that year.) Williams told me she was adamant that not only John Jr but JFK himself would return: he had not been assassinated after all. Williams was bemused: “Why would he come to Dallas, of all places?” Nevertheless, some of them waited in the city for months.

Since then, a Kennedy Jr has appeared in presidential politics: JFK’s nephew, Robert. The true believers in Dallas took one of those stories inaugurated by the assassination – the president as saviour – to its literalist extreme. Robert Kennedy Jr’s campaign does something similar for the other narrative: the one that claims shadowy forces control everything. By the end of the 1960s, many believed that Kennedy had been killed by malignant forces inside the state itself, to prevent him from reaching a settlement with the Soviets over Cuba, or ending the war in Vietnam, or – why not? – achieving world peace. One theory, dramatised in Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK, contended that the murder was the work of the “military-industrial complex”. Others blamed the CIA, or the FBI. There was plenty that these organisations could justly be charged with, but claims of vast conspiracy go beyond that, to conjure a vision of true American power as perfectly organised, invisible and omnipotent.

The notion of the military-industrial complex was not a product of conspiracy theory, but of a more cautious attempt to answer the question: who really has power, and what do they plan to do with it? The phrase was made famous by President Eisenhower in his 1961 farewell broadcast, as he handed over to Kennedy. Eisenhower was deeply concerned about the “unwarranted influence”, both economic and political, of military contractors and their allies in Washington. His chief speechwriter, Malcolm Moos, had been reading the work of the sociologist C Wright Mills, whose book The Power Elite (1956) sought to map how a nexus of businessmen, politicians and the military had disempowered ordinary Americans, leaving them isolated and bewildered. Crucially, however, Mills stressed that the elite’s power was not a conspiracy.

After Mills’ death in 1962 his friend, the historian Richard Hofstadter, wrote a famous essay anatomising American conspiracism as “The Paranoid Style”; in an eerie coincidence, he delivered it as a lecture in Oxford the night before Kennedy was killed. And it was in the wake of the assassination, as America sank into the Vietnam quagmire, and citizens wanted to know why the hopes of the early 1960s had soured, that the military-industrial complex began to take on an overtly sinister meaning. Now it became a dark force that had murdered the president to save those lucrative Pentagon contracts.

This theory echoed the “merchants of death” thesis that emerged after the First World War: the charge that arms manufacturers started wars to profit from them.

Whether Kennedy himself would have believed that this was the reason he was killed, however, is doubtful. In November 1961, in a speech at the Hollywood Palladium, he had dismissed the notion that wars are started by the “munitions makers”. He cited it as an example of a tendency on the far right to seek “a simple solution, an appealing slogan or a convenient scapegoat” for unwelcome events. He defended himself against their accusations that he was soft on communism by pointing out how much his administration was spending on armaments.

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Today we have another Kennedy running for power against those shadowy elements, while invoking the memory of his assassinated uncle and declaring himself a “Kennedy liberal”. Aside from RFK Jr’s signature theories about Anthony Fauci (accused of a “coup d’état against Western democracy”), Big Pharma (alleged to have “poison[ed] an entire generation”), and the Covid vaccination programme (which he compared to “Hitler’s Germany”), RFK Jr believes his uncle was killed by the CIA. He recently tweeted that the US “foreign policy establishment manipulated” Ukraine into a war “to fulfil [a] vain + futile geopolitical fantasy”: an echo of theories about the military-industrial complex.  The Kennedy family have repudiated RFK Jr’s campaign – JFK’s only grandson, Jack Schlossberg, has insisted it is Biden who embodies President Kennedy’s political spirit. But strikingly, some on the populist right, such as Steve Bannon and ex-Trump adviser Roger Stone, have championed RFK Jr as Trump’s 2024 running mate. Ron DeSantis has promised that if he wins in 2024, he will appoint Kennedy to a major public health post.

All this underscores something that is easily missed about the theories that JFK was killed by the “deep state” – they can be as appealing to the right as to the left. It depends on who feels thwarted by those in power. In the early 1990s, the radical right lost its old Cold War enemy, communism, and found itself ruled by President George HW Bush, a pillar of the eastern foreign policy establishment and ex-chief of the CIA. He was then succeeded by the arch-liberal Bill Clinton, who introduced the North American Free Trade Agreement. No wonder that the far-right newspaper the Spotlight lauded JFK on the film’s release: it expressed its fears of a nefarious influence in control of political life. Conspiracy theories flourished in the 1990s militia movement, whose nightmarish visions of imminent state tyranny Trump recently echoed in a speech in Waco, Texas, not far from the site of the 1993 siege that seemed to symbolise the federal government’s malign power. Today, the huge power of the postwar American state has waned, but the fears that power stirred up are strong.

Roger Stone may sport a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back, but he has put forward the view, also held by many of the 1960s left, that JFK was killed by his successor, Lyndon Johnson. According to Michel Jacques Gagné, author of Thinking Critically about the Kennedy Assassination (2022), Stone has influenced Trump’s use of conspiracy accusations against the deep state. Both RFK Jr’s “foreign policy establishment” and the deep state now play a similar demonological role to the military-industrial complex. (During the 2016 election campaign, Trump made a bizarre allegation that the father of his rival Ted Cruz had been an accomplice of Lee Harvey Oswald.)

So perhaps one truth that emerges from the Kennedy assassination is how societies place unreasonable expectations on individual politicians to save us, as though running a complicated democracy were as easy as contriving the heroic climax of a movie. When these hopes are dashed, disillusionment fosters a cynicism about politics, and a hunt for mysterious forces that must be to blame. But messy real-life politics, the Kennedy administration included, can’t be understood through the template of Hollywood’s tidy fictions. Part of the trouble stems from the fact that this is how Kennedy was pitched to the public. That is why QAnon’s embrace of JFK brings a feature of American culture – the desire to understand politics through “saviours” battling “dark forces” – to sick fruition.

Each historical moment has its specific political issues, but the fearful images they produce tend to endure. Covid lockdowns triggered anxieties about incipient tyranny that John F Kennedy would have recognised. America’s involvement in the war in Ukraine has revived the “merchants of death” theory.

As in the 1960s and 1990s, so in 2023, conspiracy theories are red lights flashing on the dashboard of our democratic leaders, warning that citizens believe power to be distant and inexplicable, even a danger. The solution is neither panic nor laughter, but attending to the causes. Yet in recent years, when Kennedy’s old citadel, the liberal centre, has itself suffered the kind of jarring humiliations more familiar to those on left and right, it too has sometimes responded with conspiracy theories – and not just in the United States. Kennedy’s warning stands: beware “convenient scapegoats” for threats, shocks and problems.

At the museum, among the scale models of Dealey Plaza and the videos of Dallas citizens recalling the trauma, I watched parents crouch by their kids, trying to explain what it was all about. Those parents were themselves perhaps decades too young to remember the assassination. Gillon reports that, even among history students, the Kennedy myth has much less power than for his baby-boomer generation. And today, as the cars roll daily in their thousands over that X painted on Elm Street, Dallas seems at last to have found a way to live with what happened here on 22 November 1963. But even as memories of the Kennedy moment fade, and we gear up for the 2024 presidential election and the possible return of Donald Trump, the myths JFK’s murder nurtured will remain, marked more indelibly on America than before.

Phil Tinline is the author of “The Death of Consensus: 100 Years of British Political Nightmares” (Hurst)

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This article appears in the 22 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The paranoid style

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