There’s an anniversary this November that probably won’t resonate much for anyone under fifty. This short history lesson from Adam Gopnick in the New Yorker was posted before today’s Confederate-flag-at-the-White-House incident:
… As it happens, I’ve been doing some reading about John Kennedy, and what I find startling, and even surprising, is how absolutely consistent and unchanged the ideology of the extreme American right has been over the past fifty years, from father to son and now, presumably, on to son from father again. The real analogue to today’s unhinged right wing in America is yesterday’s unhinged right wing in America. This really is your grandfather’s right, if not, to be sure, your grandfather’s Republican Party. Half a century ago, the type was much more evenly distributed between the die-hard, neo-Confederate wing of the Democratic Party and the Goldwater wing of the Republicans, an equitable division of loonies that would begin to end after J.F.K.’s death. (A year later, the Civil Rights Act passed, Goldwater ran, Reagan emerged, and we began the permanent sorting out of our factions into what would be called, anywhere but here, a party of the center right and a party of the extreme right.)
Reading through the literature on the hysterias of 1963, the continuity of beliefs is plain: Now, as then, there is said to be a conspiracy in the highest places to end American Constitutional rule and replace it with a Marxist dictatorship, evidenced by a plan in which your family doctor will be replaced by a federal bureaucrat—mostly for unnamable purposes, but somehow involving the gleeful killing off of the aged. There is also the conviction, in both eras, that only a handful of Congressmen and polemicists (then mostly in newspapers; now on TV) stand between honest Americans and the apocalypse, and that the man presiding over that plan is not just a dupe but personally depraved, an active collaborator with our enemies, a secret something or other, and any necessary means to bring about the end of his reign are justified and appropriate. And fifty years ago, as today, groups with these beliefs, far from being banished to the fringe of political life, were closely entangled and intertwined with Senators and Congressmen and right-wing multi-millionaires.
In their new book, “Dallas 1963,” Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis demonstrate in luxuriant detail just how clotted Dallas was with right-wing types in the period before Kennedy’s fatal visit. The John Birch Society, the paranoid, well-heeled, anti-Communist group, was the engine of the movement then, as the Tea Party is now—and though, to their great credit, the saner conservatives worked hard to keep it out of the official center, the society remained hyper-present. Powerful men, like Ted Dealey, the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, sympathized with the Birchers’ ideology, and engaged with General Edwin A. Walker, an extreme right-wing military man (and racist) who had left the Army in protest at Kennedy’s civil-rights and foreign policies—and who had the ear of Senators Strom Thurmond and John Tower….
The whole thing came to a climax with the famous black-bordered flyer that appeared on the day of J.F.K.’s visit to Dallas, which showed him in front face and profile, as in a “Wanted” poster, with the headline “WANTED FOR TREASON.” The style of that treason is familiar mix of deliberate subversion and personal depravity. “He has been wrong on innumerable issues affecting the security of the United States”; “He has been caught in fantastic lies to the American people, including personal ones like his previous marriage and divorce.” Birth certificate, please?…
I had just turned eight that November, and what I remember most is the shock that all the adults in my life agreed this was a terrible, terrible event for the whole country. My family and the parish that was my world usually held true the “two [individuals], three opinions” school of political activism, so the comity of sorrow seemed like a pivot on which the whole universe must be swinging. Fifty years from now, what will today’s eight-year-olds remember about our politics?