50 Years: Has Anything Changed?


Anti-JFK posterI remember that day, in 1963. I was in high school. Penmanship class, after lunch. I think it was the last year for penmanship in Ontario high school, but even if not, I never took it again.*

We used those long wooden pens with the fancy metal nibs, removable nibs that had to be periodically cleaned to keep the ink from clogging the narrow slot that fed the nib. There was a small bottle of ink. Black, I recall. Desks were designed to hold the bottles, with little inserts or holes on the upper right of the top.

The notebook was landscape mode, unlike our other workbooks; lined with a place for the ascenders, the descenders and the baseline. We dipped the nib into the ink and copied the phrase on the blackboard onto the paper, carefully making sure our j’s and g’s and t’s and f’s didn’t go past the proper lines. That the baseline was respected as the foundation for our letters.

Held the wrong way, even slightly off-kilter, the nib would catch and snap little blobs of ink across the page. Or on your shirt. If old ink was in the nib, the ink wouldn’t flow correctly and strokes wouldn’t be even. It was a painstakingly exact process that challenged our teenage skills. I always came home with ink-stained fingers after that class.

The speaker at the front of the class, above the blackboard, crackled. Every morning it played the national anthem and God Save the Queen. We stood for them, then sat down to hear it sound the daily announcements, the events, class changes,  Now and then, it would interrupt the day with updates, or special announcements. Calling kids to the office. Announcing that some team had won a game against another school. Or that an after school event was cancelled or held in a different room.

That afternoon, the principal interrupted the class to announce the news.

The American president had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas.

November 22, 1963. Friday. We all sat in uncomprehending shock. The teacher, a woman whose name I  have long forgotten, broke into tears at the front of the class, her shoulders shaking with every sob. Some of the kids followed her, crying openly. School was let out early that day.

It felt like the world had broken. Something significant had happened. Something had irrevocably changed. Camelot, the fantasy world we imagined had been brought on by the Kennedy presence, was over. Overnight utopia became dystopia.

Fifty years later, I still remember. I remember – less vividly – the chaos in the aftermath. The shock, the confusion.

I didn’t really understand the implications of the act, the long-reaching aftermath or how it widened the gap between political sides so much it might never be re-closed. I didn’t understand how hatred and anger could be stoked into such fury that someone would kill another person. I didn’t understand the radical right’s vehement, passionate hatred of anything left of their own views.

I didn’t understand how innuendo, rumour, gossip and outright lies would change the political landscape in America into an adversarial, confrontational, violent style that glorifies personal attacks and misinformation. That there are people who delight in hurting, tearing down, dismantling anything the other side accomplishes. That people, even a whole side of a political party, will hurt its own citizens, gravely and viciously, to simply score political points. That rather than celebrate the good, will attack it if they weren’t the source.

I’d learn much of that later. I’m still learning it as I watch with bemusement the battle to prevent President Obama’s healthcare plan from helping American citizens, resisted by a handful of rich politicians who get free government health care paid by these very taxpayers they would deny. I’m learning about it almost every day here, in this small town.

This month, I’ve been reading about the time that led up to that moment, and remembering it. The 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s murder is less than two months away. I feel it’s important to take the time to explore this moment in history and examine its lessons once again. As George Santayana wrote,

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”**

Rick Perlstein’s book, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus documents that period in great detail never really covered before. It’s fascinating and eye-opening, better even than his later book on Nixon’s rise to power. Gary Gerstle reviewed it and wrote:

The mere fact that Rick Perlstein’s Before the Storm devotes 516 pages to six years of the conservative movement (1958-1964) is itself a statement about this movement’s importance. Perlstein has chosen his period well, for these were the years in which Republican conservatives embraced the enigmatic Barry Goldwater as their tribune, used him to take back the Republican Party from its moderate, Dewey-Eisenhower-Rockefeller wing, and challenged the dominant liberal creed of managed capitalism, racial integration, activist government, and a vigorous but restrained anticommunism. And although conservative Republicans suffered a humiliating defeat in 1964, the principles they had embraced and the organization they had built endured, soon to bring them local, state, and then national victories. Perlstein tells this story with energy and insight, and in lively prose.

Kennedy’s assassination comes at the end of second two, almost halfway through the book. But you can see how the ugly political mood being created by the John Birch Society and its uber-right friends would lead to violence long before that.

In 1962, Dan Foley, newly-appointed National Commander of the American Legion, wrote in an editorial for the Legion magazine:

I mean those individuals who would save America by forsaking its free institutions. I mean not just the Communists and neo-Fascists who openly assail our system but, more especially, those who, in the conviction that theirs is the only right view, have lost sight of – and faith in – the fundamental processes of self-government. They claim to have the one true answer to every problem. They talk of setting aside the law when the law offends them. They are quick to cry “treason,” slow to admit error, and indifferent to arguments and facts that do not support their beliefs. They are not really leftists or rightists – but simply anarchists. (quoted in Perlstein).

Powerful words that succinctly encapsulated the increasingly confrontational and polarized political scene in the US in the early 1960s. But with a few words changed, they might describe 21st century politics not just in the USA, but in many nations, including Canada. They could easily be modestly updated to reflect local politics, too. Polarization is today’s watchword.

What many of us here didn’t know at the time of the assassination – or perhaps forgot in the intervening years and the wave of conspiracy theories that followed – is that in America, the first suspicions for blame in Kennedy’s murder were cast not on the Communists, but rather on the radical right, the John Birch Society in particular, but also on the Young Republicans. The neo-Fascist organizations in the USA were immediately suspected, too.

And for good reason: the right had splintered into two sides: moderates and extremists, with little middle ground between them. And the extremists had cranked up the rhetoric to the boiling point. Threats had been made.

The extremists had led an unrelenting, organized campaign against racial integration, as well as cranking up racial intolerance to the point of extreme violence. They had fanned fears of Communism into obsessive paranoia against their own government.  The poster at the top of this page is typical of the right’s virulent and continuing attack on Kennedy, distributed in Dallas openly before his visit. Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, had received a letter warning of  “something terrible” if Kennedy visited the turbulent city.

Kennedy himself, in his notes for the planned speech in Dallas, decried this twisted approach to democracy and civil debate, writing,

“…other voices are heard in the land – voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the Sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that… vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness…” (quoted in Perlstein).

I have read a lot of history since that say in 1963. I’ve read a lot about JFK and his policies – about his and his administration’s role in Viet Nam, in Cuba, in the Cold War, about his waffling on integration. I don’t idolize the man, never wanted him canonized as the patron saint of liberal American politics. He was sometimes wrong. He was flawed, he was imperfect, he made mistakes.

But we all do. In a democracy, even a republic like the USA, you don’t kill a person for holding different opinions, for making different choices, for standing up for an alternative view. Or at least you shouldn’t. But that’s what happened.

Mature, civil debate was also a casualty that day. How could people engage civilly when one side was murdering the other’s leaders?

And in large part the blame still has to fall on the shoulders of those people Dan Foley called anarchists: those who spin their views into righteous crusades with a goal to hurt, to demean, belittle, and damage. Those extremists who will destroy all that’s good rather than celebrate it simply because they have a different view.

It wouldn’t end with Kennedy. Five years later, on June 5, 1968, his brother, Robert Kennedy, in whom so many national hopes had been built, was also murdered.

As I watch the debate over Obama’s health care proposal, I see the same thing happening all over again. The extremists, the radical right, the fundamentalists, the disenchanted and the anarchists are screaming for blood: accusations, lies, innuendo and conspiracy theories against Obama and the government. Fox News fill the airwaves with vituperation, fanning the anger with a mix of toxic innuendo, misinformation and lies.

They don’t see the wrong in murder, in assassination, in violence. They are too filled with their own righteous anger to see how it affects others. They will kill anyone who stands in their way because theirs is the only way. I wonder how long before that attitude seeps north into Canada – as the vituperation, the confrontation and the self-righteous anger seem to have come.

No wonder presidents these days don’t travel in open motorcades: their own people are far more deadly and dangerous than any foreign enemy or terrorist.

Dan Foley’s 51-year-old words still ring true today in the USA. And, I think, we can heed them here in Canada, both nationally and locally.


* I’m working on a blog post about the death of handwriting and why it is bad for us intellectually and culturally, but meanwhile, Andrew Coyne’s comment in the NatPost is a good read.

** In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Edmund Burke wrote  a similar sentiment:

“People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”

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Ian Chadwick
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