The Obdurate Knoll

Colin Kidd

  • Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan by Jeff Greenfield
    Putnam, 434 pp, £20.25, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 399 15706 6
  • Buy11.22.63 by Stephen King
    Hodder, 740 pp, £19.99, November 2011, ISBN 978 1 4447 2729 6

The cultural consequences of 22 November 1963 are far more interesting than the events of the day itself. Historians like me tend not to find much of interest in the killing of one person by another, especially when the killer seems to have been a dysfunctional misfit. Of course, the assassination had puzzling aspects: Lee Harvey Oswald’s lengthy stay in the Soviet Union during some of the hottest years of the Cold War; the unlikely trajectory of one of the three bullets fired from the Texas School Book Depository, the ‘magic bullet’ which passed through the president’s neck and then through the body of the Texas governor, John Connally; and Oswald’s own murder while in police custody at the hands of Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner. Despite these anomalous features, Kennedy’s assassination was – conceptually speaking – a straightforward event. While academic historians have had plenty to say about his politics and legacy, they have largely ignored his death. That subject – perhaps the canonical event in amateur historiography – has largely been left to a laity of assassination buffs.

Why have so many Americans been unable to accept the conclusions of the Warren Commission Report, which exhaustively described the circumstances of the Kennedy assassination? Why has the assassination exerted such a hold on the American imagination? Why has it inspired such feats of ingenuity? Instead of there being a single anti-establishment version, dissident theories have proliferated. One of the more baroque was advanced by George C. Thomson, a swimming-pool engineer from Glendale, California, who argued that five people were killed in Dealey Plaza by the 22 shots fired there (but not Kennedy, who was impersonated in the presidential limousine by Officer Tippit, the Dallas policeman who was killed later that day by Oswald, according to the official version). With a similarly imaginative flourish, a group of Texans claimed that Kennedy was killed by a sniper firing from a papier-mâché tree. Then there’s the storm drain theory. Lillian Castellano, an accountant in California, spotted a storm drain in a photo of the grassy knoll taken at the time of the assassination. The drain was subsequently filled in. Was it, Castellano wondered, part of the escape route for the assassin on the grassy knoll?

Most of the hucksters of these conspiracy theories were on the left, and tended to see Oswald as the left-wing patsy who took the rap for a right-wing coup, but they were not the ‘usual suspects’ of rightist demonology. Indeed, the mainstream leftist intelligentsia in the US welcomed the Warren Report. Dwight Macdonald, who had been associated for many years with Partisan Review and played a leading role in the New Left during the 1960s, was a staunch defender of its conclusions – if not of its prose style. In a review of the Warren Report for Esquire, Macdonald described it as ‘an anti-Iliad that retells great and terrible events in limping prose instead of winged poetry’, but he wholeheartedly endorsed the commission’s findings.

As far as I.F. Stone was concerned, the commission had ‘done a first-class job’. He accepted the ‘lone killer’ thesis as ‘conclusive’ and called on those still convinced of Oswald’s innocence to carry out their investigations ‘in a sober manner’. He worried that some leftists were being sucked into behaviour of the sort he associated with the extreme right: ‘All my adult life as a newspaperman I have been fighting in defence of the left and of a sane politics, against conspiracy theories of history, character assassination, guilt by association and demonology. Now I see elements of the left using these same tactics in the controversy over the Kennedy assassination and the Warren Commission Report.’

All this had been uncannily predicted on the eve of the assassination. The American historian Richard Hofstadter’s influential essay ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ was given as the Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford on 21 November 1963. Hofstadter’s subject was the irrational underside of American political culture, where ill-defined fears gave rise to the populist scapegoating of particular groups, whether Jews, Freemasons, Communists or Jesuits; to the confabulation of conspiracy theories which attributed hidden and malevolent powers to such groups; and to a vast and ‘paranoid’ pseudo-scholarship which – in defiance of scholarly norms – set out the supposed facts of the case in such a way as to provide proof of the existence of invisible conspiratorial forces.

Conspiracy theorists often possess a wealth of accurate knowledge in such arcane fields as ballistics and acoustics, the workings of the Carcano rifle and the topography of downtown Dallas. It was an anti-Warren buff, Sylvia Meagher, who first indexed the 26 volumes of evidence published under the auspices of the commission. Some critics of the commission find the ‘magic bullet’ hard to accept; others are troubled by inconsistencies raised in the evidence of Sylvia Odio, who claimed she was visited in Dallas by a group of supporters of Cuba, including an American resembling Oswald called ‘Leon Oswald’, at a time when Oswald was, according to the commission’s findings, in New Orleans. Was there a second Oswald, a lookalike who passed himself off as Oswald? And which Oswald did the shooting? That a dangerous fiction lay at the heart of a bureaucratic work of tedious factual sobriety provided the basis for Woody Allen’s joke that he was working on a non-fiction version of the Warren Commission Report.

With these conspiracy theories abounding, who needs assassination novels? It’s possible, however that such books played a role in fostering the climate of suspicion which accompanied the official explanation of Kennedy’s murder, and helped sustain as well as satirise the paranoia which was exacerbated by the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in 1968 and seemed to find its justification in the Watergate revelations.

Richard Condon’s novel The Manchurian Candidate – an eerie anticipation published in 1959 and then turned into a Hollywood film which appeared during the Cuban Missile Crisis – described the attempted assassination of an American presidential candidate by a brainwashed former POW in the Korean War. The resemblance between the zombie assassin programmed in Asia and Oswald, with his mysterious two years in the Soviet Union, was all too obvious. After the assassination the film was withdrawn from circulation. Condon tried to damp down speculation about Oswald’s Soviet connection by publishing an article, entitled ‘“Manchurian Candidate” in Dallas’, which explored Oswald’s domestic social conditioning. At this stage he had no truck with conspiracy theories; a decade later, in the very different atmosphere of the Watergate cover-up, it was harder to gauge his position. In his satirical novel Winter Kills (1974), Condon seemed to advance a conspiratorial interpretation of a presidential assassination, inadequately investigated by a fictional Pickering Commission. With sly subversion, he appears to target both the manner in which the preposterous had driven out the plausible in the discussion of the JFK assassination and the aura that surrounded the Kennedy family: the JFK character in his book has been assassinated on the orders of his own father – a quasi-criminal Joe Kennedy figure.

Or was Lyndon Johnson, elevated to president on Kennedy’s death, a Texan and the politician who ramped up America’s military involvement in Vietnam, the obvious beneficiary of the assassination? Barbara Garson’s cod Shakespearean drama MacBird! (1966) smears Johnson and his wife as modern-day Macbeths. Among Garson’s dramatis personae were the unfortunate Ken O’Dunc, his ambitious viceroy MacBird, the latter’s goading wife, and various noblemen, including the Earl of Warren and Lord Stevenson, the Egg of Head (based, of course, on Earl Warren and Adlai Stevenson, the former Democratic presidential candidate). MacBird! had its origins in the anti-war teach-in movement at Berkeley, but copies began to sell in the hundreds of thousands and the play had a successful run in New York in 1967. By then Johnson the warmonger was an all too obvious villain.

Jeff Greenfield’s Then Everything Changed reminds us how different the 1960s would have been if a largely forgotten attempt on Kennedy’s life had succeeded. On 11 December 1960, Richard Pavlick, a suicide bomber with seven sticks of dynamite, decided at the last minute not to murder Kennedy when he saw Kennedy’s daughter saying goodbye to him as he left his house in Palm Beach. Pavlick decided to wait, but was arrested four days later. Greenfield wonders what the consequences of an earlier assassination would have been. Kennedy had just won the election but the electoral college had not met, so his assassination would have given rise to several constitutional anomalies, which would have been difficult to resolve without a degree of bipartisan co-operation. Greenfield enters too into the thoughts of Johnson, relieved that Kennedy has been assassinated in Florida: ‘Imagine if he’d been killed in Texas. I’d be suspect number one.’

Although several novelists have used the Kennedy assassination as a means of exploring the underside of American society, assassination fiction remains a variant of the whodunnit. The exception is Don DeLillo’s Libra (1988), whose most significant character, alluded to in the title, is an assassination historian at the CIA, Nicholas Branch, who is overwhelmed by the sheer mass of sources he spends his life judiciously sifting. For most, however, the temptation to reach a conclusion counter to the Warren version has proved irresistible. Charles McCarry’s The Tears of Autumn (1974) reminds his readers that John F. Kennedy wasn’t an innocent himself: he had among other things been responsible for the assassination of the South Vietnamese leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, in the autumn of 1963. The South Vietnamese put out a contract on Kennedy, while Ruby, it turns out, in McCarry’s cunningly convoluted plot, is an unwitting sleeper of the KGB, who assassinates Oswald because the Russians fear that his trial would inflame American public opinion against the Soviet Union. It now appears that there was a real-life parallel to McCarry’s fiction, for, although the KGB had nothing to do with Kennedy’s assassination, in its aftermath it did provide covert support for the dissemination of conspiracy theories. According to the defector Vasili Mitrokhin and the historian of intelligence Christopher Andrew, ‘by the late 1970s the KGB could fairly claim that far more Americans believed some version of its own conspiracy theory of the Kennedy assassination, involving a right-wing plot and the US intelligence community, than still accepted the main findings of the Warren Commission.’

James Ellroy’s American Tabloid (1995) includes the familiar tropes of conspiracy literature – the Mob, the Cuban dimension – and adds some twists, including the acquiescence of an omniscient FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover, in the plots he detects to assassinate the president, the brother and patron of his despised superior, the attorney general, Robert Kennedy: ‘Hoover wants it to happen. It happens, he’s glad it happened, and he still gets assigned to investigate it.’ The Mob resents Kennedy’s acquiescence in a sort of détente with Cuba following the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which has resulted in the loss of lucrative casino and hotel business on the island. It has relied on the Kennedys’ father as a banker for decades and evidence of this is used to blackmail Robert Kennedy into blocking any serious investigation into JFK’s death: ‘I’m saying that a consensus of denial will build off of it. I’m saying that people will want to remember the man as something he wasn’t. I’m saying that we’ll present them with an explanation, and the powers that be will prefer it to the truth, even though they know better.’

Stephen King’s new novel, 11.22.63, combines a variety of genres, being a JFK assassination thriller, a story of time travel, a variation on the grail quest, a novel of voyeurism, a love story, a historical novel, a counterfactual historical novel, and the chilling tale of a sinister animate universe, a form which can be traced back to the ghost stories of M.R. James. King’s protagonists, Al Templeton, the owner of a diner, and Jake Epping, his loyal customer and friend, take a dispassionate and calculated view of the assassination. At the back of his pantry in a small town in present-day Maine, Al finds a wormhole which comes out in September 1958. At first he uses it for his own ends: buying up cheap burger meat at 1958 prices and bringing it back to the present so he can undercut his local rivals. The only trouble is, he sells his burgers too cheap, and the locals decide that Al’s Famous Fatburger can’t really be beef, ‘not at a dollar-nineteen’. Al then decides to use his access to the portal to further the public good, and to stay in the past until 1963 so that he can prevent Oswald from killing Kennedy. But Al is not quite sure, from his observation of Oswald, that he was acting alone when he unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate General Edwin Walker in April 1963. By then, Al is ill, and returns to the present to hand over his quest to Epping: ‘If you ever wanted to change the world, this is your chance … Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives.’ But Al concedes – and Epping agrees – that there is a ‘window of uncertainty’ surrounding Oswald’s relationship with the émigré Russian geologist George de Mohrenschildt: ‘If de Mohrenschildt turned out to be part of Oswald’s attempt to kill Edwin Walker, my situation would be vastly complicated; all the nutty conspiracy theories would then be in play.’ When Epping sees Oswald talking to someone at a bus stop, his mind races:

Batting the breeze with a stranger, or was this perhaps another friend of de Mohrenschildt’s? Just some guy on the street, or a co-conspirator? Maybe even the famous Unknown Shooter who – according to the conspiracy theorists – had been lurking on the grassy knoll near Dealey Plaza when Kennedy’s motorcade approached? I told myself that was crazy, but it was impossible to know for sure.

Worse still is the sight of de Mohrenschildt and Jack Ruby together at a club.

How does one write about a figure from the past who has become a symbol of evil? King inevitably falls short of Beryl Bainbridge’s Young Adolf (1978), in which Hitler, an impoverished emigrant staying with relatives in Liverpool, is portrayed with consummate skill as a sad loser, prone to tantrums and petty revenges. The reader quickly begins to feel sympathy for Bainbridge’s Adolf, while also recoiling from the monster-to-be: ‘Such a strong-willed young man. It is a pity he will never amount to anything.’ However, King does manage to show Oswald as both a ‘skinny little wife abuser waiting to be famous’ and the victim of his tiresome and smothering mother. Nevertheless, his real subject is not Oswald but the past itself. To begin with, it is an idyllic ‘Land of Ago’, where food and drink have stronger flavours because unadulterated by additives, where people trust one another and have far fewer forms to fill out and boxes to tick; but, as Epping tries to change the course of history, he becomes conscious of the past as ‘obdurate’, and feels something akin to the cunning of providence working remorselessly to frustrate his attempts. Unlike most counterfactual novels, the alternative past here is, for the most part, only marginally different from the version we know. King attempts to bring closure to the debates on the assassination by combining the immediacy – and uncertainty – of the past as it was lived with the retrospective and historically informed voyeurism of the present. This is as ecumenical as the JFK assassination novel is ever likely to get.