There’s Daddy

Michael Wood

  • Flying in to Love by D.M. Thomas
    Bloomsbury, 262 pp, £14.99, February 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1129 2
  • JFK directed by Oliver Stone

The Warren Commission reported that it found no ‘credible’ or ‘meaningful’ evidence of a conspiracy to assassinate President John Kennedy, and the words are of course a sore temptation to suspicious eyes. Do they mean, as they seem to mean, no real evidence at all? Or no evidence to speak of; no evidence you could act on; plenty of evidence but all of it shaky; plenty of evidence but none of it irresistible? What about the tone of that massive report, the words beneath the words? Patient scruple or cautious relief? I think it unlikely that the Commission was simply the great whitewash that many people see in it, but it did seem very happy to find all its trails leading only to Oswald, the lone killer who was himself conveniently killed two days later.

Here as in many other matters, there remains a gap between belief and proof, or between what we think we know and what can plausibly be shown. If Oswald was not, for example, the FBI or CIA plant that many think he was, the relevant testimony to the Commission would truthfully assert that he wasn’t. The directors of those agencies would testify, as indeed they did, that Oswald was not an agent or informant in their employ, and the files, which the Commission inspected, would bear them out. And if Oswald were part of some sort of covert operation, what would the testimony show? The files would have been sifted, and the directors, correctly by their own lights, would give the same testimony. It is rather like Wittgenstein’s asking his students why they supposed we imagined the Sun revolved round the Earth. Because it looks as if it does, they said. And how, Wittgenstein wondered, would it look if it didn’t?

The logic of this situation suggests that we need more proof and more argument, and more experience of living with doubt, but the over-whelming mass of the interest in the Kennedy assassination over the last 28 years has gone exactly the other way: towards myth, mania and passionate belief, a perspective in which ‘evidence’ is not what builds up a case but what confirms a theory, plugs a hole in the readymade jigsaw. What is there about the event that hooks us in this way, makes us want to sec or hear only the versions that suit us?

There are the riddles, the clashing stories which are either too sinister or too slight, or both. There is the lingering sense of shock: whatever the truth of Kennedy’s promises and policies, he caught and matched a need for hope in Americans and in others, and much of that hope died with him. There is, as D.M. Thomas’s novel suggests, continuing disbelief – it can’t have happened, it is a bad dream or a mere movie, reality will pick up and go on again. There is the mythological investment in the Kennedys as a doomed dynasty, a notion which also appears in Thomas’s book, where Edward Kennedy’s abandoning the unfortunate Mary Jo Kopechne to her watery fate is grotesquely assimilated to his brothers’ violent deaths. Unlucky, those Kennedys: if it isn’t assassins, it’s their own failure of nerve.

There is also the curious quality of the John and Jackie Kennedy story, which is both glamorous and empty, a blank space where almost any dream at all might get itself projected. This is odd, because most glamour has some sort of mark or colouring, however dubious; and most emptinesses are not glamorous at all. More important than all this is an anxious yearning for the horror of Kennedy’s death not to have been a meaningless horror. Oswald’s committing the act alone is about as close to meaningless as we can get, and almost any plot is better than that. In March 1963, a few months before Kennedy’s assassination, Thomas Pynchon published a novel in which a character learns what is said to be ‘life’s single lesson’: ‘that there is more accident to it than a person can ever admit to in a lifetime and stay sane.’ A dose of paranoia will preserve your sanity, but no one in Pynchon’s world ever finds the right dosage, and recent American history seems to be in the same boat.

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