Levittown to Laos

Thomas Sugrue

  • The Kennedy Assassination: 24 Hours After by Steven Gillon
    Basic Books, 294 pp, £15.99, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 465 01870 3

On 22 November 1963, just over two hours after an assassin’s bullet killed President Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, the vice president, took the oath of office in a hastily improvised ceremony aboard Air Force One. The jowly LBJ stood side by side with the grieving widow, her jacket and blouse stained with Kennedy’s blood and brain matter. An official photographer, armed with two cameras in case one failed, captured Johnson, his right hand raised, his left on a Catholic missal (the closest thing to a Bible they could find), pledging to ‘preserve, protect and defend the constitution’. As the plane, carrying the new president and his predecessor’s remains, flew back to Washington, the photographer hurried to a darkroom to prepare prints. Within hours, an image of the ceremony went out on the wires to be broadcast worldwide, a symbol that the United States remained stable, having successfully transferred power.

‘I remember during the swearing-in I thought this was a moment that was unreal and that we were just characters in a play,’ Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, noted. More than any past presidential transition, Kennedy’s death and funeral, along with Johnson’s ascension to office, became a made-for-TV drama. Beginning with the first reports that Kennedy had been shot and up until the funeral three days later, the television networks cancelled commercial broadcasting and 90 per cent of American households watched the coverage, for an average 31.6 hours each. The images were indelible: photos of the smiling president, clips from his best-known speeches, the endless loops of his last presidential motorcade passing through the streets of Dallas, graphic descriptions of his wounds, and moving images of Kennedy’s three-year-old son saluting his casket, the riderless horse near the head of the funeral procession, and the sombre face of Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

Kennedy was the first – and so far the only – president to be assassinated in the television age. Only three other presidents have been murdered, all by gunfire: in 1865, Abraham Lincoln died after being shot in the head while watching a play; in 1881, James Garfield was attacked by a frustrated patronage seeker who lay in wait for him at a Washington train station; and in 1901, William McKinley was mortally wounded by an anarchist at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. None but Kennedy died immediately (it is quite likely that with modern medical care both Garfield and McKinley would have survived). Kennedy’s death, Steven Gillon argues, ‘resulted in the most violent and sudden transition of presidential power in American history’. But it was not the abruptness or even the violence that mattered most. It was, instead, that by 1963 the modern presidency had become fully linked to the new medium of television, bringing an immediacy and urgency to the transition and creating what was, in many respects, a mass experience: an extraordinary expression of America’s civil religion, with the president assuming an iconic status that was greatly exaggerated by the power of the mass media.

The media are omnipresent in Gillon’s narrative: Kennedy’s last minutes, his death and his funeral were recorded on still and moving film, his assassination and its aftermath were covered extensively in the press, and scores of journalists gave their own after-the-fact accounts of the event. Kennedy had been a master of the media: he cultivated close friendships with Washington’s press corps (they often suspended criticism of his presidency and turned a blind eye to his affairs with women as diverse as Marilyn Monroe, a 19-year-old White House intern and an East German spy). He also understood the power of television: both Truman and Eisenhower had appeared on the small screen, but Kennedy loved the camera and it loved him back. He was a politician who literally lived and died on film. But the modern media did more than make Kennedy’s career. To a great extent, mass communications remade the office of the presidency.

Beginning with the inauguration of George Washington in 1789, Americans had expressed ambivalence about the power of their single, elected leader. As citizens of a republic born out of revolt against a monarchy, they repudiated the trappings of kings and queens, but never wholly the sense that a single powerful figure could embody the nation’s destiny. Sculptors and painters depicted Washington in the garb of Roman emperors, conferring imperial authority on his office. But many of his successors, such as Thomas Jefferson, avoided the formalities of the office, and many 19th-century presidents in particular scarcely had the stature or reputation to stand as transcendent symbols of the republic. Americans struggled over the meanings of the president’s two bodies: Jackson and Lincoln, for example, made much of their plebeian origins and their virtue, as did their followers. But the singularity of the office led many to see their leaders as something more, from demi-monarchs to patrons who could uplift the people through their beneficence. The tendency towards presidential aggrandisement accelerated in the 20th century – the result of the dramatic expansion of executive power in the first half of the century, the growth of the national security state during World War Two and the Cold War, and, most important, the ability of radio and then television to project the president’s voice and image into nearly every home in the country. By the 1970s, observers like Arthur Schlesinger Jr could speak of the rise of the ‘imperial presidency’. In America (the one empire that dared not speak its name), the presidency was as much symbolic as real. The United States expanded its imperial power by armed force in places as remote as Vietnam and Lebanon, and by television coverage of the rituals of the presidency, from inaugurations to speeches to funerals, throughout the world, from Levittown to Laos.

Gillon is keenly aware of the media’s role in Kennedy’s career, but it’s a story that he tells rather than interprets. The power of his book is in its gripping narrative. He teaches at the University of Oklahoma but is also a television journalist, and the book is a companion volume to a two-hour television special, broadcast last winter, which reads like the docudrama it is. At times, one wishes that Gillon were more familiar with Marshall McLuhan or mass culture theory, or even work on American political development and the executive branch, that he might have turned this compelling book into something bigger about the media, politics and the transformation of modern America.

More ink has been spilled on the assassination than on practically any other event in American history, a library’s worth of dreary ‘whodunits’ and elaborate conspiracy theories, each as likely or improbable as the next. The FBI? The CIA? The KGB? Mossad? The Mafia? Fidel Castro? Anti-Castro rebels? Power-hungry Lyndon Johnson? Bitter Richard Nixon? No fewer than four government investigations pursued various leads, producing thousands of pages of turgid prose, and adding fuel to accusations of cover-ups. Groupuscules of assassination buffs, each clinging to its pet conspiracy theory with fanatical zeal, argue endlessly about one fact or another. Were there three shots or four? One gunman or two? Were shots fired from the grassy knoll that Kennedy’s motorcade passed? Even the validity of the official autopsy photos of his brain is contested among the cult-like devotees of the assassination literature. As many as three-quarters of Americans believe that someone other than Lee Harvey Oswald, a mentally-ill drifter who spent time in both Russia and Cuba, must have fired the shots.

What if Kennedy had not been mown down? A flurry of counterfactuals hold him out as the one man who would have steered the US and the world on a different course. JFK would have kept America out of its devastating entanglement with Vietnam (or not, given that his administration greatly escalated military involvement in South-East Asia). He would have somehow stood athwart the gears of history and used his youthful appeal to curb campus protest (or not, given that the New Left originated during his administration). He would have passed sweeping civil rights and social welfare legislation (or not, given his difficulty negotiating with Congress). He would have maintained law and order instead of presiding over a wave of ‘long hot summers’ that ravaged inner cities (or not, given the increasing violence, riots and near-riots in cities as diverse as Birmingham, Philadelphia and New Rochelle in the summer of 1963). He would have held together the New Deal coalition of working-class whites, African Americans and Southerners (or not, given that he presided over the fracturing of the Democratic Party over civil rights issues and worried mightily about assembling a winning coalition for re-election in 1964). The raucous debate about the political impact of Kennedy’s assassination is, in many respects, a debate about the meaning of America in the 1960s: one that cannot be resolved by speculation about the course that history might have taken had it not been for a few well-aimed bullets on a clear November morning in Dallas.

Gillon mercifully withholds judgment on the various conspiracy theories, although he points out that by the time Johnson took the oath of office, he too feared that Kennedy’s death was the result of a plot, probably involving the Soviets or the Cubans. And Gillon is too careful a scholar to wade into the murky depths of counterfactual history, although in the book’s most interesting section, he shows that just hours after JFK’s death, Johnson offered his own answer to the ‘what if’ question. He would use Kennedy’s memory instrumentally – to enact a sweeping legislative agenda, despite the fact that he ‘had always believed that Kennedy was more style than substance’. Kennedy had been cautious and lacked the skills to broker deals with a sceptical Congress, but Johnson, a former Senate Democrat leader and one of the most powerful legislators in American history, could use his connections and his strong arm to do what Kennedy could not, all the while promising the nation that he was Kennedy’s true heir.

On the evening of 22 November, in a peculiar bedtime ritual that LBJ’s aides called ‘hand-holding’ or ‘gentling down’, four advisers, all exhausted from the gruelling day, were summoned to the president’s bedside. (Lady Bird, familiar with the ritual, went to another room while Johnson lay awake, plotting an ambitious agenda for his new presidency.) He would take care of Kennedy’s unfinished business, using his legislative skills to push through Kennedy’s tax reduction bill and to free his civil rights bill from the quicksand of House committees and the steel trap of the filibuster. But he pledged much more: to introduce legislation that would expand voting rights to disenfranchised African Americans and to provide affordable higher education for ‘every boy and girl in this country, no matter how poor, or the colour of their skin, or the region they come from’. To top it all, Johnson blurted out: ‘By, God, I intend to pass Harry Truman’s medical insurance bill.’ By 1965, he had drafted and passed the most sweeping civil rights law since Reconstruction; enacted a voting rights law that swept away suffrage restrictions; dramatically expanded federal expenditure in education; and even passed a version of national health insurance which, trimmed by conservatives crying ‘socialised medicine’, became Medicare and Medicaid, America’s health insurance programme for the poor and the elderly. Over the next two years, Johnson used his predecessor’s memory to sell an agenda that would leave Kennedy’s modest achievements as a footnote in the historical record.

For all his domestic achievements – unthinkable in the cramped political climate of the early 21st century – Johnson was undone by two other legacies bequeathed to him by Kennedy. First, he kept on nearly all of Kennedy’s staunchly Cold Warrior foreign policy team. He presided over the escalation of the war in Vietnam, aided by Kennedy holdovers – among them, the enormously influential secretary of defence, Robert McNamara. By 1968, with more than half a million American troops stationed in the former French colony of Indochina, his massive military expenditure began to starve his Great Society. And second, although he presided over imperial America’s South-East Asian folly, Johnson lacked the symbolic power of the imperial presidency. His swearing-in was one of his greatest political moments (the other being his nationally televised speech promoting civil rights). But from there on, it was downhill for Johnson, whose legislative skills were undermined by his incompetence in dealing with the news media. He did not convey the imperial aura of Kennedy: he was the emperor who lifted his shirt to show off his gall-bladder operation scar; the emperor who cursed at the major networks rather than wining and dining them; the emperor whose increasingly unreal pronouncements about winning the Vietnam War when the US was clearly losing it led to the coining of the phrase ‘credibility gap’. In the end, Johnson could not dodge the comparisons with his predecessor. In the realm of legislation he dwarfed Kennedy, but in the realm of ritual and symbol he was an actor whose performance ensured that the play would be a tragedy.