It’s telling that a primary source for the fantastical article is Stephen King’s new novel 11/22/63. “As the time-traveling [Jake] Epping gets settled in that past, he describes an inferno of seething citizens, anti-Semitic graffiti on Jewish storefronts, and angry billboards demanding the impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren and equating racial integration with communism,” Rich summarizes of the current bestseller. “That last one, King’s protagonist observes, ‘had been paid for by something called The Tea Party Society.’” This final bit, Rich concedes, was artistic license. But the rest is realer than “Carrie.” Trust him.
A lively imagination is a hallmark of great fiction writers. In political prose, it’s the stuff of cranks and conspiracy theorists. Had a Bircher murdered the president, then this ensuing discussion of the role of right-wing rhetoric in motivating the killer would have been relevant. But the facts failed that narrative. Oswald’s previous attempt on the life of a prominent member of the John Birch Society, whose rhetoric was certainly of the extremist type that Rich contends inspired rather than infuriated Oswald, makes Rich’s contention, well, rich. The most resilient survivor of the Kennedy assassination is the narrative.
It not only lives on forty-eight years later, it has reincarnated as events have demanded. The rush to blame this year’s Tucson shooting spree on right-wing rhetoric backfired when Jared Lee Loughner’s classmates described him as a “political radical” and “quite liberal” and evidence of his insanity made his political proclivities moot. Nearly a decade earlier, when three-thousand people perished on 9/11, the extreme Left blamed the attacks not on the Islamic terrorists who claimed credit but the Republican president. In the wake of Jonestown, which witnessed the greatest loss of American civilian life prior to 9/11, observers initially blamed evangelical Christianity though it turned out the cult’s Communist leader had banned Bibles, willed his possessions to the Soviet Union, and practiced Marxism as a religion within the jungle commune.
These memes proved less enduring, and found fewer believers, than the one surrounding the Kennedy assassination. But they relied on the same template: imagine political enemies behind horrific events. The template tells us little of the events themselves but much about the political obsessions of those relying upon it. So strong is the faith of true believers that they discount inconvenient facts when they clash with the narrative. For the Frank Rich-segment of the population that relies on mindless, a priori assessments of events, the pull of a story that is comforting is greater than the pull of the story that is true.
Even as jealous a guardian of the Camelot legacy as Jacqueline Kennedy rejected the comforting revisionism of the Kennedy cultists. “Oh, God,” reacted the First Lady to the identity of her husband’s killer. “Some silly little Communist. He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights.”
Don’t dare tell that to Frank Rich.
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