Breathing the feverish air

by Russ Roberts on October 22, 2013

in Politics

George Packer writes for the New Yorker about visiting Dallas for the first time. The piece opens with Packer confessing his obsession with the Kennedy assassination:

At seven, I had no strong feelings about Kennedy himself, and I still don’t. He was an attractive person and a better-than-average President.

No. He was not an “attractive person.” He was an incredibly attractive person. Was he really a better-than-average President? I like Caitlin Flanagan’s assessment (and read the whole article, it is a superb meditation on marriage, power, and betrayal):

As for John Kennedy—what did he do for us? He started the Peace Corps and the Vietnam War. He promised to put a man on the moon, and he presided over an administration whose love affair with assassination was held in check only by its blessed incompetence at pulling off more of them. (“That administration,” said LBJ—painted birds long forgotten, the mists of Camelot beginning to clear—“had been operating a damned Murder, Inc.”) He fought for a tax break the particulars of which look like the product of a Rush Limbaugh fever dream, he almost got us all killed during his “second Cuba” (writing of JFK and the missile crisis, Christopher Hitchens noted: “Only the most servile masochist … can congratulate [Kennedy] on the ‘coolness’ with which he defused a ghastly crisis almost entirely of his own making”), and he brought organized crime into contact with the highest echelons of American power. More than anyone else in American history, perhaps, he had a clear vision of what his country could do for him.

But let’s put subjective judgments aside. The really shocking part of Packer’s essay is what he has to say about Dallas:

As the city prepares to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination, with a coming flood of visitors and media people, the shame of the President’s murder is starting to throb again. Unfair as it might be, to some Americans Dallas is the assassination, the city that killed the President—a view that will surely be enhanced by the publication of “Dallas 1963,” by Bill Minutaglio, a former Dallas Morning News writer, and Steven L. Davis (also discussed by Adam Gopnik last week).

The authors describe the potent brew of right-wing passions, much of it well organized and well funded—Bircher anti-Communism, anti-Catholicism, racism (Dallas was the last large American city to desegregate its schools), Kennedy hatred—that suffused many people in Dallas with the spirit of dissension and incipient violence during the early sixties, including some of its leading citizens: elected officials, Baptist ministers, the billionaire oilman H. L. Hunt, the right-wing zealot General Edwin Walker, even the publisher of the Morning News, Ted Dealey. During the 1960 Presidential campaign, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the state’s most powerful politician, and his wife, Lady Bird, were spat upon in Dallas; Adlai Stevenson, J.F.K.’s Ambassador to the United Nations, was assaulted there just a month before the assassination. “WELCOME MR. KENNEDY TO DALLAS …,” ran the headline of a black-bordered, full-page ad in the Morning News on the morning of November 22, 1963, with a bill of particulars that stopped just short of accusing the President of treason. Kennedy had warned his wife, “We’re heading into nut country.”

There is of course only one tiny problem with this portrait of Dallas as the “city that killed the President.” And that’s that the murderer, Lee Harvey Oswald was not a right-winger. He was a left-winger. A Marxist. How does Packer deal with this? Easy:

Oswald was an avowed Marxist, which might seem to absolve the city’s right wing of any responsibility.

Well, yes. Oswald being a Marxist does ruin the thesis that the right-wing fervor of Dallas is what killed the President. But Packer and the authors of “Dallas 1963″ have a way out:

But “Dallas 1963” places the assassin in context as a malleable, unstable figure breathing the city’s extraordinarily feverish air.

That’s a sentence for the ages. Read it again:

But “Dallas 1963” places the assassin in context as a malleable, unstable figure breathing the city’s extraordinarily feverish air.

You see it wasn’t Lee Harvey Oswald’s Marxism that drove him to murder JFK. It was the feverish air he breathed. And after all, Oswald was so, you know, malleable. And unstable. So even though he was a leftist, the atmosphere in Dallas was so poisonous that it could turn a leftist into a murderer.

It’s a remarkably illogical claim for a mainstream publication. Here’s how the piece ends:

American politics today isn’t haunted by the same fear of sudden, shattering violence. But, as for nut country, it’s migrated from the John Birch Society bookstores to the halls of Congress, where angry talk of socialism and impeachment is almost routine. Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Louie Gohmert are the spiritual descendants of Walker and Hunt. Fifty years later, Dallas would like to move on from Dealey Plaza. This is normal and right. What’s holding it back is the Republican Party.

I don’t like the Republican Party much. But Packer actually makes me feel sorry for Ted Cruz which is quite an achievement. The Republican Party is what is making it hard for Dallas to turn the page on the Kennedy assassination?

I think way too many people are breathing feverish air these days.

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