My father heard the news from a guy in the next office. He was a graduate student in math at Berkeley, and his neighbor stepped inside the door and said, “Well, that’s it — that’s the second one they’ve killled for pushing civil rights.”
The assassination had just happened, information was sketchy, but for this fellow the narrative was already complete.
On the plane from Dallas to Washington, Mrs. Kennedy used the same pronoun. When Lady Bird Johnson urged her to change out of her bloody clothing, she replied, “No, I want them to see what they have done.”
“Who, exactly, were ‘they’? And what did ‘they’ do?”
Those questions are posed by James Piereson in a great study of the assassination and its aftermath entitled Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. He answers by citing James Reston, distinguished columnist in The New York Times, who wrote on the assassination the next day. His piece ran under the header, “Why America Weeps: Kennedy Victim of Violent Streak He Sought to Curb in Nation.” Reston explained that the killing signified something deeper than a lone gunman pulling the trigger. ”The indictment extended beyond the assassin,” he said, “for something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order.” Kennedy himself was a force for peace, and his administration worked mightily “to restrain those who wanted to be more violent in the cold war overseas and those who wanted to be more violent in the racial war at home.” Most of all, Reston claims, his explanation drifting, “from the beginning to the end of his administration, he was trying to tamp down the violence of the extremists from the right.”
Chief Justice Earl Warren issued a written statement the afternoon of the shooting: “A great and good President has suffered martyrdom as a result of the hatred and bitterness that has been injected into the life of our nation by bigots.”
When the news came out that the right had nothing to do with the killing, that instead Kennedy was murdered by a communist who wanted the Civil Rights Movement to proceed, Mrs. Kennedy stated, “He didn’t even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little communist. It robs his death of any meaning.” (Quoted by Piereson on p. 59.)
Days after Oswald was himself shot to death, The New York Times drew no political conclusions from Oswald’s political identity. “The shame all Americans must bear for the spirit of madness and hate that struck down President John F. Kennedy is multiplied by the monstrous murder of his accused assassin while being transferred.” Furthermore, “None of us can escape a share of the fault for the spiral of unreason and violence that has found expression in the death by gunfire of our martyred president and the man being held for trial as his killer.”
In the same paper had appeared numerous facts indicating Oswald’s ideology, but the obvious inference that JFK was a martyr not to Civil Rights but to the Cold War didn’t take hold. For Piereson, the discovery of JFK’s assassin as a man of the Far Left, not the Extreme Right, was simply a moment of cognitive dissonance, and it explains a lot about the enduring fascination of the man and his death.