Last month held the dubious distinction of being yet another anniversary in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which has now crossed the half-century mark. Someone at work turned up a copy of that year's Time magazine, dated November 25, 2013. The issue carries two articles on this singular note in American history, David Von Drehle's "Broken Trust" and Jack Dickey's "Debunker Among the Buffs."
You may remember that I've written about the assassination here in the past, including on the fiftieth anniversary itself and in relation to Stephan King's novel 11/22/63. To say the event fascinates me is about as good a way to put it as I can find. I'm not exactly a conspiracy theorist. For one, I'm probably half the age most of them tend to be, because those with the most vested interest were alive when it happened.
Time's coverage concerns the conspiracies. Why is it, the magazine asks, we can't move past this, accept that what appears to have been the case was the case, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, fatally shooting Kennedy from a perch in the Texas School Book Depository overlooking Dealey Plaza?
I'm not going to do an in-depth discussion here. The whole reason I'm writing about it today at all is because of Time's articles. Time is one of the most-respected names in print journalism, an institution that seeks to maintain the integrity and dignity of a medium that has been declared a dinosaur waiting for extinction. I myself have read it casually for years and have generally respected its contents. When I saw this copy in the break room, I was excited to have stumbled into the opportunity to read its perspective on the anniversary.
I wonder now if this were one of those instances where fate plays cruel tricks on us.
Neither article is well-reasoned, actually. They are blatantly written from a skeptic's eye, outright dismissive of the idea they seek to explore. I'm not indicting the whole magazine, but it's certainly sad to see such an important moment covered so cavalierly by a major media outlet of any form.
For one reason or another, the assassination became a touchstone; arguably it was more important to Kennedy's legacy than his thousand days in office or the handful of crises he handled or even the ambitious projects his successors helped see to fulfillment (given how monumental they were, the moon landing and civil rights, that's certainly saying something). Historians debate how significant the man was, but there's no denying the significance of his death. That much Time properly acknowledges.
Von Drehle purports to examine the various conspiracies that have been propounded over the years, but right away, he turns it into a sensation piece, describing the assassination itself as so shocking it can't be explained in words even today without causing trauma to his readers. "I recently waded into the thicket of theories," he continues, "trying to understand the roots and fruits of this vast enterprise, which is part scholarship, part fever dream. I got just far enough to see how quickly the forest can swallow a person up."
In other words, he admits that the task he set out to accomplish immediately overwhelmed him. Time might have done everyone the service of assigning this piece to someone else.
The thing everyone knew about Kennedy while he was alive was the image of Camelot, the romantic ideal he embodied as a young President who by his very presence promised something new, an occupant of the White House fit for the emerging age of the media. While his policies split the country down the middle, Kennedy himself and his wife Jackie seemed to have stepped out of a fairy tale, one that ended like one of the Brothers Grimm stories indeed.
The day he died, it became impossible to reconcile the way it happened with the outsize role he filled in the public imagination, and so, as Von Drehle argues, the public responded by creating a reality where the facts fit the fantasy. Or in other words, the conspiracy theories began.
This is not the same as saying it's impossible to believe that anything but what the Warren Commission concluded could be true. Unfortunately, that's exactly what Von Drehle says, without once more than flippantly dismissing and hardly addressing any other possibility. This isn't responsible journalism, and not the way to mark what the magazine has already determined to be an enduring moment. Dickey's follow-up is a shorter, and correspondingly condensed, version of Von Drehle's lead. He talks about how he eagerly debates theorists, but not how and without admitting that he could ever be wrong. There's another word for that, and it's not argument.
Even from reading a work of fiction like King's 11/22/63, a strong case can emerge that supports plenty of justification to believe the portrait of Kennedy's assassination is murkier than history seems determined to make it, even as King himself vehemently concludes in the orthodox view. It doesn't take a conspiracy for an assassin to act. Every other President murdered in American history was a fairly open-and-shut case. What makes Kennedy different? A journalist would have explored that. Even if Oswald did act alone, that's what a journalist's article in Time should have done.
This is not the time to brush the whole affair under the carpet. Those who were alive on that day still say, like my father, "We'll never know the truth in our lifetime." That's how deep this goes. It's not even about specific theories, but the belief that there is, bottom-line, a wider portrait to be had than the one we've been given.
It's not so crazy to think that way, no matter what Time apparently feels justified in implying.