Thursday, July 19, 2018
July 19, 2018: KennedyStudying: Conspiracy Theories
[On July 18th, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy was involved in a car accident that left his female companion Mary Jo Kopechne dead. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that Chappaquiddick incident and four other Kennedy family histories, leading up to a weekend post on cultural representations of the family!]
On two ways to AmericanStudy the one assassination we can’t quite accept.
There have been lots of political assassinations, successful and attempted, in American history, and as far as I can tell in every case but one we’ve collectively accepted the identity of the individual who pulled the trigger. From John Wilkes Booth to Leon Czolgosz, James Earl Ray to Sirhan Sirhan, Squeaky Fromme to John Hinckley, each of these assassins or attempted assassins was driven by his or her own unique and complex motivations, and some were certainly part of larger collective conspiracies—such as Booth and his cohort of Confederates or Fromme and the Manson family. Yet despite such connections, and notwithstanding the kinds of questions or uncertainties that surround any historical crime, I would argue that only one American assassination has been subject to consistent, comprehensive suspicions and conspiracy theories: Lee Harvey Oswald’s November 1963 shooting of President John F. Kennedy.
So why has the Kennedy assassination been so singularly controversial? I think there are a couple AmericanStudies explanations for that trend. (To be clear, books—many, many books—have been written about the Kennedy assassination and its conspiracy theories, and I’m sure that the angles I’ll cover here are part of those existing conversations.) For one thing, as the famous 1960 televised debate between Kennedy and Richard Nixon demonstrates, this was a new era in American media, one in which television had just begun to change the way we received and understood our news and our society. Perhaps no single moment better illustrates that change than the live televised shooting of Oswald by troubled Dallas businessman Jack Ruby. And it seems to me that seeing such an event on live television might well lead to more visceral responses to and varied speculations about it than reading a report on the shooting in the next day’s newspaper, or hearing a reporter’s description of it on the radio. Ironically, that is, the end of the same presidency that began in no small measure because of the power of television and new media has been forever clouded by those same factors.
There’s another side to the media coverage of the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath, though: the power of one very determined, definitely extremist person to utilize the media to advance and perpetuate his ideas. I’m referring of course to Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney who became and has remained the leading proponent and symbol of the JFK conspiracy theories. As the pieces linked under “definitely extremist” and “perpetuate his ideas” indicate, Garrison seems to represent some of the most unlikely and even absurd sides to those theories—yet he was able to present them in media-savvy and convincing ways, to the point where he sufficiently swayed filmmaker Oliver Stone that Stone made Garrison (as played by Kevin Costner) the famous centerpiece of his controversial film JFK (1991). And in techniques like its blending of archival footage with “re-created” (fictionalized) scenes, Stone’s film extended this use of media images and narratives, making it that much harder to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the most prominent and enduring conspiracy theory in American history.
Last KennedyStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Kennedy connections you’d highlight?