The Death of a President] was Manchester's stern rejection of one major Warren Commission finding. Though he was onboard for its conclusion that Oswald was the lone assassin, he did not buy its verdict that there was "no evidence" of any connection between Oswald's crime and Dallas's "general atmosphere of hate."[W]hat also struck me in a rereading [of William Manchester's
Manchester is uncharacteristically contentious about this point. He writes that "individual commissioners had strong reservations" about exonerating Dallas but decided to hedge rather than stir up any controversy that might detract from the report's "widest possible acceptance." While Manchester adds that "obviously, it is impossible to define the exact relationship between an individual and his environment," he strongly rejected the universal description of Oswald as "a loner." No man, he writes, is quarantined from his time and place. Dallas was toxic. The atmosphere was "something unrelated to conventional politics--a stridency, a disease of the spirit, a shrill, hysterical note suggestive of a deeply troubled society." Duly observing that even the greatest presidents have been vilified in their time--Lincoln as a baboon and Jefferson as "Mad Tom"--Manchester saw something "more than partisan zeal" at work in this case. He detected "a chiaroscuro that existed outside the two parties, a virulence which had infected members of both." Dallas had become the gaudy big top for a growing national movement--"the mecca for medicine-show evangelists of the National Indignation Convention, the Christian Crusaders, the Minutemen, the John Birch and Patrick Henry societies."
This position was popular in the immediate aftermath of the assassination, but within a few years it faded. One major reason it faded is because it isn't enough to argue (as Rich, echoing Manchester, does at great length) that many people on the far right hated John F. Kennedy and expressed that hatred in virulent terms. You have to make the case that the assassin shared their worldview. And there's a rather big problem with that position, one that even Rich feels obliged to acknowledge:
Immediately after the assassination and ever since, the right has tried to deflect any connection between its fevered Kennedy hatred and Oswald's addled psyche with the fact that the assassin had briefly defected to the Soviet Union.
Kind of an important detail! It's hard to argue that Oswald was inspired by far-right rhetoric if his politics were sympathetic to Soviet communism. Indeed, there is strong evidence that several months before he killed Kennedy, Oswald attempted to assassinate Major General Edwin Walker, one of the loudest voices in Dallas' right-wing "atmosphere of hate." I guess that's a sort of influence, but it isn't the type that Rich is invoking.
Now, there are people who claim that Oswald's Marxism was a front and that his actual loyalties lay elsewhere. But Rich doesn't want to go down that road: It would require him to enter the thicket of JFK conspiracy theories, which he rejects with disdain. He blames the radical right for influencing the assassin through osmosis, not for giving him direct marching orders. So how does he get around the issue of the sniper's apparent sympathies?
But at the time even some Texans weren't buying that defense. An editorial in the Dallas Times Herald chastised its own city for supplying "the seeds of hate" and "the atmosphere for tragedy." The editor of the Austin American wrote that "hatred and fanaticism, the flabby spirit of complacency that has permitted the preachers of fanatical hatred to appear respectable, and the self-righteousness that labels all who disagree with us as traitors or dolts, provided the way for the vile deed that snuffed out John Kennedy's life."
Really. That's his counterargument: Even some Texans agree with me!
[Hat tip: Bryan Alexander.]