Yesterday was the birthday of Arthur Quiller-Couch, literary critic and editor of the popular Oxford Book of English Verse, to this day, one of the standard anthologies of that varied genre. He was known as “Q” to his friends and colleagues, long before that letter became associated with eccentric British spymasters, and his acumen as a man of letters inspired the American writer Helene Hanff to strike up a transatlantic correspondence with British bookseller Frank Doel, a series of letters that became the bestseller (and good movie), 84 Charing Cross Road.
Today is a day for yesterday’s news in another sense: it’s the anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. As we did when Abraham Lincoln was murdered, America lost a great deal when Kennedy’s life was taken. We lost an opportunity to get out of Vietnam far earlier than we did, and end our support for that unwinnable war; we lost a singular moment to push the Civil Rights movement forward and sustain it under a leader possessed of eloquence and personal grace; we missed an opportunity to advance science, medicine, and technology under the presidency of a man who actually understood the value of those endeavors.
Only those adults who were under the spell of the idea of Camelot in 1963 could’ve actually believed the Kennedy administration was a kind of noble political paradise. It wasn’t. There were too many unseemly things going on in the personal lives of the Kennedy brothers, the CIA, the State Department, and the FBI for that to have ever been the case. Still, the violent end of the Kennedy presidency represented a terrible loss from which the Democratic party in particular has never recovered. Half a century later, most of them are still trying to invoke the ideals and the youthful energy that pervaded the Kennedy years. I am, myself, still waiting for a President who had Kennedy’s combination of intelligence, eloquence, and optimism. I’ll be waiting a long time.
The most comprehensive book on the Kennedy assassination is Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Bugliosi’s command of the facts of that day’s events is unmatched, and he retraces those events in excruciating detail in the opening section of the book. Readers should be forewarned, however, that Bugliosi’s purpose is to dismantle every conspiracy theory out there, and he does so under a scorched-earth policy of shredding claims and an intemperate tone of language that is sure to lose him readers he might otherwise have kept.
I was convinced long before having read Bugliosi’s book that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I am still convinced he did. I acknowledge that Robert MacNeil, a television reporter of unimpeachable integrity, who was there in Dallas that day, claimed he heard four shots. I believe, however, that MacNeil did not hear what he thought he heard. And even if a fourth shot was fired, its trajectory from point of origin to point of ending has never been established.
What drives most of the conspiracy theories of the assassination to this day is heartache. Those who believe in that way cannot accept that a lone gunman, in that time, in that place, could have done what Oswald did; that some random idiot like Oswald, plucked more or less out of the pages of history, out of a mass of millions, could’ve committed such a violent, wrenching act.
Consider, if you will, however, the scene in Dallas: the green knoll and sidewalks whereupon the people stood; the open presidential limousine in the motorcade; every eye focused on the passing spectacle. No one was looking at Oswald. He hid, as violent men often do, in plain sight. He had the training and the skill to be what he was that day. He left the scene, passing, as murderers sometimes will, right in front of us. The fact that he did should not shock us. We had, as a people, not a naivete, but an openness in 1963 that Oswald destroyed forever. This was a time when front doors could remain unlocked at night; when cars could be parked on the street instead of in their garages; when you could ask the President of the United States a question, and he would answer it; when he would come to your state, your city, pass by in his car on the street, and you could see him sitting there.
No more. If we are as suspicious of each other now as we appear to be in the jagged mirror of the press, it goes back to that day in Dallas. We blame ourselves; we accuse each other. But there’s no undoing of history. There is no way of setting things right among ourselves except the way that we’ve always done it: moment by moment, deed by deed, kind word by kind word, over and over again. The terrible, life-changing events of November 22, 1963 may be yesterday’s news to many people, but they represent a constant challenge for all of us today not to be destroyed by the evil and the will-to-discord at the heart of those acts. We are better than the murder Oswald committed. We can be, and we often are, the kind of people President Kennedy wished us to be.