Frank Rich: JFK's assassination is kinda sorta the right's fault, isn't it?

Egregious, but not so egregious that other leftists haven’t thought of it before and pushed the same meme. Remember when Media Matters did it a few years ago at the height of tea-party fever on the right?

What’s revealing about this spin, in which a guy who defected to the Soviet Union and later tried to assassinate a hard-right U.S. general was somehow driven mad by right-wing antipathy to Kennedy, is that it’s unnecessary to protect the left. Oswald wasn’t a mainstream liberal or, lord knows, a mainstream Democrat. He was a fringe leftist, an honest-to-goodness commie. The Oswald apologists could, if they liked, simply emphasize his ideological extremism — his fringiness — as the key to his anti-Kennedy mania. But for whatever reason, they seem to feel obliged to defend his leftism by blaming the right for the “climate of hate” that supposedly drove him to it. Why a communist would need to be egged on by anyone in the middle of the Cold War to hate an American president, especially ones as hawkish as Truman, Kennedy, or Johnson, I have no idea. And yet, whether because they’re desperate to delegitimize the right as an insurrectionist movement or desperate to sanitize the far left so that mainstream Democrats can feel safer in edging out there, the beat goes on.

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.”

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. 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.”…

America’s violent culture wars had started before JFK was shot. They were all on display in Oswald’s Dallas. At least in 1963, polling showed that only 5 percent of the country—a fringe—subscribed to the radical anti-government views championed by the John Birch Society and other militants of the right. These days, that fringe, whether in the form of birthers or the tea party or the hosts of Fox & Friends, gives marching orders to a major political party.

It’s oddly comforting to know that the same sort of smear merchants who tried to pin the Gabby Giffords shooting on the right, including Rich’s former colleague Paul Krugman, were doing their thing with JFK’s assassination too almost 50 years ago. At least, it seems, things haven’t gotten worse over time: If they couldn’t pin Giffords on us, then by God, they’ll pin something on us. Looking forward to Rich’s inevitable essay on whether John Wilkes Booth was, kinda sorta, the first tea partier.

Here’s what I really want from the left: A systematic treatment of when and how “climate of hate” reasoning about collective responsibility can fairly be applied to an act of violence. It used to be that a nutjob had to at least agree ideologically with the group that’s being blamed, but Rich gets us a step away from that. Under the Oswald theory, ideology no longer matters; all that matters is shared “hate” for a particular target. By that logic, I guess, the Al Qaeda sympathizer busted by the NYPD yesterday for targeting police could be blamed on OWS since both are angry at the cops. Now that we’ve reached this point, all that’s left is to take one more step and waive the requirement that the nutjob and the larger group hate the same target, as Oswald and the Birchers did. Once we make it there, where any group’s hatred for anyone is capable of inspiring a nutjob’s hatred for someone else, we can finally bring this full circle and blame Jared Loughner on the left’s contempt for Bush. Guilt by association sure is fun.