Friday, November 22, 2013

Today’s political hatred, seen through an old book

Here's a column that I wrote back in 2003, the 40th anniversary of the JFK assassination.

I’ve been told that a person should read a book three times: once when young, once when middle-aged and once when old — and if you do, you’ll read three different books.
The idea, of course, is that we look at the book through different eyes, from the unknowing youth to the old person, filtering the book’s message through one’s own life.
I’ve been doing a bit of that recently, after hitting both the University Women’s used book sale and the Brown County Library’s used book sale.
Some of what I picked up was, well, unusual. I found a paperback, “Baseball Stars of 1963,” that might just fetch something on eBay if I ever get around to it.
And somebody was selling an encyclopedia year book from 1961, covering the year 1960. More than you ever needed to know about that wonderful year. Did you know motels are becoming more and more popular?
And then there’s the unusually timely, something you don’t expect to find on a used book table. It was a copy of William Manchester’s “The Death of a President,” the story of the weekend 40 years ago when John F. Kennedy was killed.
I’m a bit surprised it hasn’t been reissued to cash in on the 40-year anniversary. We humans do that; we like numbers that end in zero to remember things. Goodness knows, you found everything you’d ever wanted to know about JFK and his death on TV this week, from sober analysis to lurid autopsy photos to draw the “CSI” crowd.
But it was interesting to reread the book. The first time I read it, I read it as someone who was interested, wanting to learn about this piece of history.
Now, I look at it through other eyes, ones that have had to look at the modern political system.
The extreme right wing in Dallas in the early 1960s was every bit as virulent as it is today, if not more so. It’s doubtful today you’d have seen, say Madeline Albright getting hit on the head by a picket sign, as Adlai Stevenson was in 1963.
And while Ann Coulter — the conservatives’ pin-up girl — writes books about liberals committing “Treason,” a poster in Dallas the day before the assassination showed Kennedy, mug-shot style, with the line “Wanted for Treason.”
There were political dirty tricks then as well. Gov. John Connally, who later bolted the Democrats for Richard Nixon, got back at liberal Sen. Ralph Yarborough by keeping him in the background at key events. (It was splits like this in the Texas Democratic Party that brought Kennedy to Dallas in the first place).
But overwhelming in the period was hatred. Kennedy was vilified by the right wing not only his politics, but his personality, his religion, his family. The publisher of the Dallas Morning News accused him of “riding Caroline’s pony” rather than serving as a leader — to Kennedy’s face. Even after his death, people cheered the attacker.
And, sadly, that hasn’t changed. It faded for a bit, in the horrors of the assassinations, of Vietnam, of Watergate. But then it came back, matched spit for spit by Democrats angry over the success of Ronald Reagan.
And that’s where we are today.
So things haven’t changed; that hatred has always been there, and I was reminded of that while reading the book.
Of course, the generally accepted view of the killing — Lee Harvey Oswald, the Book Depository, the whole bit — was light-years away from that hatred. But in a way, that hatred might have fed on it. Oswald was not sharp. He wanted to lash out, Manchester says, to prove himself after a lifetime of failures. Kennedy was the popular political target — why not make him a real one?
And the targets continue today. I just hope we can calm down the national discourse to save ourselves from another weekend like that one 40 years ago.