Apropos the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK (originally written in 1994).
The Dilemma of American Political Liberalism
Whether or not the escalation of the Vietnam war during the Johnson presidency marked a dramatic shift in policy remains an unsettled historical question. If the removal of a leader and a shift in policy are the criteria for distinguishing a coup d’ ètat from a well-organized fragging, then 22 November 1963 might be considered a coup. However, should Vietnam be considered the only significant policy change of the 1960s? A more striking shift in a long-standing policy of over 300 years was the signing of the Civil Rights Act by Lyndon Johnson. Fearing the desertion of Jim Crow southern Dixiecrats in the 1964 election, President Kennedy had been slow to take up the battle for certain constitutional rights in the early sixties. Under Johnson and the pressure of the “moral persuasion” of Civil Rights activism, the historical tragedy of legally sanctioned institutional exclusion was resolved in two years. It is not clear how Stone’s discourse of conspiracy would situate this shift in policy after the “coup” in Dealey Plaza. The question of “who benefits?” does not exclude other possible beneficiaries of the alleged coup.
Following the model of cultural analysis proposed by Pierre Bourdieu, an analysis of J.F.K. as a product of American political culture would have to situate the film within a field of political discourse. Stone’s film enters this field as a discourse of conspiracy. One can inquire into the politics of this discourse at two levels: the political stakes involved and the location of this discourse in “social space.” Within the field of American politics, J.F.K. takes its place along side other conspiracy theories in competition for the legitimate representation of the political world; it is only one among a number of conspiracy theories that divide the political world along the axis of good and evil. The Stone/Garrison conception of conspiracy is infused by the precepts of the American liberal vision, which opposes a democratic, post-Keynesian welfare-state society to an oligarchic, military-industrial cold-warfare-state society. The Kennedy assassination stands at the center of the great conspiracy to force the Vietnam war, the war of the military-industrial complex, on the American people. Moreover, J.F.K. not so subtlely suggests that the “complex” was also at work in the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and M.L. King (when the maid exclaims “My god, my god, what have they done?,” the identity of the “they” is clear).
The political significance of the discourse of conspiracy articulated in J.F.K. is discoverable only by determining its location in the universe of political speech. Although the discourse of J.F.K. appears to take up the struggle of the weak against the powerful, the poor against the rich, and justice versus injustice, it is better understood as a discourse mobilized by one segment within the American political elite in the struggle for hegemony in the field of politics. In other words, it is the discourse of American liberalism in an era of crisis for the liberal identity. The basis for this claim lies in the studies of the counter-subversive tradition in American politics in America found in the earlier work of Michael Rogin (1987), who has shown that discourses of conspiracy in American politics are not the exclusive product of the political resentments of a variety of pseudo-conservative outsiders (Hofstadter) or downwardly mobile ethnic groups (S. M. Lipset), but is often the product of the political center that has mobilized against what is perceived as the menacing periphery. The discourse of a conspiratorial plot against the American liberal vision should be analyzed as the product of a particular set of actors and institutions situated at the center of political power in the United States. It remains institutionalized as part of the traditional discourse of the mainstream of the Democratic party over thirty years after its enunciation by a Republican president. One component of this conspiracy was to deprive the “liberal mainstream” of the Democratic Party of its greatest leaders. J.F.K. contributes to the popularization of this discourse among the constituents of the Democratic base. Far from targeting the minds of generations who had no direct experience of the Kennedy phenomenon, and which allegedly could be manipulated, J.F.K. is more likely to resonate in the hearts of those generations (the 45-60 age cohort) of this Democratic base, who had a direct experience of the Camelot years. Therefore, it has the potential to function more as a reawakening of Democratic party identification (by facilitating the reconsumption of a myth) than as a form of ideological reeducation.
The association of Kennedy in particular with the mainstream liberal vision is not an act of nature. Depending on one’s position in the political hierarchy, it could appear confusing that Kennedy, already more Geist than Mensch in J.F.K., is so closely identified with American political liberalism. Lyndon Johnson, whose sole political value for Stone is decided by Vietnam, was the sponsor of the “Great Society,” the most comprehensive liberal policy agenda in American history. In particular, the domestic legacy of the Johnson years is the “second” welfare state, whose “needs-based” criterion and “new subjects” (the chronically un- and underemployed, single mothers, children, students) share an uneasy coexistence with the “first” welfare state, whose “contribution-based” criterion and “old subjects” (ethnic working-class men) continue to be more politically defensible. In relation to Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” Kennedy’s “New Frontier” looks decidedly complacent. However, it is the symbolic reappropriation of Kennedy that is the foundation of liberal Democratic politics rather than Johnson and the Great Society, which is burdened by the spectacle of Vietnam and the anti-war movement (which Stone satirizes in “Born on the Fourth of July”) as well as political crimes of the neo-conservative imagination — i.e., big government, welfare corruption, reverse discrimination, the erosion of values, etc. This pattern of selective inheritance explains the on-again, off-again and always problematic alignment of the mainstream liberal political leaders of the Democratic party with a substantial portion of its “natural” base (excluding organized labor, whose upper echelons remain the preserve of ethnic men) among the dominated groups on the periphery of American political life which, depending on the direction of the winds blowing through the fields of political representation, embody all too extreme and abnormal expressions of political “taste.”
It is within this hierarchy of forces that the recent effort (epitomized in the last presidential election campaign) among American liberals to align the Democratic party with the “middle class” in a celebration of the homologies of social, political, economic, aesthetic and normative centrism should be analyzed. The “middle” or “center,” which simultaneously means the “normal,” is precisely the key stake in American politics. The struggle to occupy the center is waged with symbolic weapons; the polysemy of language provides the battlefield. The lack of solidity of the “center” makes it available for a variety of “symbolizations.” Under Nixon the “center” was symbolized as the “silent majority.” By comparison, the “vocal minority” (e.g., the political base of the Democratic party”) was the “lunatic fringe.” Thus, Nixon’s symbolization conferred authority upon the refusal to exercise “voice” (i.e., self-censorship), upon the condition of “political speechlessness” and those Americans who did not question the existing socio-political orthodoxy. In 1992, the symbolic weapon of choice for both major parties was the “middle class.” The signifier “middle class” can be described as (1) an amorphous linguistic designation that can be filled with any content whatsoever; (2) a political concept that is so ambiguous that even opposed political orientations can claim to be its legitimate representative; and (3) a theoretical construct of social scientific discourse which is useful in political discourse precisely because what is a problem for social scientific explanation — why the majority of Americans identify themselves as middle class — is an asset in a system of “catch all” party politics that is conducted by means of market research. The symbolic violence of this “category” is located in its practical function of exclusion, de-authorization, de-legitimation, and de-politicization of those occupying the categories “upper” and “lower” class, although this exclusion is more significant for the “lower” class, which already carries the surplus stigma of “abnormality.” The denial of legitimate political voice to members of the “upper class” brings only the requirement that all presidential aspirants must perform the “practices” of the “middle class,” which are as multiple as the groups comprising this objectively undefined group. The assimilation to middle class status by candidates is enabled and made necessary by television, which has become the sole medium for the communication of these down-scaling rituals. In terms of an exclusively “political” practice, the discursive effort to occupy the vast middle takes place in all attempts to stake a legitimate claim to the classification “moderate,” and to “moderate” one’s political program. The symbolic importance of Kennedy as opposed to Johnson can be understood in light of this struggle for the middle of the road. Because L.B.J.’s record is decidedly mixed (“right” militarily, “left” socially), the Texan is unfit to function as a spiritual source of the politics of the Democratic mainstream. The fact that the exclusive access to the Kennedy aura remains a point of honor to a generation of liberals and Democrats whose political well-being is based on hoarding the memory of the fallen Kennedy could be seen in the exchange between Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Republican Senator Dan Quayle during the 1988 vice-presidential debate (Bentsen to Quayle: “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy“).
More important than the ideological self-fashioning of Democratic politicians, a form of symbolic gaming in which J.F.K. might be indirectly employed, is the crisis of American liberalism, which can be read through the lens of Stone’s cinematic version of the Kennedy presidency. J.F.K. is ostensibly an account of an external conspiracy against two fundamental liberal political values: the belief in open, responsive, governmental institutions (specifically, the executive, legislative and judicial branches) grounded in democratic procedures, and a legal order premised on rationality, honesty and a commitment to equal justice for all citizens (reflected by the achievements of the civil rights movement). The assassination is depicted as the outcome of the machinations of a hidden, shadow government of actors pursuing their own private power-political interests at the expense of the public good, human decency, truth and justice. Yet, the identification of this external threat to the American liberal vision as the actions of the military industrial complex against the (pure) liberal president-victim merely displaces two sets of internal conflict within American liberalism. On the one hand, post-W.W.II American liberalism has entertained two uneasily reconciled traditions in relation to domestic politics: a pragmatic tradition (symbolized by Kennedy) and an activist (progressive?) tradition reflected in the public policy initiatives of the Johnson presidency. On the other hand, American liberal ideology has been utilized in foreign politics to promote the political self-determination of nations while, at the same time, being used to legitimate as “democratic” a wide range of efforts to import American liberal-democratic capitalism to nations in the “un”- and “underdeveloped” world. Liberals from Louis Hartz to Samuel Huntington have extolled either American exceptionalism or urged the transplanting of the American liberty tree abroad. Critics of liberalism have maligned Hartz’s account of the liberal tradition as historically inaccurate. However, his thick description of the ethos of a liberal political identity conveys a more complex view of the matter than is typically recognized. In his polemic against the Progressive historians (and correspondingly the Old Left and radical labor movement), Hartz unwittingly has provided an account of cultural hegemony in America (even if he is loath to identify a hegemonic class). When he writes of Americans’ “virtual unanimity” on the merits of the liberal ideal, Hartz can be seen as making a direct comment on liberalism’s hegemony. As he points out in The Liberal Tradition, “the decisive domestic issue of our time may well lie in the counter resources a liberal society can muster against this deep and unwritten tyrannical compulsion it contains” (Hartz 1955). It is this sense of the hegemony of liberalism (or at least its propensity to support and condone political conformism) offered for critical reflection in J.F.K. that runs up against the limits of its director’s cinematic imagination. Liberalism is implicated as a modern form of power that involves the capacity to exclude alternative visions and include compliant ones and as a potential constraint on power. Moreover, as liberalism has been central in the building of the American state domestically and extending its reach internationally, it shares in the bounty and pitfalls of the numerous varieties of American imperialism. The two-sided coin of American foreign policy under Kennedy that is exemplified by the military invasion of the Bay of Pigs and the humanitarian invasion of “third world” locations by virtuous American youth in the Peace Corps. helped to purchase the extension of American political, cultural and economic influence. Regardless of the rationale, the mission of bringing democracy to the world meant making alliances with less than democratic regimes. Thus, the liberal dilemma remains that of finding the means to reconcile these conflicting political realities in a positive narrative representation.
On the one hand, the significance of the brief Kennedy presidency and the historical spectacle of Vietnam for the crisis of liberalism is that the liberal vision is permanently tainted by its participation in the Cold War. To his credit, Oliver Stone implicitly takes on the neo-conservative thesis of the media’s undermining of a just war on several fronts. J.F.K. presents the case that the moral nature of the war was compromised from the beginning; Vietnam is shown to be a war for money and power rather than for the grand ideas of Democracy v. Communism. On the other hand, Vietnam becomes synonymous with the demise of liberalism as a political project only as long as liberals continue to romance the positive ideal of American/liberal hegemony. Political values such as individuality, legitimacy, equal justice, publicity, plurality, rights, legality, etc., that American liberalism has inherited from the age of democratic Revolutions remain the basis for the further democratization of the economic and political institutions, and the voluntary associations of American society. In an era when the legitimate defense of rights threatens to devolve into the politics of identity, the resources of a reconstructed liberal ideal that is premised on the notion of difference without boundaries might provide a critical ballast to the reemergent forms of political fundamentalism.
Freud, Sigmund. 1950. Totem and Taboo . New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Habermas, Jürgen. 1980. “The hermeneutic claim to universality.” Pp. 181-209 in Josef Bleicher ed., Contemporary Hermeneutics: Hermeneutics as Method, Philosophy and Critique. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Hartz, Louis. 1955. The Liberal Tradition in America. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
Rogin, Michael. 1992. “JFK: The Movie,” American Historical Review, 97, 2 (April): 500-505.
—–. 1987. “American political demonology: a retrospective.” Pp. 272-290 in Ronald Reagan, the Movie: And other Episodes in Political Demonology. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Apropos the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK (originally written in 1994).
The normative frame established in J.F.K. thus forecloses the possibility that Stone could pursue a third interpretive strategy: the deconstruction of the politics of the Kennedy “image” and the “Cold War Presidency’” itself. A deconstructive analysis would move in two directions: (1) the desymbolization of Kennedy as President-King and (2) the resymbolization of Kennedy as Commander-in-Chief. The image of the President-King can be traced to the Kennedy presidency. Since that time, great breaches in the rule of law have occurred and been justified by the sacral nature of the decisions of the Executive branch. Stone actually achieves a partial desymbolization of Kennedy with the aid of the assassination itself. The incredibly graphic Zapruder footage of the “headshot” that shows the front right side of Kennedy’s head being blown off is constantly replayed. The scene of the doctor poking his fingers into the bullet holes in Kennedy’s body and the actual pictures of the dead man with the inside of his head exposed, all render the President-King into an ordinary human being, stripped of the regalia of authority and the aura of invulnerability.
The resymbolization of Kennedy as Commander-in-Chief would entail the reconceptualization of the “assassination” in the terms of what could be called “unfriendly fire.” It is not implausible that the Stone/Garrison account of the events of twenty-eight years ago could lead to the conclusion that Kennedy was not “assassinated.” On the contrary, Kennedy can be viewed as the victim of a well orchestrated “fragging,” a not uncommon event in Vietnam. In the field of battle, the “CO” who was fragged was not considered to have been assassinated. Another military person took the dead CO’s place in the chain of command. This is not considered a coup d’ état, and the changing of the guard proceeds in an orderly fashion. One can accept the Stone/Garrison narrative, and find that the murder of Kennedy the Commander-in-Chief was no different from what happened in the killing fields of Vietnam. Kennedy was killed by military men just like himself, and men just like himself covered up the work of the others. But this resymbolization would require locating Kennedy at the head of the military industrial complex, as a participant in precisely that evil that haunts Stone’s war narrative in particular and, more generally, American liberal politics.
The Sexual Economy of J.F.K.
A different understanding of Stone’s representation of conspiracy is offered by Michael Rogin, who suggests that J.F.K. invites the charge of ideologically distorting the historical facts: “Resembling traditional American conspiracy theories, Stone’s demonology makes an easy target for those defending the allegedly beleaguered political elites smeared by JFK” (Rogin 1992:501). According to Rogin, because a healthy form of mourning for Kennedy was not possible for the nation (and Stone) as a result of the “unresolved assassination” and the fact of “Kennedy’s complicity” with covert domestic powers, psychic refuge is taken in “idealization, splitting, and paranoia”: “When the narrative history fails Stone, his plot splits in two: idealization of the beautiful ‘dying king’ on the one hand, demonization of a homosexual band on the other. Sexual anxiety overwhelms politics in JFK‘s paranoid style, as a homosexual horde slays the young father-king” (Rogin 1992:503). By locating the latent fear of “homosexual panic” at the center of Stone’s manifest historical explanation, Rogin holds that J.F.K. is significant primarily “for making us experience how politically produced paranoid anxieties, somatized on the visually produced mass body, turn into paranoid analysis” (Rogin 1992:505).
Such a straightforward Freudian analysis has the strength of highlighting the significance that Stone’s representation attributes to the sexual identity of the alleged conspirators Ferrie, Shaw, and the “composite character” Willie O’Keefe. Joe Pesci’s portrayal of Ferrie, whose constant, frenetic body movements suggest an inner manic compulsiveness, only contributes to the confirmation of Ferrie’s participation in an “alleged homosexual incident” announced early in the film by the authoritative voice of an assistant DA. The fact that Stone reminds the viewer again and again that these low level CIA operatives are participants in a “homosexual underground” supports Rogin’s claim that “sexual and political perversions are entirely intertwined.” Yet, this sexualization of politics can be read in two ways. One reading leads in the direction that Rogin follows, to Stone’s latent cinematic fear of the physical contamination and destruction of the “vulnerable male body.” However, a reading that emphasizes the “sexual conspiracy” in J.F.K. risks losing sight of the significance of the “political conspiracy” upon which Stone’s venture into sexual politics depends. An alternative reading would, on the contrary, take interest in the politics of sexuality or, in other words, would investigate the analogy of particular types of political and sexual practice operating in J.F.K. There is a striking similarity between the political practices of the military-industrial “community” (and its foreign and domestic intelligence branches) alleged to be behind the assassination and the (as represented by Stone) sexual practices of the New Orleans gay “community.” Both “communities” are produced and reproduced by secrecy; deals and relationships take place behind closed doors; secret agents and lovers remain “in the closet.” Thus, both covert politics and sex between men operate in ways that contradict and threaten the liberal vision that is predicated on openness and publicity.
In J.F.K., distorted political communication is mirrored in the depiction of (in Stone’s view?) “distorted” sexual relations. The most distorted (from the standpoint of the director) characteristic of Shaw and Ferrie, in their double identities as political conspirators and gay men, and Oswald as their “patsy,” is the very issue of their identities; or rather their lack of fixed, centered, transparent political and sexual identities. Oswald is an enigmatic figure: was he a communist or a CIA infiltrator of the anti-Communist underground?; was he the triggerman or the “fall guy” in the ‘coup’? The question of whether Clay Shaw was also Clay Bertrand is presented as the central (excluded) fact in Garrison’s prosecution of Shaw. Moreover, the “salon costume party” that accompanies Willie O’Keefe’s visit to Shaw’s home must be seen (through Stone’s lens) as a transgression of transparent identity and a confirmation of sexual/political “perversion”: what begins as a playful game between a nobleman (Ferrie), a noblewoman (O’Keefe), Hermes (Shaw) and another Greek figure ends with a scene of domination and submission as the nobleman strikes the god of merchants and traders. The homophobic element in J.F.K. is related to the fact that Stone represents in the film a conflation of a “political conspiracy” and a “sexual conspiracy,” and thus fails to recognize an important distinction: the former, a conspiracy of choice (like that of the intelligence community), is fundamentally different than the latter, a conspiracy of necessity functioning as a defensive cover against the institutionalized repression of sexual desires and practices that do not conform to heterosexual norms. If Stone’s negative representation of homosexuality is read symbolically rather than literally, the deep political structure of J.F.K. emerges: a political splitting of the American liberal identity; and ambivalence toward the actuality of liberal political practice that has as its source the incommensurability of a complex of political desires related to American liberalism.
Apropos the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK (originally written in 1994).
Two Logics of Interpretation
By means of the first “logic” of the film, Stone pursues two strategies of representation: memory and rational reconstruction. Both strategies present the problem of the historical reconstruction of an event. The opening section of the film deals with memory. The montage of images of the 1960 election year, Camelot on Pennsylvania Avenue, the gemutlichkeit of the Kennedy family, the Bay of Pigs and the confrontation with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the rapid sequence of events on 22 November 1963, the assassination, the ritual-laden funeral, and the shock and “national agony” epitomized by the teary Walter Cronkite; these images come across as might memory. Memories are fragments, arranged under the spell of a narrative but not narratively arranged in themselves. As such they do not tell a story, but recreate emotions, feelings, and sensations. Stone initially frames the assassination in these memory fragments. He then proceeds to reconstruct these diffuse memories. The direction of this reconstruction is foreshadowed by the footage of Dwight Eisenhower, a man from the post-aristocratic military school who distrusted the use of men and armor for political ends, denouncing the politics of the military industrial complex.
The reconstruction of these memory fragments is enabled by the selection of Garrison, in the first place, as a prosecutor and, in last place, for his “political” perspective. It turns out that, similar to memory, the assassination qua criminal activity is composed of fragments of evidence that are difficult to relate, understand, and narrate. Garrison is in the business of reconstructing suspected criminal events. He chases down contradictoriness, exclusions and gaps in testimony, and explores the possible relationship of a few “closeted” CIA operatives in New Orleans (David Ferrie and Clayton Shaw) to Lee Harvey Oswald. At this point, the two great problems of historical reconstruction are presented: the how and the why of the crime. Here, Stone takes up a rational interpretation of actions and motives. Through prosecutor Garrison, he reconstructs the crime given all that is known about the circumstances and the intentions of a handful of actors. On this plane of investigation, these intentions are not conceived as the desire to stage a coup d’ état but rather to successfully shoot and kill a man riding in a moving vehicle. This is where Stone uses the technique of interspersing actual footage with “reconstructions of possible events,” the latter being in black and white. This technique of interspersing “real” and constructed footage has been criticized for creating the “illusion” that the film is a documentary as opposed to being a fictionalization and, as a result, appearing to be a factual account to a generation of viewers whose first encounter with this historical event is likely to be Stone’s film. The focus of this criticism is fundamentally misplaced. What Stone demonstrates with this technique is how difficult it is to narrate the event wie es eigentlich gewesen, a problem exacerbated by the suppression of possible evidence by the American government. If the assertion of government suppression and exclusion of possible evidence remains undisputed by the vulgar empiricism of such criticism, then the standard of “what actually happened” cannot be said to have been established. Thus, the findings of the Warren Commission must also be read as the sole authorized fictional account of the events.
So far I have not raised the theme of “conspiracy.” At a certain point, it becomes clear to Garrison that the physical evidence contradicts the possibility that Oswald was the lone gunman. Stone (or Garrison) builds toward “conspiracy” with the use of depth-hermeneutics. By using the method of “scenic understanding,” the psychoanalytically-tinged depth-hermeneutic seeks to “clarify the conditions for the emergence of nonsense in conjunction with the reconstruction of the original scene” (Habermas 1980:194) This method is invoked wherever Garrison senses “resistance” to his inquiries and suspects the “repression” of information. Distorted, coerced communication is the fundamental problem facing his inquiry. Speech itself (in the context of the assassination) is rendered an act punishable by death when a series of potential witnesses are mysteriously murdered. The primary enabling “conspiracy” is the conspiracy of silence; of not-knowing and of forgetting. It is this conspiracy that provides the conditions for all possible crimes.
The emphasis of the narrative changes from the “conspiracy of silence,” the primary mechanism of conspiratorial action, to the primordial power-political “Conspiracy,” which is traceable to the hypothetical distant era when the sons/brothers joined together to kill the Father-King (Freud  1950). This is the second and predominant “logic of interpretation” in the film. The analytic, reconstructive approach ultimately gives way to a strictly normative framing of the events. This normative framing entails a leap from the “how” to the “why” of the murder/assassination. On this plane of investigation, the “deep structure” of Stone’s political-cinematic worldview emerges. The character which enables Stone/Garrison to raise the moral ante is “X” (played by Donald Sutherland), a Pentagon security specialist, who bluntly expresses the predominant interpretive frame: “Why – that’s the real question isn’t it; the how and the who is just scenery for the public.” X provides the hypothetical conditions of possibility that point directly to a collusion of interests of the CIA, Pentagon, Vice-President and disgruntled anti-Castro Cuban exiles against the “medium red” Kennedy. To help Garrison see the light, X poses the Domhoffian question: cui bono? – who benefits? By means of the deductive logic of the power elite thesis, X links benefits with responsibility. Whoever benefited from the assassination must have actively been involved in procuring these benefits. Consequently, a “Conspiracy” is born.
The normative framing imposed by a conspiratorial logic allows Stone to invest the world of American politics with a basic code of good and evil. The binary oppositions of this code can be arranged for Stone’s world view: democracy/tyranny, justice/injustice, truth/lies, communication/silence etc. Such pairings can lead to a deficit of interpretive complexity; i.e., a thing cannot have two “normative” identities simultaneously. It must fall under the category of either good or evil. Among the “things” that are exclusively good or evil are the Kennedy brothers (good), and Lyndon Johnson, the CIA, FBI and Pentagon (evil). The basic dichotomies do not become fully transparent for Garrison until X fulfills his role as “seer.” Until his meeting with X, Garrison is lost amidst a sea of contradictions and unseen agents. X provides a normative mapping of elite actors and powerful institutions. The crucial piece to this puzzle is Vice President Johnson, whose dots on the I’s and crosses on the T’s of the order to pursue agent-orange-democracy in Vietnam seems to confirm the existence of a “coup.”
While it provides the powerful emotional hook of the film, the second normative logic operates within the same structures of discursive power which Oliver Stone attempts to undermine. If something resembling authorial intention can be induced from the other films in his Vietnam war “trilogy” (I include J.F.K. with Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July), it could be characterized as a desire to perform a “working up of the past,” as opposed to its repression. J.F.K. provides the political cultural context in which the suffering of American soldiers makes sense. If a homology of deceit cannot be established in (1) the order to commence the war and (2) the suffering of the American soldiers in the jungles of southeast Asia and at home, then this suffering would have no meaning or purpose. Stone’s war narrative, completed with J.F.K., shows that the Vietnam war was an elaborate lie from the beginning and was conceived, prosecuted and concluded under the conditions of a massive cover-up. On the other hand, the world demarcated with evil is not without good; “evil” requires the existence of its opposite. This explains the sanitizing of Kennedy’s political career in Stone’s moral-cinematic vision. A more balanced account would acknowledge that Kennedy had ties (however indirect) to organized crime, engaged as an anti-Communist in a dangerous nuclear standoff with Nikita Khruschev, and contributed to the projection of the Cold War into space. And it could be argued that the failure in Cuba precipitated the development of the MAD doctrine (“Mutually Assured Destruction”) in nuclear strategy, which appears to have primarily served the “interests” of the American defense industries. Stone’s simple moral dichotomy enables him to only locate Kennedy on the side of the good, as the victim of evil. It is the weight of the Vietnam war which settles the moral argument. Without the possibility that things might have be different, that history could have been otherwise, Stone’s moral critique of the war lacks a substantive basis. It is necessary for Kennedy to represent the alternative to the evil that followed him.
Apropos the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK (originally written on 27 January 2008).
The New York Times is reporting that Senator Edward Kennedy will endorse Barack Obama tomorrow. This news follows in the wake of Caroline Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama in a New York Times Op-Ed, in which she writes: “I have found the man who could be that president” who inspires people as did her father, JFK. This is certainly a major coup for the Obama campaign, to have the last surviving member of Camelot bestow the Kennedy imprimatur on his pursuit of the Presidency. Any evocation of her father tugs at the heartstrings of Democrats old enough to remember anything about 22 November 1963, perhaps the most significant date in American political memory until 9/11. Strategically, the double dip of Caroline Kennedy and Senator Ted may put into play such Clinton “safe states” as New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts on 5 February. It will also not be easy for the Clintonistas to spin these endorsements, from the daughter and the brother, especially Bill, the self-represented legatee of the Kennedy tradition. Additionally, the logic of ethnic politics can be drawn out of Ted Kennedy’s endorsement. Ted co-sponsored (with McCain) the defeated immigration reform legislation that had less draconian paths to legalization for millions of illegal immigrants. In the Lou Dobbsified American imagination, illegal immigrant equals “Mexican.” Hence, the message can be delivered: Obama is good for “Latinos.” Obama should play this “ethnic card” to the hilt.
A question remains: why invoke the Father at all? If, as some pundits write, Americans may not want alternating political dynasties (Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton), what recommends the symbolic capital of the Ur-Dynasty in American politics? Is this a unconscious hankering for the long lost aristocratic beginnings of the nation? For now, I’ll propose that politics is about identity and the projection of identity. Unburdened of the responsibility of historical memory, there is a tendency in American politics to traffic in imagery. This is not necessarily a criticism. But what it means is that the political unconscious of the nation tends towards a search for the most positive image as the anchor of identity. The optimistic and naive self-conception of Americans about their place in the world order is mirrored by the desire to find “likable” people to have exclusive access to the launch code of the U. S. nuclear arsenal. In recent memory, the two parties have two fail-safe images: the “Happy days are here again” Reagan and the photogenic JFK (and Jackie), who asked the nation to do something for the greater good. If this is true, the photogenic Barack Obama, with the immigrant’s name, will stand a good chance against the fidgety persona of Hillary Clinton, and the clenched jaw militarism of the aged McCain. Neither Clinton nor McCain emit the sort of light that enveloped JFK and now Obama. Caroline Kennedy has simply reminded Americans of the Democratic stripe: Father was best.
Apropos the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of JFK (originally written in 1994).
The 22nd of November 1993 marked the thirtieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The lofty civic aspirations enunciated in his 1960 inaugural address are etched indelibly in the imagination of American public culture. Kennedy’s youthful vigor, the elegance of Jackie Kennedy, and the attractiveness of their children reinforced the feeling that a glorious new chapter had been opened in the history of the ‘American century.’ The tragedy of the assassination continues to be experienced as more than the loss of life of a single individual or President; it is experienced as a deep and irredeemable collective loss for the nation, as if America’s hopes and political fortunes also died on that fateful autumn day in Dallas. Hence, this unhappy anniversary in American political history might afford an overdue opportunity for a general reassessment of the Kennedy legacy in American politics at the close of the century. Fortunately, there is no need to start from scratch. In addition to the spate of books documenting Kennedy’s life, character and times, the reassessment process has already been ignited by filmmaker Oliver Stone, who admirably produced a coherent, accessible and refreshingly partisan representation of Kennedy and the political aftermath of the assassination. Stone’s effort seemed to reflect the unspoken sentiment of a generation. It therefore provides a fruitful starting point for a new debate on the enduring significance of the memory of JFK for the political self-definition of American liberalism and for the ongoing conflicts over the heart and soul of the Democratic party.
Following its release in the fall of 1991, Oliver Stone’s film J.F.K. became the subject of intense criticism in the mainstream media (Time, Newsweek, the NY Times, Dan Rather, etc.). And similar to the hostile reaction to the film Thelma and Louise, which also garnered widespread public attention, the sustained attacks on Stone’s vision of the assassination of a president tended to generate more heat than light. Most analyses of the film made critical reference to Stone’s fast and loose cinematic play with the alleged “historical facts” and his use of “simulations” of “undocumented” events and “composite” characters. What was surprising (or at least unexpected) was the consistently hostile reaction from liberal segments of the press and academia. A representative negative review was articulated by Tom Wicker, who suggested that J.F.K., which throws into doubt the official version of the Kennedy assassination, will undermine the recently regained trust of the American public in its political institutions (as if the political fallout from the Iran-Contra Affair and the sturm und drang that surrounded the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court had somehow already been neutralized). Yet, apart from Anthony Lewis of the Boston Globe, none of the liberal critics – Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Daniel P. Moynihan included – has firmly embraced the report of the Warren Commission as a satisfactory account of the events. A more substantive critical perspective, centering on Stone’s depiction of a “homosexual conspiracy” behind the assassination, was raised by Michael Rogin. However, neither the effort to dismiss the film as a dangerously ideological (as opposed to a factual) account of history, nor the focus on Stone’s (and the nation’s) proclivity toward demonological projections and a paranoid political style, illuminates the central underlying motif in the filmmaker’s interpretation, the crisis of American liberalism, or the political significance of the film as a symptom of a persisting dilemma of contemporary American liberal identity. If J.F.K. has an overarching flaw, it is that Stone’s renewed effort to demystify naive belief in government by exposing the unseemly realities of money and power is undercut by his failure to puncture the aura of the Kennedy myth that continues to feed the desire for a positive liberal model of the American superpower.