In the comments to “Assassination Pr0n” Silver Whistle remarks that it was “…almost as if you had been there.” There’s a reason for that. I was there.
My father was a populist and borderline Social Democrat, and an admirer of Huey P. Long (if you don’t know that name, the Wiki article is unusually straight.) He wouldn’t have run for office for a million dollars in pre-inflation small bills, but I get my tendency to bloviate on political matters via DNA; he was somebody the people around him asked for advice and opinion, and politicians came around seeking his influence, a lot in the early Fifties, tapering off as the Sixties arrived. I never met Lyndon, but his great toady Wright Patman showed up once in a while, and Lindley Beckworth was a semi-regular.
Dad’s best friend was a Socialist with Trotskyite inclinations who kept the Manifesto and Capital on his bookshelf at home. The arguments between the two of them were often heated, always good-natured, and both puzzling and interesting to us kids. Both of them were Patriots with a capital “P” — of the two, Dad was more inclined to consider the USSR a force for good. (When Ford built the Kama River Plant, Dad’s father was a Ford dealer and got all the publicity materials relating to it.) For both of them the ideal was change from within, and the notion of applying for outside help was soundly rejected. Because of his occupation and leanings, “Kevin” had a stream of visitors from foreign countries anxious to learn American ways of doing things.
Mother’s family was much more numerous and much less politically oriented. Like a lot of families of the time, most of them were or had been military — as had Dad’s people — but with a twist: they were mostly Staff, and disproportionately Intelligence or Intelligence-related. When my son went to apply to DLI, his Defense Intelligence interviewer was bemused by the stack of folders containing abbreviated dossiers of his relatives who’d been in or peripheral to “The Business”.
The area where I lived was “oil country”, and when the international companies started rebuilding and developing Arabian oil, they came to my neighbors for expertise. Several of the people in our little town had spent up to ten years in Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Iraq. As a result of that and “Kevin”‘s visitors, I had met and spoken to Muslims and Hindus before I ever encountered a Jew, or a Roman Catholic priest. Cubans and Central Americans were around with some regularity. It is a mistake to think “flyover country” isn’t connected to the rest of the world — it’s just that the part it’s connected to generally isn’t the elites and oligarchs that take part in “diplomacy”.
I learned to read when I was four. I’d read the Manifesto and dipped into Capital before I started second grade, and “Kevin” was willing to clarify some of the hard bits. Listening through my bedroom window, which gave on the front porch, I got an eyewitness account of events in Iran in the early Fifties from a minor participant (I was supposed to be asleep). Events in Cuba leading up to the Revolution were a staple of front-porch conversation, censed by Kools and unfiltered Lucky Strikes, lubricated by Pearl beer in cans that had to be opened with a “church key”, and more often than not enlivened by the testimony of participants. Nobody liked Fulgencio Bautista or the United Sugar Company; everybody knew Fidel and his compadres were Socialists of one stripe or another, and nobody disapproved. We didn’t get a new car in ’58, and Mother was bitter about it; the acrimony influenced family events for the rest of their married life. I didn’t find out until later that the money had gone to support los revolucionarios, and when I did a lot of things came clear.
The campaign and other events leading up to the 1960 election were staples of conversation around our house. “Kevin” had moved away, but the two families exchanged semi-regular visits, many times with politicians or political organizers attending part of them. At that time, neither Dad nor anyone I knew would have voted for Dick Nixon without a gun to their heads, and maybe not then — he was regarded as a nonentity, a tired retread from an Administration they didn’t much approve of. (Eisenhower? Pah. So far as I know the expression “staff weenie” hadn’t been coined, but the concept was alive and well.) Dad was one of the ones denouncing the notion that the Pope would interfere, but on the ground that no politician was all that devout.
As the Kennedy Administration got into its stride, the front-porch and kitchen-table conversations got increasingly disillusioned and acrimonious. Politicians, especially national-level politicians, can be expected to be elitist to some degree, but this guy was ridiculous — dressing his wife in stuff that would buy a house around there, sticking with his circle of high-roller relatives and acquaintances for friendly associations and political appointments alike, and sneering at the proles in ways that couldn’t be completely papered over by the people not yet christened “spin doctors”. His foreign policy was roundly denounced as pusillanimous and naiive, especially as regarded Cuba and Viet Nam — in both cases, a new and better approach had been a consistent campaign plank, but the reality was regarded as kowtowing to imperialists and unthinking support on ideological grounds without privileging American interests. Domestically, the approach of the Best and Brightest to Civil Rights was considered counterproductive at best. None of Dad’s circle (or mine; I was a teenager by then) considered “integration” possible, whether desirable or not; but almost without exception they had direct or indirect experience with the Red Ball Express and other “colored” units during WWII, and they unanimously agreed that Negroes should get equal protection under the law. They felt that the new proposals, instead of producing a Negro population prepared to stand on its own, would create a population of hapless dependents who would resent that status and be bitter about it.
This was all during the first, tentative stages of the inversion of American party politics. The Solid South was less monolithic than before, but from about the Brazos River to the Atlantic Ocean a “D” by the name could be substituted by “E” for “elected”, and the Democratic primary was the real election. The Kennedy Administration, and its policies and actions, were the first genuine break in that wall; without it neither Johnson’s ramrodding the Civil Rights Act through with more Republican than Democratic support, nor Nixon’s later “Southern Strategy”, would have been possible. When Barry Goldwater rose to prominence, he was widely admired — if nothing else, here was a guy who’d put his own, precious, actual ass on the line rather than “flying a desk” — and the sentiment of a woman (which I can’t attribute, alas) that “…any man who can shoot his own food, build his own radio, and fly his own plane, is all right in my book” was widely quoted.
Side note: we all knew who Dan Rather was, at some level. His attitudes were not approved of, but he was widely excused on the ground that he was trying to make a living at an occupation dominated and controlled by Eastern elitists, and had to suck up to them to get ahead. A major step in his career path was standing in front of the cameras and lying through his teeth about me and the other high-school students’ reaction to the assassination, and we neither forgave nor forgot, but we continued to excuse. In retrospect, that was probably a mistake.
Had Kennedy survived to complete his term, the accumulated missteps and flat f*ups, deference to a*holes, elitist arrogance, immorality (song parody: the man who f*ed / Marilyn Mon-roe appeared just before the assassination), and the antics of sneering Brother Bobby and barfly Brother Teddy, would have added up to a millstone around the campaign’s neck. It might have been overcome — incumbency is a powerful tool, and Democrats could still claim patriotic populism — but I don’t think so. Mississippi and Alabama would’ve voted Democratic if Satan Mekatrig were the candidate, but absent the martyrdom factor, Texas would have gone for Goldwater, and possibly Tennessee; a lot of the others would’ve been crapshoots. My personal opinion is that Goldwater would have been elected by a slim popular vote margin and a small, but definite, majority in the Electoral College — and history since 1964 would be profoundly different. As I said before, different does not necessarily mean better in all cases, but different I’ll stand by.