- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

James Piereson’s 2007 book “Camelot and the Cultural Revolution” featured an intriguing look at the liberal slide from progressive patriotism into anti-imperialist self-loathing during the 1960s and beyond in the wake of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. It’s a text to keep in mind as you watch the new D.C.-based romantic thriller “An American Affair.”

“An American Affair” is the latest in a long line of films dedicated to the notion that President Kennedy was killed by hard-line factions on the right. In the movie, a cartel of CIA agents and Cuban exiles plots the murder of the president for his failure to follow through with the agency’s plans to take out Fidel Castro.

They pump one of Kennedy’s many mistresses, the free-spirited Catherine Caswell (Gretchen Mol), for information on what is going on inside the Oval Office, a necessity because the conspirators have been frozen out ever since the Bay of Pigs went sideways. When she loses her leverage over the agency, she becomes expendable. These are not men to be trifled with.

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The film’s plot is muddled — half coming-of-age story, half conspiracy thriller. The relationship between Catherine and Adam (Cameron Bright), a young man entranced by her worldly charm, gets overwhlemed by the silly conspiracy that drives the action. Yet the theme at the heart of the movie — that evil militarists cost the nation its innocence — is unmistakable.

This is, of course, not the first time such an argument has been made on the big screen. Oliver Stone’s pair of presidential histories, “JFK” and “Nixon,” are consumed by the urge to show Lee Harvey Oswald as a patsy of evil elements on the right. In the former, the CIA is thought to be the root of all evil; in the latter, the famously erased 18 minutes of tape from President Nixon’s office are thought to contain his admission of complicity in Mr. Kennedy’s murder.

Don’t forget “Executive Action,” a movie described thusly on the Internet Movie Database:

“Rogue intelligence agents, right-wing politicians, greedy capitalists, and free-lance assassins plot and carry out the JFK assassination in this speculative agitprop.”

Even “The X-Files” got into the act, casting its central villain, the “Cigarette Smoking Man,” as a captain in the U.S. Army who was recruited to kill the president for transgressions against the national security apparatus.

In the real world, Mr. Kennedy was killed by an avowed communist and ardent leftist — indeed, a man who defected to the Soviet Union for a time. Yet his assassination by Lee Harvey Oswald was reframed by the left as the culmination of a uniquely American culture of violence embodied by those on the right.

James Reston wrote in the New York Times after the murder, “America wept tonight, not alone for its dead young president but for itself … something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order.” He linked the assassination to the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Ala., and the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

Instead of being seen as a casualty of the Cold War, the logical lens through which to view his murder, the slain president was cast as a martyr of the civil rights movement, an idealist cut down in the prime of his life.

In a fit of supreme cognitive dissonance, the left saw the far right as the reason for Mr. Kennedy’s death. “For Americans on the left the assassination represented an especially shattering and confusing event,” Mr. Piereson wrote. “The ongoing controversy over the causes and ultimate meaning of the assassination has largely taken place among liberals and leftists, who had the greatest difficulty coming to terms with it.”

Contributing to this confusion was the emergence of the sentimental legend that Mr. Kennedy was a slain civil rights icon, a victim in the vein of Abraham Lincoln instead of the ardent anti-communist the world had seen up to that point, the stalwart who would “pay any price, bear any burden … to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Encouraged by Jackie O and the keepers of Mr. Kennedy’s flame, the myth of Camelot was employed to prop up the idea of an idealist gunned down in his prime for the radical racial equality he pursued.

Enter the conspiracy theories, which rushed to fill the logical vacuum created by the mythmaking of Mrs. Kennedy and her allies in the press.

Oswald was a patsy; the military-industrial complex was the real villain; John Birchers wanted Mr. Kennedy dead; organized crime murdered the president to get back at his brother Robert for cracking down on their schemes; Cuban partisans angered by Mr. Kennedy’s failure to fully back the Bay of Pigs invasion did the deed.

The irony in this is that the extreme right had spent much of the 1950s searching for communists where none existed and discussing conspiracies related to water fluoridation. While the Birchers fumed and fulminated, the left laughed. What silly nonsense, liberal thinkers wrote, and for good reason.

All that would change after Nov. 22, 1963.

The JFK conspiracies gained traction not only with intellectuals from the new left but also their acolytes in Hollywood because they recentered the debate about life in the 1960s away from a discussion of a country at war and toward a discussion of a country dedicated to progressivism.

The false association of Mr. Kennedy with new-left-style idealism is all we have left at this point, if one is to believe what is seen on television and at the theaters.

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