Everybody projects their hopes on the future. Do we impose our wishes on the past, too? The man who killed John Kennedy fifty years ago today wasn’t a CIA operative or a John Birch Society member in good standing. He was a Communist who migrated to the Soviet Union, took a Russian wife, and littered the streets of New Orleans with handbills in praise of Fidel Castro. Facts can really mess up a narrative, which is why conspiracy theories were invented.
Rather than accept the reality that a “silly little Communist,” as Jacqueline Kennedy aptly put it, killed the president, great numbers of small people weave elaborate, politically flattering fictions that usually involve dark cabals comprised of caricatures of those they hate most—shadowy intelligence operatives, ribbon-chested devotees of the military-industrial complex, Texas oil millionaires, etc. This is a form of narcissism, in which one’s own devils become the devil figures for larger-than-life leaders.
Republicans aren’t immune to this disease. Roger Stone just authored a book that fantasizes that the vice president killed the president. All the way with LBJ? All the way to the nuthouse. Stone’s logic goes something like this: I don’t like the Great Society. I don’t like John Kennedy’s murder. Therefore, the architect of the Great Society must be the architect of John Kennedy’s murder. Pretty convincing, huh?
Kennedy’s assassination was the first in a series of collective delusions indulged in by swaths of Americans. The anniversaries of two other historically significant events that also now fall upon us illustrate the phenomenon.
In the aftermath of the deaths of more than 900 followers of Jim Jones in Guyana 35 years ago this week, many Americans drank the Kool-Aid on Jonestown. A vague understanding arose that the carnage represented a cautionary tale about the dangers of fundamentalist Christianity. But Jim Jones preached “apostolic socialism” and stomped on the Bible in front of his flock. The Peoples Temple didn’t believe in Jesus. They believed in Jim.
And Jim believed in communism, hence the commune Jonestown. “The temple was as much a left-wing political crusade as a church,” the Nation honestly reported at the time. “In the course of the 1970s, its social program grew steadily more disaffiliated from what Jim Jones came to regard as ‘Fascist America’ and drifted rapidly toward outspoken Communist sympathies.”
Despite this, within Democratic circles pilgrimages to meet Father Jim became obligatory, with Rosalynn Carter, her husband’s running mate Walter Mondale, and California Governor Jerry Brown among those who legitimized Jones by meeting with him. Willie Brown, later speaker of the state assembly and mayor of San Francisco, compared Jones to Martin Luther King and Albert Einstein.
Immediately after willing their fortune to the Soviet Union, the people of the Peoples Temple became the only socialist community to achieve their stated objectives. “We should be happy,” one woman announced in the final moments at Jonestown. “At least I am. Let’s all be the same.” In death, they achieved complete equality.
Nine days later, two of Peoples Temple’s boosters were gunned down back in San Francisco. Wouldn’t it make a better story if San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, the nation’s first openly-gay elected official, had been martyred because of his pioneering example rather than a petty political grievance? In fact, it makes such a good story that Sean Penn starred in a film a few years ago that depicted Milk minus the “I,” a gay MLK.
Dan White murdered Harvey Milk for his sexuality as much as he murdered Mayor George Moscone for his. Milk’s political ideals didn’t much motivate the slaying; his backroom political maneuverings did. The unstable White, who had resigned his position, successfully begged for it back—until Milk and others cajoled the mayor to rescind his generous, and perhaps not within his power, forbearance. But that makes for a boring movie, so it’s better to cast the sore-loser White as a foaming-at-the-mouth, right-wing fanatic, and Milk—whose chief accomplishment as supervisor was a sensible ordinance requiring dog owners to clean up after their pets—as a saintly crusader rather than a good retail politician.
Dan White, like Harvey Milk, was a San Francisco Democrat. Dianne Feinstein served as his mentor on the board of supervisors. White generally voted the way Milk voted. Harvey Milk’s murderer hired a homosexual campaign manager, voted to fund a gay “Pride Center” as a city supervisor, and donated $100 to defeat the Briggs Initiative, a misguided ballot measure empowering local school boards to fire homosexual teachers at whim. Blanking out on all this—that a reactionary outlook doesn’t win anyone office in the most liberal metropolis in America—allows the historical rewrite that a proto-Tea Partier assassinated Harvey Milk.
“This had nothing to do with anybody’s sexual orientation,” Feinstein reflected to the San Francisco Chronicle upon the thirtieth anniversary of the assassinations. “It had to do with getting back his position. Dan White was a troubled man under a lot of pressure.”
This week is as much a remembrance of historical events as it is an indulgence of political fantasies. Behind our minds’ grassy knolls hide inconvenient truths.