Interview: James Piereson on Camelot and the Cultural Revolution


"Liberalism entered the 1960s as the vital force in American politics, riding a wave of accomplishment running from the Progressive era through the New Deal and beyond. A handsome young president, John F. Kennedy, had just been elected on the promise to extend the unfinished agenda of reform. Liberalism owned the future, as Orwell might have said. Yet by the end of the decade, liberal doctrine was in disarray, with some of its central assumptions broken by the experience of the immediately preceding years. It has yet to recover."

"What happened?" That's the question that James Piereson of the Manhattan Institute asked in his 2007 book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, which was recently republished with a new forward by Encounter Books, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination. Building on his 5,000-word 2006 Commentary article, "Lee Harvey Oswald and the Liberal Crackup," whose opening paragraph we quoted above, Piereson sets out to explore why the 1960s ended on a much darker note than they began, with the American culture in tatters.

As I wrote in 2007, when I first reviewed Piereson's book for Tech Central Station:

It's not primarily an attempt to once again prove that Oswald acted alone, as authors such as Gerald Posner, and most recently, Vincent Bugliosi have demonstrated, to the satisfaction of virtually everyone whose name isn't Oliver Stone. But it is an attempt to explain an incredible transformational shift in American culture, which occurred during the years from 1963 and 1968, particularly in the media and on college campuses.

Even simply looking at photographs, it's obvious that a decade that began with Sinatra and Miles Davis in cool sharkskin suits and ended in the mud of Woodstock had undergone a enormous cultural shift. In 1973, Pat Moynihan looked back on the decade which had recently concluded and said, "Most liberals had ended the 1960s rather ashamed of the beliefs they had held at the beginning of the decade." The attitudes amongst liberal elites changed particularly radically during that decade.

Piereson believes that it was a combination of the news of the days leading up to Kennedy's assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy's desire to have her husband be a Lincolnesque martyr to civil rights, and a fear of upsetting the Soviet Union and Cuba that caused the background of Oswald to be suppressed.

But the actual causes of liberal disorientation regarding Kennedy's death and the motives of his killer predate his assassination by several years. It was during the 1950s and early '60s that that liberal elites declared America's nascent and disparate conservative movements to be a greater threat to the nation than the Soviet Union, as illustrated by films of the day such as Dr. Strangelove and The Manchurian Candidate. And the subtext of those films was very much based upon "a vast literature that developed in the '50s and early '60s about the threat from the far right," Piereson says, specifically mentioning Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style In American Politics, and Daniel Bell's The Radical Right.

A trend that continues to this very day, as seen by the virulent paranoia displayed by the media and the Obama White House over the rise of the Tea Party movement in 2009.

During our interview, Piereson will discuss:

● The cognitive dissonance that occurred when Kennedy's death at the hands of a pro-Castro Communist was recast to make Kennedy a victim of the Civil Rights movement.

● How the Camelot myth became associated with JFK's biography -- but only after his death.

● How the nostalgia that Camelot introduced into the "Progressive" movement itself also caused a dangerous element of cognitive dissonance.

● Why the country began to come apart at the seams in the years after Kennedy's death.

● How JFK's death transformed the center-left into a much nastier form of what Piereson calls "Punitive Liberalism."

And much more. Click here to listen:

(19 and half minutes long; 17.8 MB file size. Want to download instead of streaming? Right click here to download this interview to your hard drive. Or right click here to download the 3.35 MB lo-fi edition.)

If the above Flash audio player is not be compatible with your browser, click on the video player below, or click here to be taken directly to YouTube, for an audio-only YouTube clip. Between one of those versions, you should find a format that plays on your system.

Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.