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:
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Transcript of our interview begins on the following page; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’re talking today with James Piereson, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, and the author of the 2007 book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, which was recently republished by Encounter Books, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. And Jim, thanks for stopping by today.
MR. PIERESON: Ed, delighted to be here.
MR. DRISCOLL: Jim, is it safe to say that your book is built on four assumptions:
One: Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin of President Kennedy.
Two: Lee Harvey Oswald was an admitted Marxist.
Three: This makes President Kennedy the most prominent victim of the post-World War II Cold War between, on the one side, the Soviet Union and its allies, and on the other, the free west, particularly the United States.
And finally, Four: The previous three facts caused an enormous amount of cognitive dissonance amongst American liberals in the 1960s, creating negative ramifications that influence American culture to this very day. Is that a fair assessment?
MR. PIERESON: Ed, I think that's an excellent summary. It starts with three facts which are hard to dispute, and it leads to a political conclusion that this event caused a great deal of difficulty for many Americans to absorb and interpret and understand. And it stays with us to this day.
MR. DRISCOLL: Almost immediately after Kennedy’s death, there was a collective official statement from the news media that it was a quote-unquote climate of race-based hatred that killed President Kennedy. How did that opinion manage to congeal so quickly, when it was also known very quickly after Oswald’s capture, that he was a capital-C Communist?
MR. PIERESON: Well, Ed, that's the 100,000-dollar question. Because you know, the -- on the day after the assassination, the New York Times ran, of course, a big banner headline, and down the center, they had a story written by a reporter, in which he detailed Oswald's arrest and all the evidence against Oswald, which summarized his various Communist activities: his defection to the Soviet Union, his correspondence with pro-Castro groups, his lobbying for Castro, and indeed, his visit to Mexico City in an effort to travel to Cuba.
But next to that was a column by James Reston, the dean of American journalists at the time, who went on to say that Kennedy was the victim of a climate of hate in the country that sprung out of opposition to the civil rights movement and was promoted by anti-Communists and bigots of various kinds.
And so the question was, which of these things was going to stick? Is it going to be the facts or is it going to be the civil rights interpretation of this event? And the Reston interpretation is the one that dominated all the commentary of the Kennedy assassination.
There are a lot of reasons for why that happened. Many of the events preceding the assassination were linked to the civil rights movement. There was a lot of violence against civil rights activists in the South in 1963. And so when Kennedy was killed, people interpreted it within that framework.
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MR. DRISCOLL: And yet, if you look at the Zapruder Film, with the exception of the man with an open umbrella, who was apparently protesting Kennedy’s father’s appeasement of the Nazis, by invoking the memory of Neville Chamberlain, it doesn’t resemble a climate of hate at all. There are no protestors other than the so-called umbrella man, and the crowd appears eager and friendly to see the 35th president. They certainly don’t appear at all angry.
MR. PIERESON: No. You know, we have to remember that Kennedy and Johnson carried Texas in the 1960 election. And Kennedy's trip to Texas was an effort to keep Texas in the -- in the Democratic column in 1964. And you know, this view that Dallas is responsible for it, as a city of hate, that was an idea that congealed immediately after the assassination, even though it made no sense, because the assassin was a Communist. That continues to this day. The New York Times has run two or three articles in the last week discussing Dallas as the city that was to blame for the assassination.
MR. DRISCOLL: Jim, your book is titled Camelot and the Cultural Revolution. Let’s talk about the first half of that title. How did the myth of Camelot come to be associated with John F. Kennedy?
MR. PIERESON: Well, the dominant interpretation of the event as it happened was that Kennedy was a victim of hatred and prejudice and bigotry in the American culture, in Dallas and across the South and America in general. That was the interpretation.
They ignored the fact he was shot by a Communist. I mentioned Reston. Many preachers, political leaders, talked about hatred and prejudice and bigotry that weekend as the source of the assassination. Many said we are all responsible for the assassination. Chet Huntley went on television the night of the assassination and said that it was caused by hatred in the country and a spirit of lawlessness. Again, this is a reflection of some of the events that happened across the South in 1963.
But it had nothing to do with the event itself. The event -- the assassination was an event in the Cold War. Oswald killed Kennedy. There's no doubt about that. And he probably killed Kennedy to protect Castro.
So but this was the first event in post-war America in which this idea is turned loose that America is to blame; the country is guilty. It occurs with the Kennedy assassination. And then through the 1960s, it spreads into other areas.
So this idea of America being the guilty party, the sense of anti-Americanism, becomes a prominent element in discourse on the American left through the 1960 as we proceed. And it has its roots probably very deeply in the ideology of the left, but it surfaces in the Kennedy assassination.
And then as the 60s proceed, the Kennedy assassination is then listed as one item in the indictment of America. We killed this president. America killed John F. Kennedy. He was too good for us. And so America is guilty. And that is a thread, I think, that continues to be prominent in commentaries on America, down to the present day.
MR. DRISCOLL: But it was Jacqueline Kennedy who initially put the Camelot myth into mass circulation, right?
MR. PIERESON: Yes, that's true. It was -- that -- the Camelot myth was somewhat distinct from this idea that America -- that this was an event in the civil rights crusade, though Mrs. Kennedy was sympathetic to that. Because the Kennedy family did not want John F. Kennedy remembered as a victim of the Cold War. They wanted to have him remembered as an Abraham Lincoln figure, who had died as a martyr for civil rights.
So they certainly pushed this idea that Kennedy was a victim of bigotry and prejudice. But she added an additional layer, when she introduced the Camelot idea. Because now the Camelot idea of King Arthur suggests that the Kennedy White House was a magical place of the highest standards of peace and justice and that he is now gone and can never be replaced. And so this introduces a kind of a note of nostalgia into the whole discussion that we've lost the best and the brightest, and we'll never regain it again.
Mrs. Kennedy was very -- very much like the Broadway play Camelot, which had a successful run on Broadway from 1960 to 1963. And a recording of the song -- cast recording of the songs in the musical reached number 1 on the bestseller charts in that period. And she claimed that she and the President liked to listen to that record before they went to bed at night. And they especially liked the title tune that ended with a couplet that: "Never let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was Camelot."
And that theme, she gave to Theodore White, the journalist, who put it in an essay in an issue of Life magazine, a commemorative issue of Life magazine dedicated to President Kennedy. And this idea, as sentimental as it sounds, really stuck. The public bought it and it sticks down to this day. The Kennedy years are now remembered as Camelot, a kind of a magical period.
Obviously, that's an exaggeration of what really happened. It's also -- the term was never used while Kennedy was alive. It was imagined and circulated in the week after Kennedy's assassination.
MR. DRISCOLL: And nostalgia for an ideology that calls itself “Progressive” seems like it would be a pretty fatal combination.
MR. PIERESON: Well, yes, I think that's right. Liberalism, progressivism, has to look toward a bright future. And when the idea is that they've now lost their best chance, their best opportunity is in the past, that introduces a sense of depression, pessimism, or fatalism into the liberal outlook.
And then when you mix that with this idea that America has killed Kennedy, that -- that kind of introduces a further destructive element in the outlook.
And so when you look at the liberalism that emerged in the later 1960s, leftism or radicalism, it might be called, you see all of these elements: a kind of destructive nihilism is in there, an anti-Americanism is in there. And some of this, I think, grew out of the Kennedy assassination.
When you stop to think that when Kennedy set out to Dallas in late 1963, we had a very stable country, a great deal of consensus around our social values and political institutions. And Kennedy was quite a popular president. And we had a growing economy.
By 1968, five years later, the country was coming apart at the seams. We'd lost our faith in our institutions. Students were burning the American flag. Campuses were coming apart. There were riots in the cities, rampant crime in the cities. Drug abuse is rampant. And now we have the assassinations in 1968 of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy.
So in a short period of four and a half or five years, the country goes from a very stable nation to a nation that's coming apart. And the Kennedy assassination was the first event in this unfolding sequence of events.
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MR. DRISCOLL: Jim, I recently interviewed Jesse Walker of Reason magazine about his new book, The United States of Paranoia. Jesse’s theory is that all political ideologies, and smart as well as stupid people are apt to have their share of conspiracy theories. However, over the past 50 years, the American Left have demonstrated a propensity for them. First the belief that Kennedy was killed by a mass conspiracy over the cause of civil rights. Prior to the election of Barack Obama, a large percentage of the left believed that President Bush somehow engineered the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon. In January of 2011, the left convinced themselves that somehow, Sarah Palin’s clip art caused a crazed gunman to shoot Democratic Senator Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others. And most recently, some Democrats have convinced themselves that the GOP somehow sabotaged the Obamacare Website. Added together, that’s some serious paranoia, particularly by a group that bills itself as the quote-unquote “reality-based community.”
MR. PIERESON: Well, I think that's true. I think you could go back -- you know, back into the '70s, '80s, '90s and find a thread of such events running all the way through this period.
MR. DRISCOLL: How does the left come to grips with it all?
MR. PIERESON: I guess they don't see it as paranoia. An interesting thing is, of course, that during the 1950s as they're dealing with Senator McCarthy, and his attacks on Communists, they began to say that the right was obsessed with conspiracies, and this was the factor that distinguished them from genuine conservatives. They called them the radical right. But it was this -- it was an infatuation with conspiracies that was the distinctive element.
But of course, as you point out, Ed, this now moved from the right to the left in the 1960s and beyond.
I don't know how to deal with it. Of course, you have -- you have not only kind of paranoid conspiracies, but you have -- had made-up crisis all the way through this period, one thing after another. Everything's going to fall apart because of the Supreme Court decision of one kind or another.
So, yes, all the things that the liberals criticized the conservatives for in the 1950s came home to roost on their side in the 1960s and beyond.
MR. DRISCOLL: Speaking of paranoia, what did you make of Secretary of State John Kerry recently saying that he believed that there was a conspiracy behind Kennedy’s death, and that both he and former Obama quote-unquote Green Czar Van Jones, who was a 9/11 truther, are White House insiders. How do you claim belief in a conspiracy theory, when you have access to both all the files, and the president himself?
MR. PIERESON: Yes. Now, I looked at that article by Kerry. He seemed to be suggesting that maybe that Cuba was involved in the assassination. Kerry was saying that the CIA or the FBI was involved. He seemed to be saying Oswald was linked up to others. He wasn't very specific about it.
And you know, I think that's actually possible. Oswald may have been connected somehow to Cuban agents in the United States. That's not proven. But Ed Epstein, who's really the premier writer on the Kennedy assassination, has a new book -- short book -- on the Kennedy assassination, where he discusses this possibility.
MR. DRISCOLL: In the Weekly Standard, you wrote an article describing a virulent form of leftism, which you call “punitive liberalism,” a phrase that also appears in Camelot and the Cultural Revolution. What is punitive liberalism, and was it spawned by the cognitive dissonance that overcame liberals in reaction to JFK’s death?
MR. PIERESON: Yes. I think I developed this idea in kind of watching the liberalism that emerged in the 1960s. I think the liberalism that Kennedy represented, and Hubert Humphrey, and others, was a kind of progressive liberalism where we're going to continue to make reforms and perfect the American system of democracy and representative government.
But what you get out of the 1960s is a punitive idea, which is that we have to make these changes to punish America. America's been bad. So America's been bad to blacks. America's been bad to women. America's been bad to the environment. And America somehow has to be punished for all these things by making all these changes. So as a consequence of which, for example, we have to bus school children.
So really, there's no question that -- people don't ask, is this going to improve education? That's not the question. The question is, that the whites must be punished for having done wrong in the past.
We have to have quotas and preferences and so on, for women and minority groups. Will this actually help the bulk of blacks and women who may be actually poor or in the working class and struggling to get ahead? Well, no, that's not the point. We have to punish whites and men for their transgressions in the past.
We have to do various things to fix the environment. Will this actually help the environment? It doesn't matter. We were bad in the past, and we need to be punished for it.
So the kind of liberalism that emerged from the 1960s, as I suggest, was a kind of punitive idea that we had to make changes and reforms in order to punish America for having been bad in the past not to improve things for the great bulk of the population.
MR. DRISCOLL: And Jim, last question. Now that the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy's assassination is in the rearview mirror, will his legacy diminish somewhat, simply as time marches on?
MR. PIERESON: Well, Ed, that's a good question. And you know, I kind of think so. And I think this kind of Kennedy mania -- Kennedy -- this overblown sense of the Kennedys will begin to recede for a couple of reasons. One, I think you have to be about sixty years of age or more, even to remember the event. It was a very large event for people who were relatively young at the time, say, from between their high school years and thirty-five or forty. Kennedy made a big imprint on them.
And those people are now, you know, sixty years old and well beyond. So they're getting older. And young people don't really get the Kennedy thing.
The Cold War, of course, is over. And Kennedy was a prominent figure in the Cold War, and it was the events of the Cold War that really caused the assassination. The Kennedys are largely out of public life. There aren't any more Kennedys, I don't think, in public life. Maybe there are one or two, but it's not a factor anymore.
So I think the passage of time is going to diminish it. So I think this fiftieth anniversary is probably the final blowout of the whole Kennedy phenomenon.
MR. DRISCOLL: This is Ed Driscoll, and we’ve been talking with James Pierson of the Manhattan Institute about the latest edition of his brilliant 2007 book Camelot and the Cultural Revolution, It’s published by Encounter Books, and available at Amazon.com and your local bookstore. And Jim, thank you for stopping by PJ Media.com once again.
MR. PIERESON: I appreciate it, Ed. Great to talk to you again.
(End of recording; for our many previous podcasts, start here and keep scrolling.)
Transcribed by eScribers.net, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll. Artwork created using elements from Shutterstock.com.