He wondered why he had to go into all this. “I assumed any superintendent would issue instructions to shoot arsonists on sight and to maim the looters, but I found out this morning this wasn’t so and therefore gave him specific instructions.” [Mayor Daley] added, “If anyone doesn’t think this is a conspiracy, I can’t understand.”
Daley really had a gift for vocalizing the unconscious projection, didn’t he? There were many who saw ‘a conspiracy‘, but quite a few assumed it was The Authorities against the rest of America. I know that Conspiracy Theorizing as a way of life is usually credited to JFK and the grassy-knoll chalkboarders, but Dallas was just a point — it was the ‘twin’ assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy that turned those bullet points (sorry) into a line of thought.
I was ensconced in a blue-collar, very white NYC parish in 1968, so all I (or, I think, most of my parents’ generation) knew about Dr. King’s assassination was what we could read in the newspapers. While there certainly wasn’t much sympathy for the civil rights crusaders among those cops, firemen, civil servants, small-business workers & their wives (estimate: 50% Irish-Catholic, 35% Italian-Catholic, 5% other Catholic, 10% Jewish), I also recall an outspoken fury at the “dumb Southern rednecks” who condoned the assassination — it was seen as allowing their temper at a personal annoyance to potentially spark a much more dangerous outpouring of violence.
And, of course, Bobby Kennedy’s assassination locked that fear into a permanent state of mind. Everybody in my neighborhood “knew” it was going to happen, after the fact — “They had to take out one of OURS to balance the scales”. The only question was whether Sirhan Sirhan was the tool of “the Coloreds” or of the Elite than ran the country and the world as their private fiefdoms. And if the simplest explanation was that a shadowy ruling class was running the rest of us for a puppet show, the remaining issue was: Should you drop out of the system entirely, give up on all hope of political action (such as, for instance, voting) as a way of improving one’s chances? Or should you do whatever it might require to join the ruling class’s shock troops, and “get yourself a piece of the action”?
I’m here, dear readers, but watching the wonderful old Truman Capote documentary on the Ovation channel!
BTW, I quote Truman Capote in the book espousing the theory that all the assassins were patsies of shadowy forces…
Hey Rick, we talked when you did a salon at FDL back when I hung out there. I read your book then and couldn’t do it again for this conversation. One thing that really stunned me was when you mentioned the Minutmen sending threats to “activists” in Champaign-Urbana. I was there at that time and in VVAW Chapter and I never thought anyone really knew about that.
I wonder what it is about human nature that we’re so eager to latch onto conspiracy theories, when, in real life, a conspiracy is notoriously difficult to actually pull off, human being being the jabbermouths we are.
Glad you’re here this week, Rick. I promise not to correct any horse racing analogies this week.
Damned at Random
I don’t recall feeling any connection between (among) the assassinations except that politics was a very dangerous business all of a sudden. I think the conspiracy theorists actually want a sense of order in events that are otherwise chaotic and out of control
Yeah, I snorted to myself when I read that part. (Finally caught up, all I had to do was go on a vacation to do it.)
I’m also finishing up the fantastic PBS documentary miniseries “Eyes on the Prize” about the Civil Rights Movement, and I keep finding the movement, and the text of Nixonland inexorably linked. The movement is a fraction of the events of the 60s, but Nixonland, through showing the whole, gives you the why.
I’ve told my story of dropping acid for the 1st time while on pass from Ft Lewis the day RFK was shot. We KNEW is was a conspiracy!
Probably got that from this great piece of investigatory journalism from the time:
They were known for burying huge weapons caches in remote locations for the coming showdown with the Communists and, apparently, the caches are still stumbled upon from time to time.
@freelancer, wonderful that you got to watch “Eyes on the Prize.” It was held up in limbo forever because of rights issues involving the music. Martin Luther King would be proud of our greedy, greedy nation…
To further the Web of Conspiracy Theories, Salon ran an article at the end of last month saying Sirhan Sirhan still denies all memory of his attack. His lawyer uses the term “Manchurian Candidate”!
It’s a pity that the weird, wild out there conspiracies have given a bad name to “conspiracy theory”. A conspiracy is two or more people working together. They really aren’t rare at all. But it’s an awfully easy way to call your opponent crazy.
@Rick Perlstein: I guess the fact that I was a teenager in Inglewood during Watts and vividly remember the dude on the news saying “we’re coming up to YOUR neighborhood in Hollywood (or something like that)” Gave you great street cred with me!
As I remember, Bobby’s assassination was the turning point for a lot of people.
I remember a black woman I worked with telling me that she thought that MLK was killed by the racists but when RFK was killed, she wondered if both murders were due to something else. She was really shaken by it.
My daughter was born in Inglewood, a bit later. 1967.
licensed to kill time
I found all the assassinations and riots and law ‘n’ order clampdown so dispiriting I headed for Amsterdam and set forth on the hippie trail to India. I totally dropped out, and I wouldn’t exchange those years for a zillion bucks.
It was just too awful in the good ol’ USA. I learned a lot about the rest of the world in the process and was able to view the US through a different lens, i.e. not the center of the Universe. It was a good education.
Damned at Random
I would agree that Sirhan Sirhan was most likely of the three assassins to have been a “patsy of shadow forces.” He always seemed mentally adrift
@Damned at Random:
Well, suuuure, that’s exactly what THEY want you to think! ! !
But, as Perlstein points out, there were ‘conspiracies’ aplenty among the various political camps, not Grand Political Events, just a million everyday ugly little personal betrayals and character assassinations.
Sirhan Sirhan: I could almost believe that he was acting as a puppet. I never did figure out what his motivation was. If he had not been grabbed right away, I would have doubted that he was even the guy.
@stuckinred Seeing that while researching the TV coverage at the broadcast museum in NYC made my eyes pop out of my head.
I don’t know about the general case, but the J.F.K. assassination is such a conspiracy magnet because so many crazy, implausible things happened around it. And to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the “lone gunman” you pretty much have to accept that he was the luckiest sniper in history. Not saying he wasn’t, and not wanting to hijack the thread into Oliver Stone territory, but . . . damn. It’s hard to accept.
Come to think of it, this fits right in with Nixonland and the ’60s. A lot of crazy, implausible things happened, and then there were amplification effects via the reactions (sometimes also crazy and implausible) of various people and groups to them.
@Anne Laurie: What was the canuck letter but a political conspiracy? Or hell, the grandaddy of them all and the main reason people like to talk about Nixon, Watergate.
I was really struck by the part on page 266, about Nixon saying that doubling the rate of convictions would eliminate more crime than any government program on poverty- and the statistics he quoted about rises in crime.
Were these statistics even remotely true? I think about it because of people’s contemporary fears of crime, and our bloated prison population, when crime has actually been on the decline. I’m just very affected by seeing how the politics of fear have been used over and over again, and we never seem to recognize the pattern.
@licensed Your reflections fascinate me–you make me think about how much of all the crazy “fun” of the sixties, while certainly real and wonderful and enormously creatively fulfilling for so many people, was a form of denial, a retreat from an awful everyday reality. I always found it fascinating how many baby boomers simply remembered the sixties as one uninterrupted great time. I thought there might e a backlash among them against my book–but it never happened. That was rewarding.
@Linda Featheringill: My sister went to Morningside in 67 but I was long gone in Asia by them
Well, Watergate was a cooperative effort. And maybe a conspiracy.
@ Steeplejack Fantastic chapter on that in my favorite recent history book, Kathryn Olmsted’s “Real Enemies.” For one thing it will kill any doubts you have that he couldn’t have been a lone gunman–and contextualize why it made sense to suspect so for so many people.
Damned at Random
@Anne Laurie: Yeah, certainly there have been some great conspiracies to commit murder- the DC sniper pair and Lincoln assassination comes to mind. But the lone gunman with a grudge is always my first guess. I doesn’t take much planning to stalk and shoot someone
No, I hear you- again, I wasn’t alive then, but grew up in a Democratic family that revered JFK and yes, for the assassination to be what was claimed, a million things had to go exactly right and that’s hard to buy. But, having grown up influenced by Iran Contra, etc., it’s equally hard for me to buy the government having enough people capable of carrying off that kind of thing with no one, even decades later, knowing anything about it, you know?
One of the reasons so many things happened in the hours after the shooting that seemed suspicious later was that LBJ was (reasonably) terrified the Soviet Union was about to (had already begun?) attack America, so the autopsy and all that were slapdash, etc. Again, see Olmsted.
Ah, Watts. I wasn’t alive then, but a relative of mine wrote what I think is a really great essay about it.
@Rick Perlstein: Do you know Zappa’s “Trouble Ever Day”
Well I’ve seen the fires burnin’
And the local people turnin’
All the merchants and the shops
Who use to sell their brooms and mops
And every other household item
Watch the mob just turn and bite em
And they say it serve them right
Because a few of them are white
And it’s the same across the nation
Black and white discrimination
Yell and you can understand me
And all that other crap they hand me
In the papers and t.v.
And all that mass stupidity
That seems to grow more everyday
give it a listen sometime
licensed to kill time
Growing up in that era made me profoundly cynical about politics in general and America in particular. We (DFH’s) were all so hopeful and starry-eyed about changing America forever but it turned out that powerful forces didn’t want it to be changed. It was, frankly, easier to get out.
Plus, it was a lot of fun to travel instead. And I was pretty young at the time, I wanted to get out and live!
@license, Glad you’re back and contributing to the conversation!
I guess that’s the other thing that makes us more eager to grasp at conspiracies- it gives us cover for the fact that very often, we just are sloppy and make mistakes, especially when we’re afraid.
@licensed to kill time: “And I was pretty young at the time, I wanted to get out and live!”
Huh, that’s what we said in Vietnam too!
I loved the Chicago Trib Editorial telling college students to get off their lawn:
They needed to have read more Socrates:
Wah! Our gray hairs hurt!
licensed to kill time
@stuckinred: I’ll echo what Rick said above to me, I’m glad you made it back. That was some fucked up shit.
@licensed to kill time: There is always fucked up shit, always. But thanks.
I was born in March 1968 and was christened the weekend of the MLK assassination. The local Republican candidate for Congress congratulated my parents on my birth. My dad snapped, “And when he turns 18, don’t send him to goddamn Vietnam!” It was a very edgy time.
My experience with older Yankee Irish Catholic relatives is much the same. There are as many racists among them as among anyone – but they are especially and vocally angered by the rebel-flag-flying racism of white Southerners. I suppose a lot of groups are like that.
@stuckinred: I was in a womb, and that’s what I said! “I was pretty young at the time, I wanted to get out and live!”
Don’t have statistics to hand, but at that point in time there were a LOT more people in the “prime criminal demographic” — young men aged 16-25, I believe is the age range used. If there are more ‘qualifing individuals’, there will be more crime (we are getting the reverse now, fewer kids born 16-25 years ago means fewer crime-makers today). Probaby changes in law enforcement, the range of what cops arrested individuals for & how those arrests were tallied, also had an effect. But as someone from the back end of the boom, I do recall a lot of older people complaining that “those kids” were everywhere, sucking up oxygen, taking up resources, making it impossible for “decent people” to buy a nice home in a quiet neighborhood on the proceeds of their safe job. A certain generational tension seems to be the natural state of the human animal, but the Baby Boomers may have been when the confluence of marketing & politics made turning each new generation of Old People against their grandkids an ongoing political strategy.
That makes sense. And interesting point about Young Vs. Old becoming a political strategy in terms of wooing older voters. Because it’s really morally awful, when you think about it, and what does that say about us as we get older, that we’re so willing to screw the young? Is it selfishness, or on some level, is it a (misdirected) payback for a culture that dismisses older people so quickly?
Damned at Random
I was surprised at how widespread the rioting was after the King assassination – I didn’t remember it being that bad. Maybe the half hour evening news format tended to minimize big events just as the 24 hr news channels magnify the trivial
I am repeating myself but I really think that Eric Ericson got it right: When people fail to develop fully at the latter stage of life, they become bitter and angry and afraid. Those people who are “so willing to screw the young” are developmentally retarded.
And lots and lots of older folks are not so disabled.
Stuck and I are about the same age I think. And we aren’t mean to you youngsters of 50 and younger. :-)
You’re right, but why then does it seem like there are so many developmentally retarded out there voting? I am always boggled by older voters who object to paying taxes for their local schools. I mean, what?
Bitter and angry can lead to demonization and scapegoating which works really well when rolled into a conspiracy narrative about how “they” are about to get “us” so we might as well act first–thus our displacement and projection justifies our aggression.
@Nicole: The very wise Rev. Jonathan Swift wrote about his immortal Struldbrugs:
The difference in our own degraded modern world is that — arguably during the Rise of Nixonland — the marketing / political professionals decided it was profitable to pit old people against young ones. The grumpiness about kids-these-days is natural, but enticing old people to vote against “hippies” and gleefully touting “We’re spending our grandkids’ inheritance” as a market-driven revenge against the rising generation, that’s new. And a mortal sin, in my opinion (which is not being solicited by marketing research firms).
I am listening to the book instead of reading it, which has been interesting . . . I was 16 the night RFK got shot, alone in my parents’ house, insomniacally following the election news.
What keeps happening to me as I get walked meticulously through the tangle of those years is a sense of loss. So many times when there was a small but real opportunity for things to have gone a different way. I keep outlining novels in my head of alternate universes where King survived that shooting, or where Johnson ended the war.
My other thought is that truly slavery is America’s original sin, and that it has in one way or another determined everything about our culture since, in the sense of what is possible and what is just not.
And it was politically profitable to split the Dems using the Nixonlandian Southern Strategy to pit Whites against Blacks.
I’m getting lost in your grammar here. Are you saying that he could have been a lone gunman or that he could not? I think the former, but I’m not sure.
@Anne Laurie: Beautifully expressed (and that Jonathan Swift guy can write a little bit there, too). I think you’re right- it’s the seeking profit in the generational war that’s so upsetting. Because I think it goes both ways- I know the older generations get dismissed as irrelevant, are discriminated against in a thousand ways, some small and some large. And that feeds so perfectly into, as you put it, the market-driven revenge of a group of people who vote in far greater numbers than the people they are taking revenge against. And yeah, I’m with you in thinking it’s a mortal sin. What does it say about us, to bring lives into this world and then refuse to take care of them?
It was in the chapters from last week, but I really was affected by Johnson’s hurt feelings about RFK’s coming out against Johnson’s Vietnam policy, because Johnson chose to continue in Vietnam because it had been JFK’s policy. Continuing to send men overseas to die because of feeling a need to honor a dead man’s legacy…
@Steeplejack: He was saying that it makes the case that it could only have been a lone gunman, I believe.
Thanks. That’s what I thought, but his sentence construction threw me a little. I will definitely check out the Kathryn Olmsted book. I need something to balance out the diet of History Channel (pseudo-)documentaries.
And another thing . . . Rick said a few weeks ago that one thing all of us on this side of the political world have to get through our heads is that reason will never prevail in any argument where emotions can be aroused. (Those are my words, not his, but the idea is right, I think.)
The ease with which Nixon, Ailes, Safire, Buchanan, Agnew & all the rest of them used that fact as if were self-evident while their liberal counterparts were going SPLAT over and over and over is just stunning. Also, somehow less painful to see it play out in the past than to watch it unfolding on Fox as we speak.
Is that really more unbelievable than Gavrilo Princip attempting to kill Archduke Ferdinand with his accomplices, failing, Princip running away and hiding in an alley, the Archduke deciding to visit the hospital to meet with the victims of the first attack, his driver making a wrong turn into the very alley Princip was hiding in, and the car happening to stall right in front of him?
Thanks everybody for participating — hope I’m the only one that keeps having trouble reloading BJ! Next week, back to the Sunday afternoon slot…
Do we want to tackle THREE chapters, take things through the end of the Democratic convention?
Whoa. No, actually, that’s fine.
And to cap off the trip back to the 1960’s tonight, PBS is showing Laugh In. They just made a crack about Steve McQueen hitting his girlfriend. I admit I gasped.
licensed to kill time
And it is far easier to arouse the emotions of fear, anger and resentment than the emotions of hope, optimism and empathy. I think that’s why ‘they’ are so successful with the emotion based approach.
Rabble, rabble, rabble!
Didn’t he say at the trial that “I did it for my country”?
As I understand it (I wasn’t alive back then), RFK was seen as the spokesman for America’s ethnic minorities, e.g. “colored” people, Catholics, and Jews. Therefore, RFK = Jew-lover and, in the international context, Israel-lover. I can easily see someone making the connection. (Especially since if memory serves, RFK came out in support of Israel in the 1967 war the year before he died).
licensed to kill time
@Anne Laurie: Three chapters good, thank you for hosting again. I also had trouble loading BJ tonight.
This ‘new’ thing of refreshing and having the screen scroll back up to whatever comment you last clicked on is driving me nuts. I finally figured out if I click on the blue link next to the last comment read before I refresh, it will take me there instead of halfway up the page. Durrrh.
@licensed to kill time:
I think the starry-eyed hopefulness is more than understandable: you were the heirs to the Greatest Generation. Who, with the New Deal, had overthrown an entrenched have-and-have-not-cracy and replaced it with a middle class nation whose shared prosperity would have been unimaginable as late as the 1920s.
And hell, I think the 1960s generation did damn well, even if it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. I was born in 1987. Thanks to the 1960s, I do not have to live in a country where racial segregation is enforced by law, women are confined to their “traditional roles,” and personal behavior is ruled by archaic, fifteenth-century religious morality. We still have a ways to go in all those respects, but we’re still a far better nation now than we were in the 1950s, and all those pesky “troubles” in the 1960s are the reason for that.
I, personally, appreciate that. And even if they don’t choose to admit it, most Americans today don’t want to go back either. So on that note, a hearty thank you to the original DFHs.
licensed to kill time
@Chris: Wow, that’s a very nice tribute, and so refreshing to hear rather than the usual Boomer bashing! It was a generation full of promise, only some of which was fulfilled.
@licensed to kill time:
I was on that bandwagon for a little while, then changed my mind. Nobody’s perfect, I still say whatever demographic made Reagan happen dropped the ball like a hot potato… but still, there’s a ton of good stuff in the boomer legacy that we just take for granted today. Maybe only some of the promise was fulfilled, but I’m pretty impressed with how much of it that was.
@licensed to kill time:
But it still really bugs me. What is so horrible about just letting the “focus” remain wherever you are when you refresh?! That’s how it used to work.
A solution for a non-problem, when there are far more pressing FYWP issues. Hmmph.
licensed to kill time
@Steeplejack: I wish I knew. Seems like every time there’s a site re-do it breaks things that worked fine before and doesn’t really fix the things that are screwed up.
What Mike said
I don’t know if anyone reads comments left this late, but here goes. I never seem able to join in real time.
I was in my first year at USC just outside of Watts in 1966. I am really enjoying reading the book to try to figure out why hippies became so reviled. As stated above, we were primarily about having fun and breaking out of the norms. I did do a lot of anti-war marching with the intent of turning opinion against the war. That much seemed to work. I still can’t figure out how public option becomes so anti-DFH that the public seemed to feel it was alright for the police to beat them up.
Apart from that, what were my parents thinking letting me go to school in California in 66? I grew up in NY and my parents were Goldwater Republicans. Imagine how thrilled they were to have a hippy come back to visit.
the thing about assassinations and disasters when “everything went right” is that our perception is skewed because we can never know of how many times disaster was averted because something went wrong. How many leaders escaped assassination because someone chickened out at the last minute, or the target changed plans, or the assassin couldn’t get close enough and so never made the attempt? You can’t calculate the odds of someone like Oswald succeeding unless you know how many failed attempts there were.
Paul in KY
@Nicole: That wasn’t why he continued Vietnam. He probably gave that as a reason, but Johnson was going for re-election (until it became apparent that he wouldn’t be) & keeping Vietnam going was his way of stopping the Republican charge that he was ‘soft on Communism’.
IMO, Pres. Johnson was always afraid of people thinking he was a weenie, because personally he was sort of a weenie (even as big as he was).
Used a bad word & got into moderation. I changed the word.
Paul in KY
@Scott P.: Princip was more of a fluke. The shots Oswald had really weren’t that hard. The only tough part being the car moving, but it was moving away from him, so (IMO) that made it an easier shot than if it had been going from left to right.
@cfeddy: I’ve often suspected that a lot of the hippie-bashing stemmed from sheer envy.