On JFK's 95th Birthday, Stephen King -- Like Many Writers Before -- Has a Theory About Kennedy's Assassination
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President Kennedy -- whose mother lived to be 104 and his sister Eunice to be 88 -- would have been 95 years old today. But JFK was robbed of the chance for a ripe old age on November 22, 1963, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas when he was fatally shot in the head and neck. Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with murder, and a presidential commission led by Chief Justice Earl Warren found that the gunman acted alone. But ever since, questions about the tragedy have haunted the public, and more than a few writers have taken their turn to try to untangle the web of mystery surrounding the killer. Were CIA agents really behind the murder? KGB operatives? The mob? Speculation about the crime could fill up your entire summer reading list.
In his latest bestseller, 11/22/63, Stephen King weaves time travel into a fictional narrative about the Kennedy assassination. [Spoiler alert! Don't read any further if you're still waiting to read the novel] After several years devoted to researching the book, suspense master King concludes that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. In that belief, King joins the late Norman Mailer, who arrived at the same conclusion after writing the 828-page historical novel Oswald's Tale in 1995.
What led two of America's most successful purveyors of fiction, whose living depends on character development, to decide Oswald was not a pawn of the New Orleans Cosa Nostra, the CIA, pro-Castro Cubans, the KGB, or any combination thereof? Upon careful character examination, both scribes determined that Oswald's motives were more personal than political.
The Scales of History
The belief that Lee Harvey Oswald was part of a plot has been a persistent theme in our national conversation. In 1967, based on years of tireless research, historian William Manchester published the controversial bestseller The Death of a President, a minute-by-minute account of the actions and movements of hundreds of individuals associated with JFK, Oswald and Jack Ruby from hours before the assassination up through the funeral that stopped America. Like Mailer and King decades later, Manchester had to "live with Oswald" for a few years, collecting material for his 710-page opus. Manchester summarized our national need to find the nefarious wizard behind the Oswald curtain: "If you put the murder of the president of the United States at one end of the scale, and you put that waif Oswald on the other end, it just doesn't balance,'' he said. "And you want to put something on Oswald's side to make it balance. A conspiracy would do that beautifully. Unfortunately, there is no evidence whatever of that.''
Before he placed Oswald under the microscope, Norman Mailer penned a 1979 bestseller about Utah mass murderer Gary Gilmore, The Executioner's Song. That work followed in the footsteps of the original novel of crime non-fiction, Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966). Mailer based his thesis that Oswald acted alone on the alleged assassin's loyalty "to himself and his own ideas," coupled with his delusional sense that he had the "makings of a great leader." Mailer also expressed serious doubts that anyone would select Oswald as a contract killer.
In 11/22/63, King travels through time for 849 pages, beginning in late 1950s Maine. Like Manchester and Mailer, he visited Dallas to familiarize himself with Oswald's haunts and tracks. Many things have changed since the Dallas of Manchester's time -- Dealey Plaza, the assassination site, is no longer the city's downtown center. Traffic doesn't even travel in the direction of the fateful parade route. But one thing has not changed, and all three authors learned it. The evidence points to the conclusion that Oswald killed JFK because of deep rooted personality issues that transcended either's political preferences. Lee Harvey Oswald was a schmuck (some might use the term "punk," while kids of our generation would label him a loser).