On JFK's 95th Birthday, Stephen King -- Like Many Writers Before -- Has a Theory About Kennedy's Assassination
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).
Not every novelist who chased the elusive Oswald came away with the belief he was a lone nut. In 1988's Libra, Dom DeLillo went the conspiarcy route, based on his sense of the history of the era. James Ellroy cited Libra as the inspiration for his own American Tabloid, in which the JFK assassination is but one in a series of historical events. Both authors also preferred the tangled web as a fictional device. Historian Manchester, and tale-weavers Mailer and King, followed Occam's Razor, which states that the least complex hypothesis is the most likely. For decades I disagreed. After reading 11/22/63, I'm sold.
It didn't take 800 pages for Stephen King to convince me that Oswald was a violent man in a failed marriage. I already suspected his main fault with capitalism was that it wasn't working in his favor. But anecdotal evidence that he admired JFK raises the question, why would Oswald like Kennedy?
Kennedy was everything Oswald was not, a charsimatic war hero at the top of the world. Kennedy's wife was encouraged to speak foreign languages in public and abroad, while Oswald forbade his Russian wife Marina from learning English. The most compelling aspect of King's historical portrait of Oswald deals with his subject's sense of himself. Oswald's Achilles heel was his feeling that he was smarter than his fellow Marines, wife, co-workers, and bosses. The autodidact who left school after eighth grade and apparently taught himself conversational (some accounts say fluent) Russian was stuck in a series of dead end jobs. A 24-year-old eeking out a living ordering and checking textbooks can become frustrated when he has little outlet for his learning. For a veteran who had lived in Japan and the Soviet Union, and attended dinner parties where his command of the Russian language and musings on geopolitics amused educated guests, working as a stock boy alongside black men with high school and business school diplomas, and even more military experience, could not have been fulfilling.
Had Oswald been born black instead of white in 1939, his disenchantment with society may have led him to join the Nation of Islam, where he would have laid fault for his lack of status on "white devils." In such an organization, his bitterness could have been manipulated, as it was in the case of the Muslims who assassinated Malcolm X. As it was, Oswald tired of his wife asking why he couldn't earn enough income for them to afford better housing for their growing family and the modern household appliances the other dinner party guests considered standard. After all, they could have stayed in Russia if all they were going to do was scrape by. This was one subject of their many domestic disputes.
Some facts about Oswald are indisputable. His palm and fingerprints were found on a discarded high-powered rifle left in a workroom six stories above the Kennedy motorcade route. The same weapon was traced, after the JFK assassination, to the attempted murder of extreme right-wing Major General Edwin Walker in Dallas the previous April -- a crime local police had no leads on until the day the president was killed. In another instance, Marina Oswald had to lock Lee in a closet to prevent him from going into town to kill 1960 GOP presidential candidate Richard Nixon. (It is notable that Walker, Nixon and JFK have nothing in common politically.)
While stationed in the USSR, Oswald also attempted suicide in a hotel bathtub. The man who learned to speak Russian, but never learned to drive an car, never fit in. Oswald also had an archetypal domineering mother, and a more successful big brother, often a volatile combination. In the workplace, he was antisocial, surly and distracted by his plots to kill figures such as Nixon and Kennedy. He learned to make fake I.D. badges working in a special effects lab, and instructed Marina to take a backyard picture of him holding what became the Kennedy murder weapon. No organized crime figure, Cuban exile or intelligence officer would have hired Oswald to put a hit on a U.S. president. Even his getaway was unprofessional, using city buses and taxicabs, shooting a police patrolman in cold blood, and ducking into a downtown movie theater without paying for a ticket. If Oswald was an innocent pawn, as some have suggested, his killing of patrolman J.D. Tippit makes little sense. It appears to have been an act of cowardice, similar to shooting JFK from a hidden perch.
Questions do linger, and I am still uncertain why so many motorcade spectators and law enforcement officials immediately sprinted toward the railroad yard behind the Texas School Book Depository immediately after shots rang out. Did the acoustics of Dealey Plaza play tricks with sound and echo? Did eyewitnesses mistake rail car smoke for gunsmoke? Having visited the Book Depository (now the site of the Sixth Floor Museum) and peered onto the intersection of Houston and Elm where Camelot ended (or began), I wonder why the sniper waited until the presidential limousine was a little forward and to the right in his sights, instead of firing when the Lincoln convertible was slowly approaching the corner. Perhaps Oswald could not bring himself to shoot the president face on. Why did Oswald insist he was a scapegoat if he acted alone? Clearly he lied -- his guilt was imprinted on the murder weapon and in his actions after the shooting. Why did Jack Ruby shoot Oswald?
Certainly there was more than one self-important violent soul in Dallas whose elevator didn't go all the way to the top. A few of Kennedy's advisers had told him to avoid the city where only a month eariler a man spat on UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson and a woman struck Stevenson with a protest sign. But fate, and an obligation to mend Democratic party divisions in a key campaign state combined to bring the young president into the path of a sniper. In trying to make sense of this senseless murder, we have made too much of Lee Harvey Oswald's handing out "Fair Play For Cuba" leaflets in downtown New Orleans; his underworld cousin "Dutz" Murret, a bookie for the Marcello crime syndicate; and his brief pronouncements of innocence and against "police brutality." And we have made too little of his hatred.
In an effort to balance the scales of history, we have not sufficiently weighed Oswald's inflated sense of self, which evens the JFK equation once and for all.