Americans worship John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated fifty years ago today, because his untimely demise allows them to believe that history could have been different. The conspiracy theories that continue to flourish, immune to refutation (Vincent Bugliosi would have better luck dropping his massive anti-conspiracy tome on some people's heads), enable us to blame people rather than larger historical forces for American decline. What Kennedy may have done in a second term, presuming his victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, can never be more than conjecture. Many conjecture the best: no Vietnam quagmire; no riots in ghettos and no white backlash; no Nixon in 1968; Bobby and Dr. King spared, etc. If conspiracy theories grow more resilient -- Oliver Stone pretty much calls Bugliosi a liar in USA Today -- it's because Americans find more reasons to wish something different could have happened in the past, and more desire to blame someone for where we are now, just as Vito Corleone vowed to blame someone even if Michael gets struck by a bolt of lightning. Obviously history would have been different had Kennedy lived and been re-elected. The question is whether history would have changed significantly. There are two kinds of speculation. One is based on Kennedy's actual record. On that evidence, people on the right (like George Will in a recent column) and to the left of the Democratic party (Noam Chomsky has long been a Kennedy iconoclast) presume that JFK would have carried on a Cold War course, presumably all the way to Vietnam. Unless one has reason to believe that he would have waged war more effectively, with the same generals, than LBJ did, history might change only so that protesters chanted, "Hey Hey, JFK, how many kids did you kill today?" On the other side, great inferences are made from a few statements from Kennedy's last months, while a more plausible case is made that the Cuban Missile Crisis tempered the President's enthusiasm for confronting Communism. For the most part, however, an assumption is made that Kennedy would evolve as these believers wanted the country to evolve, or as the older folks in this group believe themselves to have evolved. Because Kennedy died, their speculations and assumptions can never be proven wrong. He will always embody the America that could have been, and because Kennedy died by violence the assassin will always embody a force that did not want that America to be. If this country ever gets to a point where we don't see ourselves in decline, and those who lived through decline are gone, then at last the conspiracy theories can be laid to rest alongside Kennedy and Oswald....assuming, of course, that either of them is actually dead.
Postscript: The following was overheard in a shopping-mall bookstore on November 23:
"You wanna know why they killed Kennedy? Because things would have never been the same again, and they couldn't stand that. They have to have control...."