Paying the Piper: My Life in the Kennedy Labyrinth

Damn it, they still have the power to distort our thinking. Or at least mine. The first thing I thought of on Saturday, July 17, when I heard the news about the missing plane were some words I’d written weeks ago, words that were about to appear the next day in Sunday’s The New York Times Book Review , words about the Kennedy myth. About the way the myth of control gave way in a crisis to “a dizzying plunge to catastrophe.”

Jeez: “a dizzying plunge to catastrophe”–could I have used those words? I went out into the hall of my apartment building and found the Saturday delivery of Sunday’s arts and advertising sections to find that sentence. It was even more eerily specific than I remembered.

In a review of a book about White House bugging, I’d been discussing the way taped transcripts of certain crises in J.F.K.’s White House belied “the cool hand of rationality of the Kennedy myth.” Initially, I’d written about the “sickening sense of panic” as events went “spinning out of control in a dizzying vertiginous plunge to catastrophe.” In the editing, “vertiginous” and then “dizzying” came out. But the panic, the “spinning out of control,” the “plunge to catastrophe,” was still there in cold type.

It gave me a chill, that cold type. This is what I mean about how they distortyourthinking,the Kennedys: For a brief moment in some Kennedy-distracted part of my brain, I wondered if there was some connection between the “dizzying plunge to catastrophe” I’d conjured up in words and the dizzying plunge to catastrophe that had evidently just happened off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.

That way lies madness, and I want to emphasize I quickly dismissed any notion of precognition. But if not precognition there was, perhaps, a kind of recognition : that this, the Kennedy myth that’s distorted our lives or at least mine, has always been a kind of Icarus story. The father (a builder of labyrinths) builds them wings, they fly too close to the sun, the wings fry, the result: a dizzying plunge to catastrophe. Maybe it’s a humbler metaphor we need. They’re the Pied Piper, only they “pay the piper” or pay, as it turns out, in a Piper. See, I told you they distort the way I think and I don’t think I’m alone. So I thought it might be worthwhile to examine the way they’ve distorted my whole life. The way I’ve paid the piper. Perhaps it will suggest ways you have as well.

Nov. 22, 1963. J.F.K. vs. “Pops.” I’d decided to skip school that day to go to the pool hall with my buddy Richie. We had both come under the influence of the pool hall owner, a guy known, I swear, as Pops. The guys in my clique of nerdy pranksters had come to attribute to Pops some kind of Higher Wisdom about Real Life. Or maybe it was that Pops was the only remotely exotic figure in an otherwise insanely conventional suburban town.

Anyway, when I called Richie around noon to fix a time for nine-ball at Pops, he said, “Haven’t you heard?” That’s how I heard. It’s only later, lately, looking back on it, that I see the way that moment profoundly and subtly shaped and distorted my life. Not at first: We went ahead and played nine-ball at Pops that afternoon. Pops had displaced J.F.K. in my pantheon of heroes and higher powers some time ago. Still, I was not immune to the sense of catastrophic shock, the death of stability and predictability the death of Kennedy represented. My friends and I spent the next three days fixed to the tube during the day then driving aimlessly at night from diner to diner. The first symptom of the impact it all had on me–my Post-Traumatic Kennedy Disorder–was my inability to complete my applications for college. I just couldn’t write–or couldn’t finish–those essays almost all college applications required. The ones that asked about the meaning of life or your vision of the future. This was pretty serious in my family, not applying for college, but I think, looking back on it, that the assassination had profoundly subverted my sense of a predictable future and the point of working steadily toward it, the way I’d been taught to. I was only rescued from my application block when I came upon the one college application (Yale’s) that didn’t require a single subjective essay or reflection on the future. Just objective questions. Fill in the blanks.

Now let’s talk about objectivity. I think that was a second casualty. I began to see the world through the lens of the Warren Report critics. At Yale, I came under the influence of a brilliant young philosophy professor, Josiah Thompson, who’d written an acclaimed study of Kierkegaard called The Golden Labyrinth , but who had subsequently wandered into the endless labyrinth of Kennedy assassination investigations; Mr. Thompson had become a consultant for Life magazine, under whose auspices he’d written a highly respected analysis of the ballistic and photographic evidence about the rifle shots at Dealey Plaza called Six Seconds in Dallas . Eventually, he left Yale behind, left Kierkegaard behind, to become a private investigator in San Francisco, perhaps the first private eye with an encyclopedic knowledge of major trends in 19th-century Danish existentialism.

My time in the Warren Report Wilderness, the labyrinth of Kennedy assassination doubt, changed me profoundly as well, made me a more skeptical, suspicious, alienated individual. Worse as a person, better as a reporter. The critics, as they called themselves (before scrupulous investigative criticism gave way to indiscriminate conspiracy theorizing), didn’t solve the Kennedy assassination. They didn’t even, ultimately, succeed in disproving the Warren Commission’s single-bullet, lone assassin theory, I must reluctantly admit. But they did uncover the profoundly disturbing world beneath the world of Dallas. The world of C.I.A.-Mafia assassination plots, the world of the Nosenko mole wars that tore apart the intelligence capability of the Western powers and destabilized even the brilliant intellects of such partisans as C.I.A. master spy James Angleton. Not to mention infecting American culture with sometimes healthy, sometimes paranoid suspicion about every official truth, every government investigation forever after.

Still, at a certain point, I began to see that there was at least a component of my investment in Kennedy assassination investigations that was less about investigation than it was about prolonged, sublimated, unresolved, unconsoled grieving . An intimation I was tipped off to when I came upon the Tennyson lines that had been the source of the title to the series of more than a dozen books about (allegedly) murdered J.F.K. witnesses by one of the first, most likable if wacky Warren Report critics, Penn Jones Jr. of Midlothian, Tex. A series of books Mr. Jones entitled Forgive My Grief .

“Forgive my grief”: The haunting phrase comes from a passage in Tennyson’s In Memoriam about the death of a beloved friend of the poet. I dug up that passage again this weekend, while watching the coverage of J.F.K. Jr.’s plunge to catastrophe.

” Forgive my grief for one removed ,” one verse begins, and then the next one goes:

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,

Confusions of a wasted youth;

Forgive them where they fail in truth …

It’s not really his grief Tennyson is asking God to forgive, it’s the questions implicit in the grief: the challenge to faith, to God, the challenge of theodicy–the subdiscipline of theology that attempts to reconcile the prevalence of evil and tragedy with a just God. Investigative grief as a quarrel with God.

Cut to June 5, 1968. They say the first cut is deepest, but this one was more traumatic. A few days before the latest Kennedy tragedy, I got a call from Elizabeth Mitchell, former editor of George , whom I’d met when the Missing Kennedy’s magazine had published an excerpt from my book. She was down in Dallas researching a book on another George–George W. Bush–and had called to ask me for some background on his Yale years. (I was a classmate of his there, although we moved in far different circles.)

At one point, Ms. Mitchell asked me what effect the second Kennedy assassination had had on my class–which had graduated just a few days before the shooting.

Her question brought it all back. I’d been hanging around the campus after the graduation ceremony, practicing to be the first slacker of the baby boom generation. I had a temp job as a bartender for the reunions. I had a master key, and a girlfriend, a part-time nurse, a townie who hated Yale, and wanted to have, um, experiences in the college dean’s office. Beyond that, I had made no plans for the future. I had no articulate ambition. I had some kind of fellowship in the Yale English department the following year to avoid the draft, but I knew I didn’t want to end up an academic. I actually thought of trying to get a job as a traveling salesman, because that way I could travel and have, um, experiences. I was big on Experiences but not on a career, and I blame it on the foreshortening of a sense of future that was the distorted legacy of Dallas for me.

But I must admit, Bobby Kennedy had cut through my proto-slacker haze. I’d been involved in a limited way in the “Dump L.B.J.” movement on campuses. Very limited: I’d spent a sparkling winter weekend up in New Hampshire going door to door to engage in ineffectual conversations with voters on behalf of Gene McCarthy.

Bobby was different: I got sucked into the feverishly emotional R.F.K. campaign, shameless shifting allegiances from McCarthy, because … Because why? Because of post-traumatic Kennedy distortion. Because of that thing they say about addictive gamblers: that the real thrill, the thing that keeps them coming back, is not the winning but the losing . The emotional stakes, the emotional jolt of loss is more deeply thrilling. And all the time, behind the frenzied few months of Bobby’s campaign there was the fear, no, maybe the lure of the threatened loss–of what finally happened on the night of June 5. That dizzying plunge again.

I was one of the ones who went to bed exhilarated by Bobby’s California victory and then woke up to the jolt of the shooting news. It was strange, my entire supposedly idyllic college experience sandwiched between the two Kennedy assassinations. I wasn’t the only one affected: my other famous classmate at Yale was Oliver Stone. And, unlike the subtle, long-term effects of the first one, this one directly and immediately changed the course of my life. I decided in that emotional moment that I would drive to Chicago to experience the gargantuan gang bang the Democratic National Convention was shaping up to be, and I hit upon the notion of writing to some suburban dailies, asking them if I could be their on-the-scene protest correspondent. I’d never done any reporting, or writing at Yale (aside from papers on 17th-century religious poets), didn’t have any conscious notion of becoming a writer or reporter, but Chicago changed that. I loved every adrenaline-drenched,teargas-soaked moment of it. Got hooked on the way a press pass gave you comp seats for the spectacle of history and it ruined me for any thought of a more conventional profession. As it became clear the following year, when I fled Yale graduate school to seek my fortune as a writer full time. So I guess I owe that to Bobby, to the Kennedy distortion.

But there was a cost to it. A more subtle and profound distortion, I think, a longer-term Kennedy trauma effect: I blame Bobby’s killing for my habitual Bad Attitude, a kind of bitter, black-humored way of looking upon the vanity of human wishes, the hollowness of human authority, the hopelessness of human aspirations, of planning for a future, a future beyond the next story, a future of any kind. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown. It’s Chinatown : a film whose seductive, glamorous but deadly bleakness captures post-Kennedy distortion.

As I said, I know it’s a distortion. It’s much better if these lessons about grief and the cruel meaninglessness of history are learned more gradually, rather than suddenly, apocalyptically in one dizzying vertiginous plunge toward catastrophe after another. But I think I’m not alone in feeling myself shaped and distorted by these Kennedy plunges, including the one off the bridge at Chappaquiddick and now the one in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard. And no amount of disillusionment by the facts of history seem to suffice to diminish the distortion. The growing awareness that Joe Kennedy was not just some Hollywood starlet-besotted bootlegger but Hitler’s most important American asset, far more important even than the loudmouth dimwit Charles Lindbergh. Why hasn’t Taylor Branch’s brilliant account of the Kennedy-King relationship–how they used, abused and bugged that genuine martyred hero, Dr. King, drove him to the brink of suicidal distraction in the midst of his great crusade–sufficed to immunize me from mourning another Kennedy? Nor have the revelations of the slimy “Murder Incorporated the Kennedys were running in the Caribbean” (as L.B.J. memorably characterized it) with the Mafia-C.I.A. assassination plots they hatched and the hookers they shared with hitmen.

It had something to do with the fact that J.F.K. Jr. seemed to have been sheltered by his fiercely protective mother from the sins of the past–seemed to lack a dark side. Still, I shouldn’t have let it get to me after all this, the disproportionate emotion, the Kennedy sentiment, not after all the decades of distorting my life. But it did, at least at first.

And then I noticed something happening as the weekend wore on, maybe you noticed it too, in the media coverage. A kind of subliminal Celebrity Death Match (the MTV show that pits claymation celebs–Howard Stern vs. Kathie Lee Gifford, for instance–in World Championship Wrestling-type animated fantasies) was playing itself out. A Celebrity Death Match between J.F.K. Jr. and Princess Diana. About how much we should care, how much the media should cover, how much we should grieve, now compared to then.

And by Sunday afternoon, when ABC switched to golf–the British Open!–and NBC and Fox shifted coverage to their junior-partner cable-news outlets, a kind of tacit decision was emerging: Diana had won the Celebrity Death Match! No round-the-clock, all-media, all-the-time coverage for J.F.K. Jr. Not the kind Diana had gotten. It might be too early to tell, but it seemed to me that something more was going on than a reaction to the excesses of Total Di coverage. A refusal to give Total Die coverage to J.F.K. Jr. might be the first sign of Kennedy burnout, of one too many dizzying plunges to assimilate. A way of saying, it’s just too much. We’re sad, and we’re not going to take it anymore. Dylan Thomas closed his famous poem “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” with a line that might be apropos here: ” After the first death, there is no other .”