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Ugly political malice isn’t as new, or as marginal, as we might like to think

When everyone was quiet, Mr. Beatty told us that the president had been shot in Texas. I don’t remember his words because of the cheering that erupted before he had quite finished.

President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, and Texas Governor John Connally riding through Dallas moments before Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.

What I remember first and, unfortunately, best about Nov. 22, 1963, is the cheering in my sixth-grade classroom. This was in Muncie, Ind., and here’s what happened:

The upper grades were outdoors for recess, after lunch, when the first news bulletins reached the offices of Westview Elementary School.

Playground bells rang in the normal way and we moved back inside. In Mr. Beatty’s classroom we hung our jackets on hooks and began to notice, one by one, that our typically dour teacher looked especially grim, saying nothing as we took our seats.

I remember these details well because I took them as signs that somebody in our class might be in trouble, and fairly often that someone was me: I was new to this school, this city and this part of the country; some of the customs were strange to me and I kept getting things wrong.

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Mr. Beatty kept a wooden paddle in his desk, and a short stepladder to the side, just the right height for an average-sized kid to be bent over for a couple of swats. Because I was small for my age I had to be on tiptoe, which only added to the humiliation.

I don’t mention this to paint Mr. Beatty as a cruel man. His paddlings were infrequent, certainly not injurious in any physical way, and they seemed to trouble him, too, to judge from a certain sadness in his face — just the way he was looking now.

When everyone was quiet, he told us that the president had been shot in Texas. I don’t remember his words because of the cheering that erupted, I think, before he had quite finished.

I didn’t dare to turn around and see exactly which boys were acting up. Anyway, I knew without looking that it was the bullies and their toady allies.

I do remember looking sideways at Fitz — a classmate I think of, still, when I hear someone’s face described as a map of Ireland, or when I think of the Beatles’ first appearance on Ed Sullivan, which inspired Fitz to comb a curl of red hair down on his forehead and endure the weeks of teasing that ensued.

Fitz looked as if one of the bullies had punched him in the gut and so, actually, did Mr. Beatty. He had been standing at the blackboard but now moved to his desk chair. The cheers stopped before he was seated and the boys who had done it knew they were in the deep weeds for sure.

When you could hear Mr. Beatty’s chair squeak he raised his head and said, “You should be ashamed.” Then nothing more for a long couple of minutes until the PA system carried us the principal’s announcement that President Kennedy had died, that school would be dismissed early, and that our prayers should be with the Kennedy family over the weekend.

It seemed strange to me for many years afterward that Mr. Beatty hadn’t paddled anyone for cheering, or used the misbehavior to teach us all a lesson. Perhaps he felt they had already done the teaching. Perhaps he was right.

What happened that day — and the reason I’m writing it down now — was a demonstration of a fundamental ugliness in our politics, in our culture, that is neither as new nor as intensified nor as marginal as we nowadays might like to think. If anything the manure lagoons of the Internet have only nourished the same old malice.

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There is a living argument, raised first by Dallasites and now perpetuated by right-wing bloggers, over whether fourth-grade schoolchildren in Dallas cheered the news of President Kennedy’s shooting.

The story appears to have originated with a sermon delivered two days afterward, by a minister who said he had heard of the incident from the teacher in the classroom where it occurred.

It was reported nationally on CBS News over the objections of local station executives who maintained that the children were actually cheering the announcement that school was ending early for the weekend.

Which, I grant, if true, is less awful than cheering the shooting itself. A little less awful, anyway.

And I certainly understand why people in Dallas feel so affronted by a story, which they believe to be false, that paints their city in such a repulsive way. Also, the anecdote is easier to challenge than, say, the pictures of posters that greeted President Kennedy with accusations of treason, or the documented heckling of his motorcade by assorted right-wingers and racists.

However, it is known that schoolchildren also cheered the shooting, for example, in Oxford, Miss., according to a memoir by the managing editor of the Columbus Dispatch. “It happened throughout the South,” he writes, and also at a junior high school in Ohio’s capital.  

In every way but size and capital status, the Muncie of my youth was more like a Columbus than an Oxford: a northern industrial city where labor unions were strong and the black population was substantial, though segregated; a university town that elected Democrats from time to time. (I seem to remember from a Boy Scout research project that there were two Roman Catholic parishes, a Reform synagogue and 83 Protestant churches in town.)

The hatred that rose around Jack Kennedy was not about southern political culture. It was about anti-Catholic bigotry, anti-Communism at the right-wing fringe, resentment of wealth and privilege, and it was above all about the man seen to embody  hated things.

There has been some discussion this week about whether the virulence of feeling against President Obama rivals the anti-JFK sentiments. I don’t know the answer and I don’t know how to arrive at it, but my instinct is that, yes, it does, and maybe even exceeds them.

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I think it’s a mistake, however, to leave the Clintons out of the comparisons, and George McGovern, and also to pretend that every president is hated, after all, with the vitriol flowing evenly from both the left and the right.

I will freely admit joining in the mockery of Ronald Reagan for his naps and gaffes, and of George W. Bush for his struggle, as someone memorably put it, “to wrap his lips around the English language.”

But such mockery is nothing like the malice that rose against Jack Kennedy in his time and rises today against Barack Obama, for reasons that start with resentment of his race, and his grace, and just roll on from there, looking for presentable rationalizations.

My parents were Republicans, and to say they held no love for Jack Kennedy would be putting it mildly. They were big fans of the recorded mockery that made Vaughn Meader, no relation, briefly a star of American comedy. (So was I, to the limits of my sixth-grade grasp of the material; didn’t get the mayo joke because I hadn’t yet heard of Mao.)

I remember my mother wondering aloud, when I told her about the cheering, how those boys’ parents had taught them to be so hateful — not merely rude, mind you, but hateful.

Even then I think I knew no formal instruction had been necessary.