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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/22/2013 - 09:39 am.

    Indeed, it’s not

    Well done, Mr. Meador.

  2. Submitted by Kevin Watterson on 11/22/2013 - 11:46 am.

    You could have saved a lot of bytes and bandwidth just saying saying you think rightwing extremist Republicans are repulsive. Would have saved a chunk of my time, too.

    • Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 11/22/2013 - 03:26 pm.

      You misunderstand Ron Meador.

      The author’s purpose was not merely, or even primarily, to express an opinion about radical conservatives. His purpose was to provide evidence in support of that opinion. There’s a difference.

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 11/23/2013 - 07:35 pm.

      Nothing has changed

      In 50 years, obviously. A disgrace.

  3. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 11/23/2013 - 02:23 pm.

    Thanks for the Remembrance

    There wasn’t any cheering in my 4th Grade classroom, in Ashby, MN, on November 22nd., although everyone laughed when suddenly, and without precedent, a radio broadcast came on over the PA system. We all thought someone must have been trying to do something else and really messed it up.

    Then we began to listen to what was being said and you could have heard a pin drop. Mrs. Hoff, our teacher, looked ashen. I heard later that Mrs. Eian, the toughest teacher in the elementary school, wept. At that age, I didn’t really understand what the assassination of the president meant, but I knew it was terrible.

    The mood in my family was very somber for the next few days, as it was in the school, and especially at the special service the little Presbyterian church where we were members; a church where the pastor, Rev. Ed Freeman hadn’t seemed to be the least bit worried that President Kennedy was Catholic.

    In fact, Rev. Freeman later traveled to Mississippi with two other area pastors, one from the United Church of Christ, Rev. Tom Zemek, and another Presbyterian, whose name escapes me, to be witnesses and guards for black people who were attempting to register to vote at a local county courthouse.

    Interestingly, both the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian denominations told these three pastors they would not provide any kind of public support for their efforts, that they were on their own, and acting at their own risk, which leads me to conclude that, although the leadership of some of our local protestant churches did not preach divisive, hateful ideas, there was enough of that attitude around in the churches that the leaders of their denominations believed they could not take a public stance in favor of openness and inclusivity at that time.

    Not all Minnesota protestant churches and communities were like the one I grew up in, however. In fact it was only a few years later that the congregation of my maternal grandparent’s church in South Minneapolis (5th Ave. Congregational/UCC) deserted that church, forcing it to close its doors rather than accept as fellow church members the black people who were moving into the neighborhood. Sadly, my grandfather was one of the chief bigots who left (an attitude that no one else in the family shared).

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