This week, America was fixated on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. Grief nourishes myth and a new CNN poll registers JFK as our most admired ex-president from the past half century.
His brief 1,000 days in the Oval Office loom large in American memory because of his abrupt loss; a psychic wound that shaped a generation, symbolizing a collective loss of innocence.
Perhaps inevitably, we buy into the idea that President Kennedy was as beloved in life as he has been in death. Of course, this was not the case.
There are always cranks and conspiracy theorists who nourish themselves on the bile that comes from hating the president of the United States. Some are just obsessive-compulsive hyper-partisans, some nurse groupthink grievances while others can be fairly classified as prejudiced or simply unhinged.
But a brief look back at the chorus of voices who hated President Kennedy offers some perspective on our own occasionally overheated political passions and on the vitriol directed at President Barack Obama.
During the 1960 campaign, Kennedy confronted the persistent strain of anti-Catholic bigotry that surfaced since the days of the Know-Nothing Party in the mid-19th century, which promised to purify American politics of Catholic or other immigrant influence deemed to be alien.
In Texas, the Baptist convention passed a resolution "cautioning members against voting for a Roman Catholic candidate" – a measure echoed across a handful of other states – buoyed by the argument that a Catholic president would put loyalty to the Pope ahead of loyalty to the United States. Just weeks after his election, a virulently anti-Catholic retired postal worker tried to assassinate Kennedy in Florida
After the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, Kennedy became a curse word among many Cuban exiles who blamed the president for abandoning their brothers on the beaches to Fidel Castro. Even a half-century later, the community's anger continues.
"Kennedy betrayed the Cuban people," Vicente Blanco told the Orlando Sun Sentinel this month while another Bay of Pigs veteran named Carl Sudano remembered that after the assassination in Dallas, "I shed no tears."
Kennedy's initially tentative embrace of civil rights caused him to be hated by some in the South. When James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi, he was escorted by 300 federal troops, while more than 2,000 students protested, chanting "Two, four, one, three, we hate Kennedy."
In Georgia, a movie theatre showing the film PT109 decorated its marquee with this message: "See how the Japs almost got Kennedy."
But it's worth remembering that Kennedy was not always beloved by the Left. He was never fully embraced by the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and as a result of his hard line against Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis, British Nobel Prize winner and pacifist Bertrand Russell (who once described Kennedy as "much more wicked than Hitler") sent a telegram to Kennedy stating "Your actions desperate ... no conceivable justification. We will not have mass murder end this madness."
On the flip-side of the aisle, the far-Right wing John Birch Society mouthpiece, American Opinion, accused Kennedy of "shameless intimidation, bribery, and blackmail" which compelled "weaklings in Congress to approve treasonable acts designed to disarm us and make us the helpless prey of the affiliated criminals and savages of the United Nations".
President Kennedy also confronted the forerunners of the modern "patriot group" militia movement, warning that "armed bands of civilian guerrillas that are more likely to supply local vigilantes than national vigilance".
And days before Kennedy's assassination, thousands of fliers were distributed in downtown Dallas, featuring a mugshot photo of Kennedy over the words "Wanted for Treason."
Among the charges:
- "Betraying the Constitution (which he swore to uphold): He is turning sovereignty of the US over to the communist controlled United Nations: He is betraying our friends and befriending our enemies."
- "He has given support and encouragement to the Communist-inspired racial riots."
- "He has illegally invaded a sovereign State with federal troops."
- "He has consistently appointed Anti-Christians to Federal office: Upholds the Supreme Court in its Anti-Christian rulings. Aliens and known Communists abound in federal offices."
Against the backdrop of history, it is sobering to learn that the US Secret Service, which protects presidents, investigated 34 threats on President Kennedy's life from the state of Texas alone.
Why recount these long-gone grievances from the fringes of the early 1960s? Because we hear the echoes of some of the unhinged ideas that distort our own debates – the idea that President Obama is un-American or anti-American, of questionable faith and loyalties, that he is hell-bent on betraying the constitution and surrendering sovereignty to the U.N.
The persistence of this paranoid style in American politics says more about its articulators than the political leaders they project upon. They will not look any better in the eyes of history.