Tuesday, 29 August 2017 06:00

How The Atlantic Monthly and Kurt Andersen Went Haywire

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Jim DiEugenio offers a blistering critique of the cover essay for the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, which proposes––yet again––that the widespread belief in conspiracies, with its supposed origin in the Sixties, accounts for how US cultural and political life has become unhinged.


atlanticAs this web site has explained at length, the MSM has been completely unable to deal with the assassination of President Kennedy in any kind of rational or evidentiary manner. Since the recent presidential election touched upon the JFK case, we posted two columns dealing with it. (Click here for one published during the election and here for one dealing with the aftermath) From those two articles the reader will understand the historical factors that allowed Donald Trump to claim his victory much more clearly than the long story on the current cover of the Atlantic Monthly.

That article was written by author and radio personality Kurt Andersen. Andersen is the current host of Studio 360, a radio program carried by WNYC in New York City. I have never listened to the show, and after reading this article, I never will. It is a weekly journal devoted to arts and culture. And that is the approach Andersen took in this essay. His rather ambitious aim is to try to explain how the last fifty odd years of American history gave us Donald Trump.

The problem is that Andersen is not a historian. In any sense of that word. And his essay does not really deal with the political or economic history of that time period. Like the program he hosts, his essay (actually an excerpt from an upcoming book) is really a cultural history. It dates, of course, from the Sixties. And on the first page, Andersen makes it clear where he is coming from and how rigged his work will be. He says that America experienced the equivalent of a national nervous breakdown in the Sixties, and in his view, we are not cured yet.

Our intrepid chronicler now gears down into what one of his main themes will be: the danger of widespread belief in conspiracy theories. After concluding that too many people do believe in conspiracy theories, he then says that this has allowed America to mutate into a Fantasyland where the public does not know what to think or believe.

Why does Andersen use the Sixties as the point of demarcation for his Fantasyland mutation? A few pages later the motive becomes clear. According to our guide, the Left began believing in these constructs because of the JFK assassination. He traces this back to Thomas Buchanan’s book, Who Killed Kennedy? published in 1964. He leaves out the facts that 1.) Buchanan’s book was originally published in France, which is where he was living at the time, and 2.) that other writers had addressed problems with the official story prior to Buchanan’s book being published in America. This allows Andersen to avoid the fact that it was not just Americans who had doubts about the JFK case—the rest of the world did also. And secondly, that respectable journals like The New Republic and The Nation had also voiced doubts about the JFK case before the publication of Buchanan’s book. And that, in 1966, Life Magazine actually devoted a cover story to the problems with the Warren Commission, entitled A Matter of Reasonable Doubt. Or that, in 1967, the Saturday Evening Post featured a cover story based on Josiah Thompson’s harsh critique of the Warren Commission, Six Seconds in Dallas. It was not just Buchanan and Mark Lane.

Let us now turn to a piece of absolutely essential cultural history—which Andersen also leaves out. The late Roger Feinman showed, with CBS internal documents, that in 1967, several reporters and mangers at CBS News wished to explore the problems with the Warren Commission’s evidence. This attempt was crushed at the executive level, most notably by CBS President Dick Salant. (see Why CBS Covered Up The JFK Assassination) That counter to a genuine journalistic effort was largely motivated by the fact that Salant’s administrative assistant was Ellen McCloy, Warren Commissioner John McCloy’s daughter. By the use of both carrots and sticks, the entire trajectory of the subsequent four-night CBS special was completely reversed by this upper level decision. Feinman demonstrates step by step how this proceeded with CBS’s own documents. Somehow, Andersen did not think that was an important piece of cultural history, even though it informs us about cultural gate-keeping.

What does Andersen think is important? Walter Sheridan’s 1967 NBC hatchet-job on Jim Garrison. No kidding. Andersen says that this infamous special, in which producer Walter Sheridan used bribes and threats to coerce witnesses, discredited Garrison’s ideas. (For an exposé of Sheridan’s reprehensible tactics, see Destiny Betrayed, second edition, pp. 235-258) Andersen ignores the fact that the program was so one-sided, so much a broadcast disgrace, that the FCC allowed Garrison to respond under the provisions of the Fairness Doctrine. Andersen also ridicules the idea that the owners of NBC, the Sarnoff family, sanctioned the program, when such has been proven to be the case. (ibid, p. 239)

But actually, Andersen’s argument is even worse than that. It’s not enough for him to ignore what was really happening in media boardrooms, or in New Orleans. He now says that all this doubt about JFK’s death was really caused by the Jungian psychic need to reject the idea that President Kennedy could have been killed by “just one nutty loser with a mail-order rifle.” He then throws in Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Which shows how far down he is scraping. That essay has virtually nothing to do with the JFK case. Hofstadter focuses there on the movement that brought Barry Goldwater the Republican nomination in 1964. Hofstadter tried to dismiss it as odd, eccentric rightwing solipsism. Oh, how wrong he was! For that movement would revive itself 16 years later to elect that B movie actor Ronald Reagan. Like others, Andersen just wanted to use the title as another smear device.

On page 84, Andersen briefly halts his cascade of smears and mischaracterizations and comes up for air. After describing some American films of the seventies, e.g., Chinatown, The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, he allows himself this thought: “Of course, real life made such stories plausible. The infiltration by the FBI and intelligence agencies of left-wing groups was then being revealed, and the Watergate break in and its cover up were an actual criminal conspiracy.”

Perhaps nothing shows just how much Andersen has stacked the deck than those two sentences. First of all, he carefully does not describe the expanse of the Watergate plot. When it was over, 69 people were indicted, 48 were convicted, and Richard Nixon was forced to resign in the face of certain impeachment. Later, Alexander Haig arranged a deal with former Warren Commissioner and new president Jerry Ford. Nixon would be spared a trial with a pardon. Which, according to most polls, helped sink Ford’s short-lived presidency.

Second of all, Andersen fails to reveal how the press found out about “the infiltration by the FBI and intelligence agencies of left-wing groups”. Probably because he does not want to print the two words: “Church Committee”. If he did so, he would open up a Pandora’s Box that would largely burst the Fantasyland fairy-tale he is spinning. The Church Committee did much more than expose the infiltration of left-wing groups. It exposed CIA assassination plots against foreign leaders, like Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba. Further, members of that committee—i.e., Senators Gary Hart and Richard Schweiker—wrote a report that showed how the FBI and CIA had misinformed and misled the Warren Commission.

But there is even more to this story that Andersen fails to tell. The Church Committee sprang to life because its predecessor, the Rockefeller Commission, was largely seen as ineffective. In the wake of Watergate, many in Washington—like Senator Howard Baker, and future Senator Fred Thompson—thought that the official inquiry had not fully explored the role of the CIA in that crime. Therefore the Rockefeller Commission, led by Ford’s Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller, arose. But this body was perceived by many, even the New York Times, as being a set-up. After all, Warren Commission lawyer David Belin was the chief counsel, and people like Ronald Reagan were on the Commission. Therefore, at a closed press briefing, Ford was asked why he had arranged things as he did. He replied that there were certain things that had to be concealed from the public. When asked what he meant by that, Ford blurted out, “Like assassinations.” (See James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, The Assassinations, p. 194) Ford is very likely talking about the JFK case since, at around this same time, he revealed to French Premier Giscard d’Estaing that, while on the Warren Commission, he had determined that some kind of organization had killed Kennedy, but he could not determine which one.

But that is not all that Andersen leaves out about the discoveries of the Church Committee. Consider the following:

  1. He does not mention the attempts by the FBI to drive Martin Luther King to suicide.
  2. He does not mention the campaign by the FBI to exterminate the Black Panthers.   (For a summary of this, see Government by Gunplay, edited by Sid Blumenthal and Harvey Yazijian)
  3. He does not mention the explorations by both the Church and Pike committees concerning CIA control of the media. This was later summarized and expanded upon by Carl Bernstein in Rolling Stone’s, “The CIA and the Media”. (Click here for that article)

Actually, Andersen loads the dice even more. How can anyone write an essay about the 50-year decline of America’s belief in its media or institutions without mentioning the Vietnam War? Well, Andersen can. What is his longest mention of that incredibly divisive issue which essentially ripped America apart for the better part of a decade? He talks about Norman Mailer’s 1967 book, Armies of the Night, where student protesters attempted to levitate/purify the evils inside the Pentagon. Forget about 250,000 wounded Americans, and 58,000 killed, or over 4 million total dead as a result of a war that should never have been fought.   Andersen says a few pages of Mailer’s book is what we should remember about that terrible epic tragedy, during which the American public was being lied to endlessly on almost a daily basis.

By painting such a foreshortened picture, Andersen can leave out the ten years of nightly TV broadcasts, daily newspaper headlines, and weekly magazine cover-stories which pummeled the public with words and images about the Vietnam War, Watergate and the exposes of the Church and Pike Committees. It was not the American people who suffered a nervous breakdown from frivolities like the UFO phenomenon. It was the acts of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, plus the exposure of abuses by the FBI and the CIA, that shocked the country and drove down the public’s belief in government. (See the chart in The Assassinations, p. 634) And that was a natural reaction to that continuous montage of horror stories. None of this was part of a fantasy. It was all too real.

What Andersen does not understand, but Michael Parenti does understand, is this: Reality can be Radical. Those ten years exposed a huge systemic failure. And the media was a part of it. One only has to recall how difficult it was to get the true story about the My Lai Massacre exposed. And how the Pentagon and Richard Nixon then did all they could to pardon the killers. But further, as Nick Turse demonstrates in his book Kill Anything that Moves, there were many other atrocities that the military purposefully covered up. For as Colonel Robert Heinl wrote in a famous article in Armed Forces Journal, the American army collapsed in Vietnam by 1969. (Click here) Yet Nixon kept the war going for four more years and actually expanded it into Laos and Cambodia. That is history that Andersen, again, ignores.

Did things get better after that? Well, there was the Iranian hostage crisis; the American backing of radical Moslems—which included Osama Bin Laden—to fight the Russian invasion of Afghanistan; Reagan’s interventions in Central America and the El Mozote Massacre (where more people died than at My Lai) and which was also covered up; the Iran Contra scandal; the heists of the 2000 and 2004 elections, which allowed the disastrous invasion of Iraq, the worst foreign policy disaster to befall this country since Vietnam. Again, somehow none of this is important to cultural historian Andersen. Maybe the author ignores it since none of it deals with the paranormal, it’s all real. But with his loaded dice, the former counts more than the latter.

Which brings us to the payoff of the article. That includes three themes: Fake News, the rise of the Internet, and the victory of Donald Trump. I think Andersen wants us to believe that somehow the first two resulted in the last. But as anyone who watched that election closely knows, such was not the case. The whole Fake News phenomenon arose after the election. And it’s a much more complex phenomenon than Andersen portrays it to be. As he does with many issues, Robert Parry had done the best reporting on this flashpoint. (See here for an example)

The use of the Internet probably did help Trump’s campaign, but not in the way that Andersen thinks. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, used a little-known company called Cambridge Analytica to micro-analyze social media data and target trends and tendencies with voters. (Click here for a good article on this) Using this data he was able to detect weaknesses in Hillary Clinton’s and the Democratic Party’s supposed fortress: the Northeast Rust Belt. In an interview Bannon did the day after the election, he said Trump’s strategy was twofold: 1.) They had to hold the south, that is, North Carolina and Florida, and 2.) They had to win some states in the Rust Belt. This is why Trump visited Michigan almost twice as many times as Clinton, and why he honed his message as one of economic nationalism—rounding up illegal immigrants, building a wall, tariffs on Chinese imports—this countered Clinton’s failed use of identity politics, e.g., Alicia Machado.

Bannon realized that Clinton could not effectively counter that Electoral College strategy. The reason being that her husband’s record on fair trade was pretty much indefensible. As many have commented, Bill Clinton was the best Republican president since Eisenhower. Bannon and Kellyanne Conway ran a very astute and pointed campaign. The Clinton campaign had much more money, many more workers, and much more favorable media. And they still lost. The problem was not just campaign tactics. Hillary Clinton simply could not fire up her own base the way that Bernie Sanders could have. Which is another factor that Andersen leaves out. Sanders outflanked the Democratic establishment almost as effectively as Trump did the GOP. Did he do that with Fake News? Or an alternative reality dealing with UFO’s and the levitation of the Pentagon? Further, according to a pre-election poll, Sanders would have beaten Trump fairly soundly. Which renders Andersen’s silly article even sillier.

But what happened afterwards also renders the article silly. Trump’s ratings have cratered since he was elected. Is that also due to Fake News? No. It’s because America has realized that Bannon’s campaign was really a sales pitch. Which Trump, a real estate salesman, managed to deliver perfectly. Trump and the Republican Party really have no solutions to the complex issues that have assaulted this country: like the gutting of the Middle Class. Past his campaign slogans and themes, Trump simply has no vision for America. Except to make the health care problem even worse and cut more taxes for the wealthy. The real mystery about Trump is how he changed paths so radically from 2000 until today. If one recalls, when he was pondering a presidential run for the Reform Party ticket, he was much more moderate in his policies, more like a Democrat. No reporter ever tried to explain this paradox.

Of course, Andersen mentions the Trump/Roger Stone accusations of Ted Cruz’s dad allegedly being in a photo with Oswald in New Orleans. Yet Trump endorsed the Warren Commission verdict of Oswald being the lone assassin. And it was people in the JFK community, like David Josephs, who showed that Trump was wrong about that identification.

Yes, there is a crisis of confidence in this country. And yes, it has gotten worse over time. And, as mentioned above, for very good reasons. And as Larry Sabato showed in the polling for his book The Kennedy Half Century, and as Kevin Phillips showed in his volume, Arrogant Capitol, it began with the issuance of the Warren Report. Most people today think that the Warren Report was wrong, and something went awry with the country after the Kennedy assassination. And they are right (e.g., Vietnam).

Andersen’s ridiculous essay is a pile of smoke and mirrors designed to distract from that fact.

Last modified on Wednesday, 30 August 2017 21:15
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and Reclaiming Parkland (2013/2016), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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