Easy Chair — From the February 2014 issue

Tears for Fears

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One of the many poignant glimpses of midcentury America afforded me by a fiftieth-anniversary reading of the Warren Report was the story of an ephemeral conservative organization called the American Fact-Finding Committee. It seems that the AFFC placed a full-page advertisement in the Dallas Morning News on November 22, 1963, the very day President Kennedy was murdered in that city. The ad was a preposterous declaration of hostility to the president on behalf of the citizens of Dallas. Indeed, its red-baiting tone soon made it a symbol of the city’s sweltering right-wing climate, while its morbid black border fueled a wealth of conspiracy theories. And although the man who actually shot the president had no connection to this organization — and was a would-be Marxist to boot — the advertisement was too much of a provocation for investigators to ignore. The Warren Report reproduces it in full, and the commission interviewed its principal author at great length.

At first glance, the ad seems like a relic of a fortunately lost time. It is a clumsy, hectoring thing, demanding that Kennedy explain why the “head of the U.S. Communist Party” had lavished him with praise, and why his brother, the attorney general, was persecuting “loyal Americans who criticize you.” If you can screen out the Cold War bluster, however, you will find that the sentiments are utterly familiar. The measured and rational tone of the Warren Report is like a dusty exhibit in the museum of political rhetoric, but the ad itself is strikingly contemporary. With its crackling sense of patriotic grievance, it might have been written yesterday.

1 Yes, reader: This full-throated denunciation of the communist conspiracy was the product of another conspiracy, one with similar but much smaller aims. According to testimony heard by the commission, the founders of the AFFC had managed to work their way into the John Birch Society, Young Americans for Freedom, and something called the National Indignation Convention, which I am sorry to report no longer exists.

More astonishing is the discovery the Warren Commission made about the AFFC: it didn’t exist. It was merely a name that had been whipped up to mask a different right-wing group, whose mission was to infiltrate still other right-wing groups, take them over, and bring them under a single leadership.1

The man who put his name on the advertisement, Bernard Weissman, had been in Dallas for only a few weeks before he raised his voice in vindication of the good people of the heartland. Politics was only half the goal, as the luckless Weissman testified. By earning some credibility in right-wing circles, he hoped to win the friendship of wealthy and powerful people who might subsequently launch him in business. Like every College Republican to come down the pike since then, Weissman and company sensed, if only vaguely, that this was the way the world worked.

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October 2019


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