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Extrapolating the Sixties, Stephen King Style


Camelot theory is predicated on what might have been. Director Oliver Stone feverishly asserts that President John F. Kennedy would have ended the Cold War, especially in Vietnam (where he would withdrawn all advisers) – as do Kennedy cabinet members Kenneth O’Donnell and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

In Stephen King’s new novel, “11/22/1963,” the author has Kennedy living beyond Dealey Plaza and rejects the wishful thinking of mythifiers. In King’s alternate history, Kennedy doesn’t get the romantic aura death grants him; whatever glow he still has will wear off because of Vietnam and Civil Rights. In contrast to Lyndon B. Johnson, who was by far the more effective politician (few of Kennedy’s programs made it past Congress), JFK barely beats the GOP standard bearer Barry Goldwater.

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Rather than fulfill the wishes of Stone, Kennedy doesn’t withdraw the troops but situates them protectively around Saigon, and thus all but assures an earlier Teht offensive. Not even the ungodly amounts of money Kennedy sends into Saigon prevents it collapse, well before 1975.

(Spoilers ahead!)

Kennedy, who in the words of Martin Luther King Jr. lacked interest in the Civil Rights struggle, produces no federal legislation for black voting rights and ending segregation. Thus, “Burn baby burn” occurs with more fervor. The civil rights icon is murdered before 1968, and not by James Earl Ray, but by a rogue FBI agent. A conspiracy theory involves FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Gov. George Wallace defeats Kennedy in 1968, and firebombs Chicago and drops the big on on Hanoi. He is still shot. Fast-forward to 1976, where Reagan is elected, sends in troops to get the hostages out of Iran, and they are slaughtered. Russia still collapses, a Clinton is elected, not Bill, but Hillary. Terrorists seize wandering Russian missiles and 9-11 still happens.

Extrapolation is always frowned upon by historians, but so many of them have done so on behalf of Camelot that King is not necessarily engaging in flights of fantasy. As befits a horror novelist he shows that Kennedy living does not usher in a better future. Indeed, King is still closer to probability than official historians. Everything happens anyway, but sooner. Everyone stays in character – from the cynically pragmatic Kennedy to the extreme anti-segregationist Wallace, The only fantasy the author engages in is getting the perceived principled progressive, Hillary Clinton, into the White House rather than her waffling husband.

MSNBC talker Chris Matthews has reacted to a possible Hillary Clinton vice presidential candidacy on the Obama ticket as causing “a thrill to go down” his leg. But such a moment would be fleeting, for on her watch 9-11 still occurs in King’s world.

It is instructive in how historians have imposed their liberal hopes on Kennedy living that a novelist comes off as more historical than them.

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