The magic bullet.
VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA -Perhaps the thorniest problem for theoretical political scientists is the question of how to accomplish regime change within a democratic system of government. The constitutions of democratic states all include specific mechanisms for the succession of power from one head of state or head of government to the next; every elected official occupies a position, the term of which is proscribed by that mechanism. However, no matter how well thought out is the system and its mechanisms, there will from time to time arise a situation that calls for regime change outside of the normal parameters.
There are various types of democracies with varying degrees of success; each works reasonably well when all goes according to expectations; it is when things go wrong that they are really tested.
Parliamentary systems generally have an open-ended mandate; only the maximum time for a government to sit is determined by constitution, allowing the government to call an election at any time that seems suitable. Such, for example, is the Canadian system in which a government is formed by the party that elects the most candidates to parliament. The mandate is set at five years during which the majority party led by the Prime Minister may call an election at any time it deems appropriate. Outside of that, in the event that things do go awry and the country loses confidence in the current party or Prime Minister and cabinet to govern the country, a simple majority of sitting house members may, by way of “vote of (no) confidence”, force the Governor General to call a new general election.
Republican systems, in contrast, usually have a fixed term for the head of government to hold power, and an election date is fixed by the constitution. This is the system employed in the US. There, an individual and his/her running mate are elected president and vice president for a fixed four year term. Should something go amiss, should the country become utterly displeased and wish to see the head of state and government (the President is both, unlike in Canada where the PM is head of government, while the head of state is The Queen by way of the Governor General), there is little that can be done. A President can only be removed from office by way of the process of impeachment, an onerous, acrimonious, quasi-judicial undertaking that combines the qualities of a public lynching with those of a Third World show-trial.
Of course, in either system, if the nation’s leader has sufficiently frustrated and angered the
people, there is another way of accomplishing regime change: assassination.
In the US there have only been two full attempts at impeachment, those of Andrew Jackson and Bill Clinton. Neither attempt was successful, as at the senate trials neither was convicted of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that form the benchmark for removal from office. A third, arguably successful, impeachment attempt was that of Richard Nixon who, knowing he would be found guilty by the Senate, resigned immediately before the House could vote on the full articles of impeachment.
However, there have been four successful removals from office of a US President using the old-school method of assassination. Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and of course, John F Kennedy all died at the hands of assassins. So effective is this method that it has become the regime change mechanism of choice for the United States. Since the Kennedy assassination, every single US president, with the exception of his immediate successor Lyndon Johnson, has been the target of an attempted assassination and most of them have dodged the bullet (or bomb, or poison) several times.
This week, as we observe the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s removal from office by way of a bullet that tore through his skull and brain, it would be worthwhile to remember that the killing of a head of state is, by definition, a regime change. And we must never forget that the shots that were fired that sunny morning in Dealey Plaza in Dallas Texas not only ended an era, they introduced a new one. The magic bullet in the Kennedy assassination was magic in more than the way it defied the laws of physics (according to the official investigation) but in the depth and breadth of the consequences those few grams of copper-coated soft lead wrought.
Despite the acrobatic contortions the defenders of the conclusions of The Warren Report are willing to put themselves through, the notion that Lee Harvey Oswald, a troubled and angry lone gunman, planned and carried out the assassination of the President of the United States doesn’t pass the laugh test. The impossibility of the shot, the fact that there were, by most eyewitness accounts,
a second shooter, the fairy tale of Oswald’s defection to and repatriation from Russia at the height of the Cold War, the enigmatic involvement of Jack Ruby, the disappearance of witnesses who contradicted the official version of the events, the missing security detail, and so on ad infinitum all combine to tell us, not what really happened or why, but to give us absolute assurance that the official version is simply false.
Nevertheless, the official story stands and The Warren Report remains the version that will go down in history as the accurate accounting of that regime change. Despite the fact that a second official commission, The House Select Committee on Assassinations, conducted largely in secret, concluded that Kennedy’s assassination was, in all likelihood, a conspiracy and then promptly sealed its findings for fifty years, The Warren Report remains the official story. Those who find its conclusions absurd are labelled “conspiracy nuts” and risk being portrayed as paranoid fantasists; and this despite the fact that the majority of Americans don’t buy it.
In any case, the assassination seems to have worked. Whoever was at the bottom of the conspiracy, whether the real responsible party was the CIA, the military industrial complex, the Mafia, Castro’s Cuban forces, anti-Castro Cuban forces, a homegrown private militia, white supremacists, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lyndon Johnson supporters, or any combination of those, the country and the world changed in the aftermath of the shooting.
Kennedy, at his inaugural address said, “…ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country!” That was on January 20, 1961, just weeks into the new decade of the ‘60s that would see the most radical social change and turbulence, perhaps in the history of the world. Today, such an idealistic and patriotic remark, if spoken as Kennedy did, in sincere, ringing tones and not ironically, would elicit gales of cynical laughter. Words like these, from the same speech, would be dismissed as liberal cowardice:
“So let us begin anew—remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.”
Although those words are more apt than ever in today’s world, the world has changed so much since the death of the man who spoke them that today the only tears they would bring to people’s eyes would be tears of derisive laughter.
The roots of today’s malaise and cynicism regarding government integrity and even the value of any sort of government at all can be traced back to Dealey Plaza, and from there through the Warren Report, the results of which showed the people just how much one could believe and trust their leaders. The patent hypocrisy and manipulative prevarication that runs through the official story was clear evidence of the dishonesty that manifests itself when the preservation of power is at stake.
During the Kennedy era, the one brief shining moment of “Camelot”, the zeitgeist was one of optimism, ambition, it was a time of confidence, it was a time when the future held endless possibilities.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
But after Dallas things were different. Johnson escalated the Vietnam war, social unrest became the order of the day, and although Kennedy’s dream of sending a man the moon and returning him safely to earth had been realised ahead of schedule, one could no longer make a commitment like he had with a straight face. And because of the nature of the regime change, perhaps never again.
Thus began the long winter of discontent that is the new zeitgeist. Cynicism has replaced optimism; one’s intelligence is measured by the depth of one’s pessimism. Patriotism now means xenophobia and isolationism. The United States is now a country where it is not even possible to imagine a president or anyone else creating an organisation like The Peace Corps. Despite the tremendous collateral advances in science and technology bestowed by the space programme, the prevailing view would be that its revival would be a waste of time and of money that could be better spent on building an impregnable wall along the Mexican border.
Oh, there have been other coups d’état in the US since the Kennedy assassination; the election fraud that saw George W. Bush steal the presidency from the candidate with the greatest popular vote comes to mind. But for sudden, radical change for the worse, there is nothing to compare to the abrupt reversal of much that was good, respectable, and honourable in American society that occurred as the direct result of the killing of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Rest in peace.