It looks like Donald Trump has finally met his match. And no, I’m not talking about special counsel Robert Mueller and his looming indictment of at least one Team Trump insider, although that is certainly problematic for the 45th president and his eventual legacy. It turns out the man who got the better of Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and just about every TV talking head in the 2016 election, and who has managed to terrorize Republicans on Capitol Hill to stay silent or surrender, wasn’t able to trump this one unbeatable American Goliath.
I’m talking about Big JFK.
That would be the shadowy network of operatives and muckety-mucks from the CIA, FBI — and maybe some agencies that we don’t even know about — which has held onto its secrets surrounding the assassination of then-President John F. Kennedy for 54 years and, as we saw again in yet another Charlie-Brown-and-Lucy-football episode this weekend, may hold onto those secrets forever.
The quick backstory is this. In 1992 — when public skepticism over the official U.S. government story, that JFK was killed by a lone nut named Lee Harvey Oswald firing at the president’s Dallas motorcade from the Texas School Book Depository, was at an all-time high in part because of an Oliver Stone movie — Congress passed a law requiring that all assassination documents be released within 25 years. The final date for everything to come out was October 26, 2017 — which in that moment sounded like a far-away time of flying cars and rollerball tournaments, but very quickly arrived (without the flying cars) this past Thursday.
One other thing that Congress could never have imagined in October 1992 was that an obnoxious and Chapter 11-bogged-down Manhattan real-estate developer named Donald John Trump would be the president 25 years hence. But while the Trump administration may not be great for America, the Donald did at least seem like the perfect president to end the endless JFK cover-up. The man loves his conspiracy theories, loves a big story (recall how excited he gets over killer hurricanes), and also isn’t a big fan of the intelligence community, which he not so long ago compared to the Nazis. Cynics might also note that — with bad news on the way in the Mueller probe — the White House was eager for something that would distract the easily distracted news media. Trump seemed genuinely excited by the prospect of releasing thousands of never-before-seen or finally unredacted JFK files.
The long anticipated release of the #JFKFiles will take place tomorrow. So interesting!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 25, 2017
So interesting! Another reality-TV show from our reality-show president. But when the appointed day came, it all went terribly wrong. Only 52 never-before-seen documents were made public — that’s less than 2 percent of the total that the feds have been holding onto — and the new release of previously redacted papers was similarly anemic. The rest? Higher-ups in the CIA and FBI — using national security exemptions that were carved into the 1992 legislation — prevailed on Trump to keep them secret a little longer, if not forever.
This is frustrating beyond words. It also defies logic. The Cold War has been over for 28 years, the key figures from that time are almost all dead (even the seemingly immortal Fidel Castro), as are most of the Kennedy-era spies, as well as the methods they used. The only possible question burns: What exactly are they hiding?
Same as it ever was.
A cynic, or maybe someone under the age of 40 (those groups have been known to overlap) can ask, “Why does this still matter in the 21st century?” A fair question. To be sure, the issue is lathered in nostalgia for the AARP-eligible crowd. For this tail-end baby boomer and for most of my peers, hazy images of November 22, 1963, are not just our first political memory but the defining one. A mom or a kindergarten teacher or a nun in tears, followed by the snowy black-and-white pictures of the dead president’s horse-drawn carriage on the family’s TV console. Everything that exploded in the years that immediately followed —Vietnam, Black Power, women’s liberation, Earth Day — stemmed from the feelings triggered that afternoon, that America was not what it seemed.
And yet for all the cynicism and distrust, there was also the naive hope in the back of one’s mind that some day, miraculously, definitive proof would emerge of who killed President Kennedy and why. Instead, 54 years of stalling and what the Watergate co-conspirators might call “modified limited hangout” opened a window on a veritable “rat pack” of spies, mobsters, Cubans and political extremists — yet nothing close to a resolution. With the passage of time, there seems to be increasing support for the government theory ratified by its dubious Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone. But there’s a lot of things that still don’t add up, most prominently the fact that a seeming wiseguy named Jack Ruby got front-row access to kill and thus silence Oswald. On some level, the French, the Russians, Bobby Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon all suspected JFK was killed by a conspiracy — and so do I. Just look at the way that the CIA and FBI acted on Thursday. Like people who still have something to hide.
The JFK cover-up doesn’t only speak to what happened in 1963, though. It tells us a lot about what’s happening in 2017:
— A nation that sells itself to the world as a beacon of open democracy remains obsessed with keeping secrets from its everyday citizens. The decision last week to withhold thousands of JFK-related documents didn’t happen in a vacuum, but in a country that not only stamps a top-secret classification on far too many public documents but increasingly works to hide basic information from the press and public. And this long predates the arrival of Trump. Indeed, it was Barack Obama who, as the Associated Press reported in 2015, “set a record again for censoring government files or outright denying access to them last year under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act” after promising, falsely, to run the most transparent administration in history. It’s sad — sad! — that Trump continues this tradition.
— The JFK files fiasco is yet another hint that an entrenched “national security state” — call it “the Deep State” if you must — of generals and spies seems to wield more power than the elected president of the United States. A more current and pressing example of this is the U.S. troop involvement in Afghanistan, which just hit 16 years with no end in the foreseeable future. As a candidate, Trump strongly suggested that he would wind down America’s role in Afghanistan and other global conflicts — only to be worn down by the generals and ex-generals with increasing clout in his inner circle who convinced Trump to add forces. The same thing happened with Obama, who kept in place many Bush-era policies he’d campaigned against, and so the same thing happened Thursday when the CIA and FBI prevailed on Trump to keep most of the JFK files locked. It can all make the average citizen question who really runs the U.S. government, which brings us to the most important impact of the JFK cover-up.
— You can draw a line — a crooked, convoluted line, but a line nonetheless — from what happened that afternoon in Dealey Plaza to the disastrous election of Trump in 2016, amid that rising tide of distrust among the typical voter. Although the initial questioning of the Warren Commission and the official version of the JFK killing took place largely among the political left, the general notion that the government routinely lies to American people spread through much of society during the 1960s and the decades that followed. Eventually, the questioning of authority spread to other institutions — from big business to the media (especially the media) — as both popular and political cultures became dominated by nihilism (think Howard Stern), irony (Saturday Night Live), and cynicism, taking root especially in the battered Rust Belt. That prevailing mood and the birth of social media made it easy, in hindsight, for the rise of “fake news” that millions of voters came to believe because it doesn’t come from the fundamentally dishonest elite mainstream media. And Donald Trump exploited that naive cynicism all the way to the White House.
In a weird way, the insanity of Trumpism incubated with the JFK cover-up, which would make it ironic if — despite last week’s big setback — Trump actually stays on this issue and eventually does release the hidden files, which he again promised to do this weekend:
After strict consultation with General Kelly, the CIA and other Agencies, I will be releasing ALL #JFKFiles other than the names and…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2017
I’ll believe that when I see it. If a bigger and better release of the JFK files does actually happen, the deciding factor may be Trump’s desperate desire to deflect attention away from his own failing presidency and the growing scandal that may soon envelope his inner circle. That’s a cynical view, I suppose, but after the JFK cover-up that’s lasted almost all of my 58 years on this planet, it’s getting hard not to feel anything else.