Targets Of Opportunity

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“ASSASSINATION IS NOT an American practice or habit,” wrote Secretary of State William H. Seward on July 15, 1864, “and one so vicious and so desperate cannot be engrafted into our political system. This conviction of mine has steadily gained strength.

… Every day’s experience confirms it.” Nine months later John Wilkes Booth fired his bullet into the brain of Abraham Lincoln and Seward himself lay seriously wounded, stabbed repeatedly in the face and neck by Booth’s accomplice, Lewis Powell.

In recent years we have learned again and again how wrong Seward was. Lee Harvey Oswald, Arthur Bremer, James Earl Ray, Sirhan Sirhan, John Hinckley—these are just the names of those who managed to hit their political targets over the past twenty years; if those who missed were included, the list would nearly double.

Such puny creatures seem incapable of altering history on their own, and so we search almost desperately for What Really Happened, for the Something or Someone that must be Behind It All. Even before Lincoln stopped breathing on the boardinghouse bed to which he was carried from Ford’s Theater, a substantial number of Americans were persuaded he had been the victim of a vast plot directed by the leaders of the dying Confederacy. No one believed this more fervently than the man who directed the hunt for the assassin, Secretary of War Edwin M. S tan ton, and it is one of American history’s more absurd ironies that Stanton himself eventually became the prime suspect for a later generation eager to unearth a conspiracy.

A large body of literature has been published about Lincoln’s murder, most of it purporting to show that one or another group of unindicted men somehow pulled the strings—the Vatican, perhaps, or the Radical Republicans. One enthusiast recently suggested that Booth may have been entirely blameless, that the real killer was Maj. Henry R. Rathbone, Lincoln’s guest in the theater box. Another hinted that Mary Todd Lincoln herself might have been implicated in her husband’s death; although the President left her a comfortable legacy, she was often in financial difficulty in her later years: “Could her continued impoverishment suggest blackmail?”

THE LIBRARY of books on the Kennedy assassination may already be even larger. A few have been sober and substantive, aimed at solving the troubling puzzles left in the Warren Commission’s broad wake or answering new questions prompted by the sorry record of agency incompetence and cloak-and-dagger fumbling in the Caribbean that has emerged since that commission rendered its verdict.

But all too many books have been the work of deluded obsessives or of shameless cynics willing to exploit our worst fears with misrepresented or manufactured evidence for a quick profit. Among those who have been accused of complicity in the President’s murder or its concealment: Lyndon Johnson, the KGB, the Pentagon, Cubans (both pro- and anti-Castro), the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, the Dallas police department, “Texas oilmen,” and exotic, top-heavy combinations of any and all of the above—almost anyone, it seems, but Oswald. These charges have had their impact: a Newsweek poll published last November, two decades after Dallas, shows that three out of four Americans believe “others were involved” besides the accused assassin; only 11 percent think he acted on his own.

Two excellent new books—William Hanchett’s The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies (University of Illinois Press) and Oswald’s Game by Jean Davison (W. W. Norton)—should help put the focus back where it belongs, on the turbulent, embittered men who actually pulled the triggers. Both Booth and Oswald held distorted images of the world and of their own importance within it; each found in the murder of a President a dramatic part worthy of his most grandiose fantasies.

Professor Hanchett shrewdly demolishes in turn each of the tortuous plot theories that have flourished since 1865, sketches the fevered, antiLincoln atmosphere within which Booth acted, and offers the most plausible account we are ever likely to have of his real motivation. Booth did not act from professional frustration, as some have suggested; he was a good and successful actor, not a ham. But he was implacably attached to the Confederacy and persuaded that it was up to him to save it single-handedly. When his crackpot plan to kidnap Lincoln and spirit him away to Richmond fizzled in 1865, he seems to have given up in despair, downing a quart of brandy at a sitting to blot out his shame. “But so goes the world,” he wrote to his mother in apparent resignation in the early morning hours of April 14, 1865, “Might makes right.”