Targets Of Opportunity

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In fact he may have had no fixed purpose to murder Lincoln until noon that same day, when he strolled down to Ford’s Theater to pick up his mail and learned that Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant were expected at the evening performance of Our American Cousin . Sheer coincidence had now provided him with access to the object of his hatred—and by killing both Union leaders at once, he would at last be able, in his own words, to do “something decisive and great” to redeem the South—and himself. Had the President stayed away, as Grant did, Booth would likely be remembered only by historians of the American stage.

IN THE BOOK Oswald’s Game Jean Davison argues—persuasively, I think—that John Kennedy’s assassin was different in at least one respect: had coincidence not brought the presidential motorcade beneath the sixthfloor window of the Texas School Book Depository five weeks after Oswald happened to land a job there, he would eventually have found someone else to kill. (He had, in fact, already tried to shoot the feckless right-wing general Edwin A. Walker, in the apparent belief that by removing him he would save the country from fascism, and he may have been on his way to have another try when he was arrested.)

Oswald “wanted to be the boss or not play at all.”

It is impossible to do justice to Davison’s crisp, commonsensical book in this space, but it retraces the flat, dispiriting trajectory of Oswald’s entire life, beginning with a friendless boyhood spent in the care of his egomaniacal mother and already haunted by what a social worker then described as “fantasies of being powerful, and sometimes hurting or killing people. ” Lee “wanted to be ‘the boss’ or not play at all,” his older brother, Robert, remembered. “He was like mother in this respect.” He was like her, too, in his relentless loathing for authority.

Nothing ever worked for Oswald —school, the Marine Corps, the Soviet Union, marriage, friendships, the dreary succession of menial jobs from which he was fired and which he disdained as unworthy of his talents. Even the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, whose pamphlets he noisily distributed on a New Orleans street corner, eventually thought it best to ignore his shrill, self-advertising letters. He was by every sane measure a wretched failure. Yet in his own mind he was a bold, resourceful freedom-fighter: when he scrawled a phony, after-the-fact journal meant to cast his defection to Russia in a more flattering light, he called it his “Historic Diary.”

Davison points out that the Warren Commission did a remarkably thorough job of investigating Oswald’s career but was never able to say precisely what finally impelled him to commit the melodramatic act that was its logical culmination. That failure she attributes to the fact that the commission members did not then know of clandestine American efforts to eliminate Oswald’s revolutionary hero, Fidel Castro. But Castro did, and when he warned in September 1963 that “United States leaders” should not feel “safe” if they persisted in them, he indirectly provided Oswald with the heroic role he had been searching for: Oswald would become Fidel’s defender.

Three weeks later Oswald turned up at the Cuban embassy in Mexico City, seeking an entry visa. With him he brought a fat dossier he had compiled to impress the Cuban authorities with his all-round usefulness to the revolution: in it he claimed (mostly falsely) to be a skilled translator, specialist in “street agitation,” polished “radio speaker and lecturer,” organizer, ideologist, soldier, and potential spy. (Once the Cubans saw all this, he assured his weary, Russian-born wife, he would be welcomed eagerly in Havana; “You laugh now, ” he told her when she seemed doubtful, “but in twenty years, when I am prime minister, we’ll see how you laugh then.") As further evidence of his zeal, he loudly suggested that someone should kill Kennedy; that perhaps he would do it.

Castro himself is the source of this last revelation; on separate occasions he told at least two witnesses about Oswald’s threat, though he later denied having done so, probably for fear Americans might hold him even indirectly responsible for the death of their President. The Cubans turned Oswald away, in any case; the embassy official before whom he launched his tirade thought him either a madman or an American agent provocateur . And Oswald returned again to Texas and apparent obscurity. Then, as with John Wilkes Booth a century before, fortune brought his victim within range.

The possibility of conspiracy is always disquieting. More frightening still is the reality of madness and of chance.