With the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination fast approaching, it’s open season for reexamining the tragic events of Nov. 22, 1963. Doubtless the usual conspiracy loons and ersatz “historians” — did someone mention Bill O’Reilly? — will be exploiting the retrospective to push their oddball agendas.
Interestingly, one character in the Dealey Plaza drama no longer seems up for grabs: Kennedy’s assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.
For decades, Oswald was seen as a cog in a larger machine, a patsy for dark forces united to kill America’s charismatic young president. For instance, in his 1988 novel “Libra,” Don DeLillo places Oswald at the nexus of a complicated intrigue involving Cuba and the CIA.
The late British author and restaurateur Michael Eddowes claimed that the young Oswald who returned from the former Soviet Union in 1962 was not the same man who defected from the United States in 1959. Eddowes insisted that the Soviets had repatriated an agent-impostor in Oswald’s stead. In 1981, he arranged for the ghoulish exhumation of Oswald’s body, which turned out to be the remains of . . . Lee Harvey Oswald.
Late to the party was celebrity novelist Norman Mailer, who devoted the 828 pages of his 1995 tome “Oswald’s Tale” to concluding that 1) Lee Harvey Oswald was a tormented soul, and 2) Oswald probably acted alone in killing Kennedy. Mailer cited huge chunks of Cambridge author Priscilla Johnson McMillan’s 1977 biography “Marina and Lee” (Marina was Oswald’s Russian-born wife) in his book, because she was one of the very few journalists who met Oswald during his 30-month long sojourn in the USSR.
McMillan, who recently updated her book for the assassination anniversary, was a rookie journalist in Moscow, when a friend at the US Embassy told her there was a defector staying in her hotel. “He won’t talk to us,” the diplomat said. “Maybe he will talk to you.”
Oswald did talk to McMillan, for hours on end, and after the assassination she used her Russian language skills to befriend Oswald’s widow to write a book about their marriage. McMillan spent more than a decade researching what turned out to be an exhaustive and meticulous account of the Oswalds’ lives.
McMillan believes that Oswald killed Kennedy for political reasons; “I thought he was a forerunner of the SDSers (Students for a Democratic Society),” she says. “Lee despised American capitalism and wanted to bring it down. He had been a political actor since age 15.”
Journalist Peter Savodnik disagrees. To research his new book, “The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union,” he revisited Minsk, the capital of what was then called Byelorussia, where Oswald lived for more than two years. “It’s where he lived longer than anywhere else, as an adult,” Savodnik says. “It’s where he had the opportunity to become the person he wanted to be, and he failed utterly.”
Mailer also gave Minsk a thorough working-over, but “he wanted to insist on geopolitical strategizing, with an eye toward leaving the reader a little unsure about what happened,” Savodnik says. “Mailer used some of the open questions about Oswald to help fuel conspiracy theorizing.”
But that’s a moot point now, Savodnik adds: “We know who killed President Kennedy.”
Savodnik doesn’t think that Oswald was motivated by politics. “We impose geopolitical explanations on people’s behaviors, but we do what we do not because we are moved by large abstract forces, but by things taking place inside our heads,” he says. “Oswald is often described as part of someone else’s mystery, but once we look at him more carefully, the mystery becomes much less mysterious.”
“There is an overwhelming desire to cast Kennedy’s life and death as a great, mythical story,” Savodnik adds. “It’s unsatisfying that he is brought low by some redneck who had problems relating to his mother.”
■ Correction: Catholic priests spend four to six years in seminary, not three as I wrote last week.Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.