In 1966, college student Barbara Garson wrote a parody of Shakespeare's MacBeth in which the new king, MacBird, appears to have murdered the old king, Ken O Dunc. MacBird's regime becomes mired in war, and MacBird is eventually overthrown by the younger brothers of the former king. Since no publisher would touch the comic references to the Kennedy assassination, Ms. Garson published it herself. "MacBird" had sold half a million copies by the time it opened in New York in January 1967.
Back in the "MacBird" days, reporters often asked if I really thought Lyndon Johnson had killed John F. Kennedy.
"Well, if he did," I'd reply, "it was the least of his crimes."
Recently several movie reviewers have cited my parody of MacBeth to denigrate Oliver Stone's regicidal tragedy, "JFK."
"A $40 million equivalent of 'MacBird' " it was called in The Nation and in U.S. News and World Report. But to Mr. Stone the killing of the rightful king is the trauma of modern America. To me there's no such thing as a rightful king. For that reason "MacBird" was at least as anti-Kennedy as it was anti-Johnson.
The MacBird (Lyndon Johnson) who flailed wounded on stage, grand scaled, self pitying, sincere even as he lied to our faces, was almost sympathetic compared to the calculating Kennedys. least he was earnest in his New Deal liberalism: "My Smooth Society has room for all;/For each a house, a car, a family,/A private psychoanalyst, a dog."
But I wasn't interested in the minor political differences between the contending princes Lyndon and Bobby. I wrote "MacBird" to warn my fellow New Leftists not to hop on the Bobby Kennedy band wagon. With so much activism welling up from below in America, why should we go picking around in the detritus of the Democratic Party for leaders?
Oliver Stone was not a new leftist. He never experienced the exhilaration of a freedom summer in Mississippi or imbibed our populist faith with Cesar Chavez and the striking farm workers in California. His political consciousness was formed at a later, grimmer moment. Through his films, Mr. Stone has been bravely working back to that painful birth. First he went back to the war itself ("Platoon"); then he examined his post-Vietnam depression Born on the Fourth of July"); finally he traveled all the way back to his primal scream -- the murder of the king. And what a powerful scream he has let out.
For Oliver Stone, John Kennedy was the leader who would have brought us out of Vietnam, rolled back the empire, curbed the security apparatus and disbanded the military industrial complex a veritable Mikhail Gorbachev. Since Kennedy's death, Mr. Stone has been living in a rotten country with no one in power he can trust. No matter who actually pulled the trigger, they're all capable of lying, killing and writing deceptive movie reviews in order to preserve their illegitimate power. Even those of the elite who were sickened by the crime are committed to the faith-restoring cover up ("Oswald acted alone; go home.").
I agree, of course, with Oliver Stone's critique of our government. But it applies to almost every government. I don't believe that there was ever a hero, leader or king who alone could have changed the world for us.
We of the New Left scorned heroes and leaders. We had faith in the wit, decency and egalitarianism of ordinary human beings. Romantic as it was, that belief sustained our political optimism. It still does. But we never managed to pass it along.
Oliver Stone became radicalized at the end of the '60s. But by that time, the source of our faith was incomprehensible to him. Mr. Stone went off to Vietnam as a patriot. I too took up my patriotic duty -- as a protester.
But I saw anti-war work as an unwelcome interruption of the positive organizing I had been doing with my fellow Americans. So I chose to put in my anti-war service at a G.I. coffee house near Fort Lewis Army base in Tacoma, Wash. At least I would be working with American soldiers instead of against them.
Every night our coffee house was crowded with Vietnam-bound GIs who had canceled their U.S. savings bonds, made their military life insurance policies payable to the Black Panther Party ("Just to see them have to write it out in quintuplicate."), boycotted grapes in the mess hall to support the farm workers or published anti-war newspapers with titles like FTA, Left Face and POW ("Every soldier is a prisoner of war," said its masthead.)
These were drafted, working class teen-agers, not Yale dropouts. Still they had that five-year lead over Oliver Stone, and that gave them a chance to take part in "the movement". So for them, as for me, political action could never be reduced to choosing among leaders.