The intense news coverage of this week’s release of some 2,800 files related to the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy only serves as a reminder of how that event holds a special place in the American psyche.
In the more than 50 years since the shooting, scores of books have been written about that day in Dallas – about the assassin, the assassin’s assassin, the first lady, a patch of grass near the route. It has been referenced in movies, television shows, songs and plays for decades now.
A look at Google Trends data shows the staying power of the topic on American minds. Search data going back all the way to 2004 indicate that interest in the topic surpasses interest in more recent political events including the Watergate scandal and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
And compared to those two topics, the JFK assassination has been a bigger source of interest in 49 of 50 states, according to the Google data. Only in Maryland did Watergate slightly score higher than the assassination as a topic of interest.
(Although, for the record, Watergate scored much higher in the District of Columbia, perhaps in part because this where that scandal unfolded.)
What’s behind the public’s obsession with the assassination of the nation’s 35th president? Most Americans doubt they know the real story of what happened on November 22, 1963. More than 60 percent believe gunman Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone – and they’ve been skeptical from the beginning.
Gallup has tracked the Kennedy conspiracy question since the day of the shooting. A poll taken immediately after the murder found that 52 percent of Americans believed “others were involved in a conspiracy” while 29 percent thought Oswald acted alone.
By 1966, it seemed the country was starting to walk away from that idea. The conspiracy number had dropped to 50 percent and the Oswald figure had climbed to 36 percent.
But by December of 1976, the conspiracy number jumped to 81 percent in the Gallup data. There are likely a few reasons for that spike. The film of the assassination taken by Abraham Zapruder became public in 1975 and that helped lead to the 1976 creation of the House Select Committee on Assassination, which investigated the deaths of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
Whatever the reason, the conspiracy figure stayed relatively high in the Gallup data, not dropping below 74% for decades. The latest numbers from Gallup, from a 2013 survey taken to mark the 50th anniversary of the event, showed 61% of Americans believed the assassination was a conspiracy, while 30% believed Oswald acted alone.
And a new survey from FiveThirtyEight released this week finds that’s right about where the public is today: 61% believe others were involved in JFK’s assassination, while 33% believe one man acted alone.
But the most interesting finding in the FiveThirtyEight poll is the breadth of the nation’s JFK conspiracy beliefs. More than 50 percent of most every demographic group believes “others were involved” in the assassination: Men and women, whites, blacks and Hispanics, registered voters and non-registered, all age groups.
And in an era when the political divides appear in everything from media consumption to shopping habits, the JFK assassination is one area where supporters of President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton agree: 61 percent of Trump voters and 59 percent of Clinton voters believe “others were involved.”
The one demographic group that believes Oswald acted alone, according to the FiveThirtyEight poll, is college educated white people – and the numbers are very close with 48 percent saying one man killed JFK and 46 percent saying others were involved.
Bearing those numbers in mind, this week’s release of documents at least seemed to offer the possibility that the citizenry would have its thirst for JFK assassination knowledge quenched – that there would be a final answer to what most Americans consider a great unsolved mystery.
But by Friday, one day after the release, that hope seemed dashed. As many predicted there was no smoking gun proving a conspiracy in the files and word soon surfaced that some documents has been held back, which of course led some conspiracy believers to allege a cover-up was continuing.
That shouldn’t be a surprise.
More than 50 years after President Kennedy’s assassination, more than 60 percent of Americans believe a conspiracy was behind an event. That’s 60 percent in a country that can barely muster a majority for anything. At this point, questioning the “lone gunman” theory of the JFK assassination has become ingrained in the national culture – as American as apple pie. Beliefs like those are hard to change.