A few years ago, I found myself on an plane sitting next to an elderly gentleman. Talk turned to a recent election, and he railed against the inefficiencies of "big government." But when he saw I was reading a book about John F. Kennedy, he insisted this same inept government had somehow managed to kill our president -- and to keep it a secret.
"It was a conspiracy," he said. "The CIA, the FBI, the Secret Service. Everybody was in on it."
The 50th anniversary of JFK's murder has occasioned another round of national debate about who "really" killed Kennedy. Even former Minnesota Gov. and pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura has gotten in on it, with a book called "63 Reasons to Believe There Was a Conspiracy to Assassinate JFK."
But Americans don't need that much convincing. In a survey conducted last year by Hart Research Associates, three-quarters of respondents rejected the Warren Commission's finding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. We're much more likely to believe it was the Cubans, the Russians or the Mafia -- or the federal government itself. In a 2003 Gallup poll, 34 percent said the CIA was responsible for Kennedy's death.
His successor, Lyndon Johnson, wanted the Warren Commission to certify the single-shooter theory, lest Americans embrace conspiracy theories about the assassination. But the commission's report had the opposite effect, ironically, triggering a distrust of government that has continued to this day.
Think Tonkin Gulf, Watergate, Iran-Contra and "weapons of mass destruction": All of them have become shorthand for a government that deceives the citizens who elect it. And in the darker corners of the American psyche, more outlandish notions have taken root: The moon landing was a fake, and the World Trade Center attacks were an inside job.
But John F. Kennedy's reputation has continued to grow. Polls consistently rank him as the best president of the past half-century. In the popular imagination, Kennedy embodies our country's long-lost power and optimism. Once upon a time, the story goes, we stood tall on the world stage. But when JFK died, the American dream died with him. We fell into a long national decline, searching in vain for the strength we lost on Nov. 22, 1963.
But if you look at what happened on that day, and in the days and weeks that followed, you see massive incompetence and bureaucratic blunders. The so-called Greatest Generation dropped the ball.
Dallas police let pedestrians roam around Dealey Plaza after Kennedy was shot. On the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository, police gathered the cartridge cases from Oswald's rifle without marking where each was found. And when the president's limousine reached Parkland Hospital, blood was wiped from the car before it could be examined for spatter patterns.
Then there's the FBI. Agents knew about Oswald's violent past and his attempt to defect to the Soviet Union; they also knew that he worked at a warehouse on the president's motorcade route. To cover its own skin, the agency destroyed its file on Oswald after the assassination.
The Warren Commission's mistakes were legion, too. It failed to interview dozens of witnesses. Nor did it probe the CIA, which was covering up its efforts to kill Fidel Castro. Had they known about that, several commission members said later, they would have paid more attention to rumors about Castro's alleged role in JFK's murder.
But secrecy doesn't prove conspiracy; it merely feeds it. The much more likely culprit is simple incompetence. To be sure, police practices -- and presidential security -- have improved drastically since then.
Still, as my friend on the airplane noted, government agencies are notoriously clumsy. (See "Rollout, Obamacare.") It's hard to imagine that they could pull off a plot as risky as the murder of a president. So why do so many of us continue to believe it? Perhaps it's a way to protect Kennedy's image, and the reflection of ourselves that we see in it. If JFK could be felled by a lone loser like Oswald, then he wouldn't be the giant that we've made him out to be. The great shining moment, the thousand days, Camelot . . . it would all be a fairy tale.
We'd no longer be young innocents, pining for the departed father we never really knew. We would put away childish things. And we would have to grow up.
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University and the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory."