A slight man who craved attention – and occasionally got it – Lee Harvey Oswald cast a small shadow before that late November day a half-century ago. Then a barrage of three rifle shots brought him a kind of eternal infamy as a man who brought darkness to a nation.
Family members, co-workers, and friends have given historians insight into the assassin's troubled life. (Yes, some people tolerated Oswald, and a few were even fond of him despite his difficult personality.) But Oswald's brief trip to Russia, where he lived as a defector before returning to the US, isn't fully understood.
Journalist Peter Savodnik aims to uncover fresh ground in his new book "The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union." He digs into Oswald's obsession with Marxism, his revealing diaries, and his never-ending disappointments and humiliations.
In an interview, Savodnik talked about Oswald's sense of entitlement, his detachment from those around him, and the elusive motives behind his actions on that long-ago Nov. 22.
Q: One of the common words used to describe Oswald in documentaries is "nut." Is that a fair or accurate description of the man?
A: It doesn't do much do much to elucidate or enrich the conversation. The whole point of "The Interloper" is to try to do more than attach some colloquialism or label to Oswald and look at him as a three-dimensional character, not a cog in someone else's detective story.
It's also to peer through the mystery. Once you look at him as a full-fledged character in a Shakespearean tragedy, you start to see the assassination for what it was – a tragedy.
Q: Did anyone wonder why you chose to focus on a universally reviled murderer like Lee Harvey Oswald?
A: No one questioned my decision to write about Oswald until I'd been enveloped by a lot of very shadowy characters and very dark stuff – history, archival materials, interviews. It's all very compelling and riveting, but can weigh on you.
At some point I had a conversation with my wife or parents, and the question came up why I had to write about someone who murdered the president.
When it comes to history, it's much more interesting to write about the villains and about the questions that are still unanswered.
Why did this happen? How is it possible that this happened? It remains at the core of our political identity. Wanting those answers courses through the American psyche from the moment of the assassination to the present. I found something about that unavoidably fascinating.
Q: How did your picture of Oswald change as you worked on the book?
A: I had approached this thinking about it the way that many people do: Oswald is someone who's singularly determined to murder the president and seems to wield control over his life. In fact, he had very little insight into himself and into the ways he thought and acted. He seemed to fail to understand why he behaved the way he did.
Q: What else makes him stand apart?
A: For a guy with his level of education – which is to say, none – and his background and lack of resources, he managed to get to places to see people and to involve himself in matters way beyond what one might expect. He went to the Soviet Union, traveling across Europe to get there and getting to Minsk. He managed to see a lot thanks to his single-mindedness and perseverance born of his fury to escape his mother and his life.
He felt he'd been confined to an existence that was beneath him, below what he was supposed to be doing. There's a sense of entitlement, almost.
Q: Did he have delusions of grandeur?
A: There's a little bit of that. There's a narcissistic element: He always comes back to his plight, whatever that might be.
He spent his childhood detached from other people as a loner. Mostly he is a guy who does not know how to relate to other people well, which happens if you don't spend time with other people, and you don't grow up knowing how to be in a society. That's very much what one senses in Oswald.
Q: How does he reveal his isolation to you?
A: One of the things that is so striking about his diary entries, even his letters home, is that he rarely gets into the personal details of people. He never talks about people in any kind of flesh-and-blood way. Instead, he always insists on talking about them abstractly.
There's this sense that people are out of focus.
Q: But he wasn't a loner in a sense of being friendless. He found a wife in the Soviet Union, kept in touch with his family, and had friends who were at least somewhat fond of him. What was going on there?
A: Oswald did have certain likeable traits. When he arrived in Minsk, he was something of a celebrity, and he enjoyed a certain degree of cool, for want of a better word.
The problem is that he didn't know how to negotiate conflict or how to build a life for himself. Every time he was given a good opportunity it worked out great until there was a crisis or some sort of rupture. Then his inclination was to try to run away or try to extricate himself from the situation.
Q: What about his background helps to explain his desire to run?
A: The reason is pretty straightforward. His father died two months before he was born, and he had this crazy, needy mother who was the most destructive force in his life.
His brother is probably the only person who loved him unquestionably. His wife was devoted in a way but mostly an opportunist. And of course, in the Soviet Union, it was very difficult to distinguish between friend and informant.
It would have taken a really remarkable set of circumstances for Oswald to have found a place, a community, that would have made it possible for him to transcend himself and build a life. He was tragically mistaken if he thought it was going to happen in the Soviet Union.
Q: What is the big lesson of Lee Harvey Oswald?
A: For him, everything that comes is colored by bitterness and a sense of personal failure. He's a representative of a certain subset of Americans, the alienated American who doesn't know how to incorporate himself into the body politic. There are many alienated Americans.
Q: Did you gain any insight into Oswald's motive?
A: It's the one that's hardest to pin down. The better way to approach that is to look at the pattern that courses through his life. He bounced around from one address to another 20 times before he enlisted in the Marines. I think his motive was to escape the life he'd been assigned to, to elevate himself to a worldwide historical status.
We have this tendency to want to impose order or reason, some kind of explanation, on everything. This is part of our arrogance, or conceit.
Once we stop trying to make sense of the Kennedy assassination in some kind of hyper-rational way and look at it is simply one of those things that is awful and inherent to the human condition, we can move on.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.