JFK haunts them still

Fifty years on, there is no con­sen­sus on who killed the pres­i­dent on Nov. 22, 1963

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Michael Dud­ley

GRASSY knoll. Lone gun­man. Dealey Plaza. Th­ese phrases have en­tered our cul­ture as by­words for the shad­owy and con­spir­a­to­rial, while also evok­ing a tragedy that still res­onates pow­er­fully in the Amer­i­can psy­che largely be­cause many be­lieve it is un­re­solved — and per­haps ir­re­solv­able. Such is the en­dur­ing fas­ci­na­tion with and con­tro­versy over this tragedy that the 50th an­niver­sary of U.S. pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion is herald­ing a flood of new, re­vised and re-re­leased books, af­ford­ing the knowl­edge­able and unini­ti­ated alike the op­por­tu­nity to weigh the ev­i­dence in the case for them­selves. How­ever, be warned: the events of Nov. 22, 1963, present to the un­wary reader a Rashomon- like maze of con­flict­ing ac­counts. End of Days by James Swan­son (who has in sev­eral pre­vi­ous books delved into Abraham Lin­coln’s as­sas­si­na­tion) and the lav­ishly il­lus­trated Kennedy’s Last Days by famed con­ser­va­tive pun­dit Bill O’Reilly, both re­count the con­verg­ing sto­ries of JFK and his al­leged as­sas­sin Lee Har­vey Oswald, told as a straight­for­ward se­ries of events, and with­out qual­i­fi­ca­tion. Both au­thors ac­cept at face value fre­quently chal­lenged War­ren Com­mis­sion as­ser­tions, such as Oswald’s Marx­ism and his killer, Jack Ruby, claim­ing he acted out of pa­tri­o­tism. Oswald is a mi­nor fig­ure in Bill Min­u­taglio’s and Steven Davis’s Dal­las 1963, a fas­ci­nat­ing (and dis­turbingly timely) por­trayal of a city hi­jacked by right-wing, racist, dem­a­gogic ex­trem­ists op­posed to a Demo­cratic pres­i­dent’s pro­gres­sive poli­cies to­wards civil rights, rap­proche­ment with Amer­ica’s en­e­mies and the pub­lic pro­vi­sion of health care — all of which they re­garded as tyran­ni­cal. Re­leased to tie in with the poorly re­ceived film of the same name, Vin­cent Bugliosi’s Park­land, is an adap­ta­tion of the nar­ra­tive por­tion of his con­tro­ver­sial 1,600-page con­spir­acy-de­bunk­ing de­fence of the War­ren Com­mis­sion, Re­claim­ing His­tory (2007). The renowned at­tor­ney re­counts the events of Nov. 22-25 in grip­ping, minute-byminute and novel-like de­tail, but (un­like Swan­son and O’Reilly) has the good sense in the ab­sence of wit­nesses to leave to the imag­i­na­tion Oswald’s sup­posed ac­tions in the piv­otal mo­ments. Th­ese four ti­tles all sup­port War­ren’s con­clu­sions (which a re­cent poll sug­gests only 24 per cent of Amer­i­cans still be­lieve); the next four con­tend that the crime in­volved (in vary­ing com­bi­na­tions) a con­spir­acy be­tween el­e­ments of the CIA and FBI, the Se­cret Ser­vice, or­ga­nized crime and Cuban ex­iles. The Hid­den His­tory of the JFK As­sas­si­na­tion is the third in La­mar Wal­dron’s se­ries (fol­low­ing Ul­ti­mate Sac­ri­fice and Legacy of Se­crecy, each cowrit­ten with ra­dio host Thom Hart­mann) fo­cus­ing on the lead­ing role of Mafia fig­ures in the as­sas­si­na­tion plot. The over­rid­ing (and not en­tirely con­vinc­ing) the­sis in all three books is that the decades-long cover up of the pres­i­dent’s as­sas­si­na­tion was aimed at con­ceal­ing the Mafia’s in­fil­tra­tion (and ex­ploita­tion) of a top-se­cret plan by JFK and Robert Kennedy to back a palace coup against Cuban Pres­i­dent Fidel Cas­tro. Vet­eran in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist An­thony Sum­mers, in his Not in Your Life­time (a sub­stan­tial re­vi­sion of his 1980 ti­tle Con­spir­acy) has no pre­de­ter­mined the­sis, but sifts the ev­i­dence as he goes, and treats Mafia claims of in­volve­ment with some skep­ti­cism. While es­tab­lish­ing ev­i­dence that there was an in­tri­cate con­spir­acy in­volved, he none­the­less strives for a mid­dle ground by weigh­ing and re­ject­ing many of the claims sup­ported by oth­ers; for ex­am­ple, he ac­cepts as gen­uine the no­to­ri­ous “back­yard pho­tos” of Oswald. For­mer Min­nesota gov­er­nor Jesse Ven­tura has no such reser­va­tions. His book They Killed Our Pres­i­dent (co-writ­ten with Dick Rus­sell and David Wayne) is a blunt and clearly stated case for con­spir­acy, de­liv­ered with both Ven­tura’s dis­tinc­tively gruff nar­ra­tion as well as help­ful links to online re­sources, mak­ing it well-suited for the unini­ti­ated, while pre­sent­ing enough re­cent rev­e­la­tions for the well-read stu­dent of the as­sas­si­na­tion. Jerome Corsi — who has pro­moted anti-Obama “birther” the­o­ries on the right-wing web­site World Net Daily — of­fers in his Who Re­ally Killed Kennedy?, an ex­tremely de­tailed ex­am­i­na­tion of the crime scene ev­i­dence, ar­gu­ing that the con­spir­acy to kill JFK led all the way up to vice-pres­i­dent Lyn­don John­son and fu­ture pres­i­dent Richard Nixon, and went on to lay the foun­da­tion for the mil­i­tary-cor­po­rate “New World Or­der” of pres­i­dents Ge­orge H.W. and Ge­orge W. Bush. Clearly, the con­tro­versy over what re­ally hap­pened still rages un­abated. Two ad­di­tional books fo­cus on the na­ture of that de­bate, from the his­tory of the War­ren in­ves­ti­ga­tion to the un­crit­i­cal dom­i­nance of its nar­ra­tive in the ma­jor me­dia. Philip Shenon’s mam­moth in­ves­ti­ga­tion A Cruel and Shock­ing Act is based on hun­dreds of in­ter­views, in­clud­ing with sur­viv­ing War­ren staffers. He claims that, while War­ren’s con­clu­sions were valid, its sin­cere ef­forts were de­lib­er­ately crip­pled by the CIA and FBI, both of which stonewalled the com­mis­sion by con­ceal­ing or de­stroy­ing ev­i­dence to cover up what they had known about Oswald in ad­vance — in­clud­ing their own murky con­nec­tions to him. James DiEu­ge­nio would ar­gue that Shenon — a New York Times reporter — epit­o­mizes the ex­tent to which ma­jor me­dia out­lets con­tinue to dou­ble down on their sup­port of the com­mis­sion. The bulk of his Re­claim­ing Park­land me­thod­i­cally evis­cer­ates Bugliosi’s Re­claim­ing His­tory, which had been lav­ished with im­me­di­ate praise by the press on its re­lease. He also takes to task ac­tor Tom Hanks (a co-pro­ducer of the film Park­land) and other Hol­ly­wood fig­ures for what he de­scribes as their puerile, un­crit­i­cal knowl­edge of JFK’s as­sas­si­na­tion and Amer­i­can his­tory in gen­eral. What is no­table when com­par­ing “of­fi­cial ver­sion” ver­sus “con­spir­acy” books is that — Shenon’s aside — the de­fend­ers of War­ren do not ed­i­to­ri­al­ize or seek to per­suade through ar­gu­men­ta­tion: they are sim­ply telling a fa­mil­iar and tragic, but ul­ti­mately non-threat­en­ing, story. The skep­tics, by con­trast, fo­cus on in­ves­ti­ga­tion over nar­ra­tive and have, as a con­se­quence, pro­duced far more en­gag­ing and un­set­tling books. Th­ese ti­tles surely won’t re­solve the fierce de­bate over the truth re­gard­ing JFK’s as­sas­si­na­tion, but they may per­suade a new gen­er­a­tion of read­ers why the an­swer to that ques­tion — as well as the late pres­i­dent’s legacy — still mat­ter. Michael Dud­ley is the sub­ject spe­cial­ist li­brar­ian

for his­tory at the Univer­sity of Winnipeg.


Half a cen­tury later, the de­bate rages on about who killed pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy.

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