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Remembering the Day with JFK’s Favorite Medicine – Laughter

On this November 22nd–the 50th anniversary of the most notorious murder of the 20th century–let’s take a quick look at some of the–how shall I say it?–lighter conspiracy theories. While I firmly believe a conspiracy was at work in Dealey Plaza in 1963 (and for some years afterward), some of these notions strain all credibility and provoke little beyond stares of stupefaction and laughter.  And since JFK’s own wit and joy for life were two qualities that his friends remembered about him always, I think he of all people would get (sort of) a kick out of the following theories on his own assassination:

1) The Secret Service shot him.

In this theory, seriously advanced some years ago and still popping up today, it was a Secret Service agent I won’t name, on the side of the follow-up car behind the Presidential limousine, who accidentally fired the fatal head shot at the President after hearing other shots in Dealey Plaza. Got that? He had a rifle in his hands and wanted to fire (I assume) at the source of the gunshots he heard, so of course he fired right at the President, who he probably suspected of trying to commit murder on himself in the motorcade (ok, I made that last part up–but if you follow the rest of it, it’s logical).

While I certainly will not be pinning any medals on the Secret Service for the job they did on November 22nd (except for Mrs. Kennedy’s own protection officer, Clint Hill, who deserves one), I never could buy this. If an SS guy could pick up, aim and fire a rifle in the motorcade while in a moving car in front of hundreds of people–why didn’t ANYONE in Dealey Plaza see him or photograph him doing it? (As far as I know, no one did.) And it would have been impossible for him to have performed such a feat without witnesses. (Of course, if Oswald could run down several flights of stairs after supposedly shooting the President without being seen by two witnesses who were on the stairs at the time, why is this a surprise?)

2)  There was no conspiracy–just TWO lone nuts!

This one comes from Norman Mailer, who wrote the novel Oswald’s Tale, and it’s my personal nomination for ‘Funniest Non-Conspiracy Theory Ever’.

Mailer apparently could not get away from the idea that the final shot that killed JFK–the head shot–had to have been fired from the front, but he also was too in love with his postulations about crazy obsessed loser Oswald to let go of him so easily.

So he came up with a truly novel (no pun intended) suggestion: yes, there were two shooters in Dealey Plaza, Oswald up in the Texas School Book Depository, and another unknown shooter on the Grassy Knoll.

But–wait for it–they just happened to be there together on the same day, firing independently, and they didn’t know each other.

Any mathematicians out there want to even attempt to calculate the odds?

Wow. If Kennedy had lived through the ambush in Dealey Plaza, I suspect he’d have died laughing at that.

3) It was Oswald acting alone–but he wasn’t aiming for Kennedy.

This one was absolutely new to me, though I’m told it’s been around for awhile. I first learned of it only last week (see? The more time goes by, the more we learn about the assassination … )

In this one, which is the subject of a new book, the author states emphatically that there’s no such thing as a conspiracy. (Got that, Julius Caesar?) Conspiracy theories are nonsense, and conspiracy believers are nuts.

Oswald did it alone. Clearly. So says the author.

But … Oswald did say repeatedly while in custody that he had nothing against the President, and the author believes we should take him at his word. (Wow. You think?)

So … what happened was, he wasn’t actually aiming at Kennedy. You see, Oswald’s Marine Corps discharge had been downgraded to dishonorable while he was in the Soviet Union, and when he returned to the U.S. sporting a dishonorable discharge, he found it difficult to find work. So among other measures, he got in touch with John Connally (Governor of Texas on November 22, 1963 and sitting in front of JFK in the Presidential limousine). At the time Oswald reached out in 1962, Connally was Secretary of the Navy and would have been the person best positioned to help Oswald upgrade his discharge from dishonorable to honorable.

Apparently, Secretary Connally had no idea who he was dealing with–because he apparently never answered him or did anything to help him. Shame on you, John.

So on November 22, 1963, knowing that Connally would be in an open car passing right under the high windows at his workplace (by sheer coincidence, of course), Lee Oswald took his cheap surplus Mannlicher-Carcano rifle with its badly misaligned scope up to the 6th-floor window, waited for that snake Connally to pass by (instead of firing as the car came toward the building as it drove straight on Houston, a much easier shot) and knocked off three shots in 5.6 seconds (which is virtually impossible), managing to wound that rotten Connally badly, but–oops–unfortunately killing the President at the same time. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Sorry, Mr. President. You’ve heard of collateral damage, right?

And the last word on funny JFK theories comes from great playwright David Mamet, and his wonderful movie WAG THE DOG: “Truth? What’s truth? I read the first version of the Warren Report. It said Kennedy was killed by a drunk driver.”

In keeping with the theme of laughter, let’s also remember today that Kennedy’s death should not be his defining characteristic: his life and his words should be. Here are a few of those to remember this still-vivid and fascinating man:

When asked by a young boy how he became a war hero: “It was absolutely involuntary. They sank my boat.”

When asked a long, rambling and technical question while he was lecturing in the Navy as a young lieutenant: “I’m very glad you asked that question. There’s a man coming in a few weeks who may be able to answer it.”

On a group of Nobel Prize winners at a White House dinner: “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House–with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Reading what he said was a telegram from his father at a 1960 press dinner, during the presidential campaign: “Jack–Don’t buy one vote more than you have to. I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay for a landslide.”

While Kevin Finn and I were writing Forward to Camelot, I experienced a great sense of loss when the final manuscript was sent to our publisher. It happened both in 2003, with the delivery of the original novel, and this past summer, on delivering the 50th Anniversary Edition to our new publisher, Drake Valley Press. Like many authors, I grew very close to my characters as we wrote, though in this case the characters I felt closest to were President Kennedy and Lee Oswald, each of them major players in the novel. For a day or so after delivering the manuscripts each time, I felt a sense of real loss, that those men who had perched on my shoulder for years during the writing were now receding from me.  As this 50th anniversary of the actual event arrives, I feel that same sense of loss–for who they were, for who they could have become, for what we could have become as well.

Rest in peace, Mr. President, and Lee.  We didn’t have you for long enough, but our world is better for your having been here.

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The JFK Assassination (#2) – November 22, 1963 Continued

In my first post on the JFK assassination last week (honoring the release of Forward to Camelot: 50th Anniversary Edition, which I co-authored with Kevin Finn), I discussed the events of the assassination itself–that tragic Friday in November 1963 that changed our world.

Today, let’s continue with those events–in which you may begin to see a disturbing pattern:

After the president was pronounced dead, Lyndon Johnson, now the new President, was hustled out of Parkland Hospital under heavy guard and taken back to Air Force One, still on the tarmac at Love Field. He immediately took steps to take the oath of office on the plane, calling an old friend, Judge Sarah Hughes, who lived in Dallas, and asking her to come to Love Field to administer the oath, calling a shell-shocked Bobby Kennedy in Washington to ask for the wording.

Meanwhile, Earl Rose, the County Coroner, was at Parkland Hospital insisting on doing an autopsy on JFK’s body, which was Texas law (it was not yet a federal crime to kill a president, so this was a standard homicide). But JFK’s Secret Service detail and some of his aides were so shocked and angry that they were in no mood to bend to Texas law. Their Commander-in-Chief had just been murdered, and they’d be damned if anyone would touch his body in Texas! Rose was (literally) shoved aside as they called for a local mortuary to deliver a casket. The president’s body was wrapped in a sheet (his blood-soaked clothes had been cut off in the operating room) and placed inside a heavy mahogany coffin. And over Rose’s continued protests (and he was legally in the right), the president’s men took the coffin back to Air Force One, where Jackie Kennedy insisted she would sit with it all the way to Washington. She was disturbed only once; when Sarah Hughes arrived to administer the oath, Lyndon Johnson requested Jackie’s presence at his swearing in. He also requested that photos be taken, and that the ceremony be recorded on tape (which it was). The famous photo of that ceremony (which we mention in Forward to Camelot) showed a solemn Johnson with a pious hand raised, another hand on a book (JFK’s own Catholic missal–prayer book–which was all they could find to use for the oath. We deal with this at length in the novel–it’s the lynch pin of our plot–though in the context of history, it’s a minor point.) Next to him stood Jackie, her eyes staring at nothing, blood still visible on her pink jacket (though Cecil Stoughton, the Army captain who took the photo, did all he could to minimize the bloodstains). It is one of the most haunting images of the day–the new president so eager to be sworn in that he can’t even wait to get back to Washington, insisting that the widow of the dead president witness the moment. Once the ceremony was over and the camera stopped clicking (and one disturbing photo shows LBJ with a big smile), Sarah Hughes left the plane and Air Force One lifted off for Washington. The Kennedy contingent sat with the coffin in the back of the plane, away from the Johnson people, who were hustling along busily at the front.

Back at Dealey Plaza, the site of the shooting, there was chaos. Horrified spectators, some of whom had hit the grass at the sounds of gunfire, were being questioned by police, after many had initially run up the hill now called the Grassy Knoll, hoping to nab a shooter behind the picket fence, where they had heard shots. A motorcycle cop named Marion Baker had run into the seven-story brick building at the corner of Houston and Elm Street, the Texas School Book Depository, looking for a shooter there, and after locating Roy Truly, the superintendent, ran into a young man in the second-floor employee lunchroom, very calm and drinking a coke. The young man was Lee Harvey Oswald, a new employee, and after Baker drew his gun and asked Truly if Oswald worked there and Truly said yes, they left Oswald alone.

Oswald left the building shortly afterward, still alone, and made his way by bus and cab to the rooming house where he was staying temporarily in Oak Cliff, a rundown residential section of Dallas. There he went into his tiny room, changed his shirt and picked up his revolver. His landlady heard a horn honking outside and saw a Dallas police car pulled up at the corner by her house. Oswald left the house and walked several blocks.

Some minutes later, a Dallas police officer named J.D. Tippit was patrolling in his police car near Tenth and Patton, where he stopped a man walking by, who leaned in and conversed with him for a minute through the window. As Tippit got out of the car, the man fired three shots at him, in front of several witnesses. Tippit was dead before he hit the ground. The man ran off. (Here’s where it gets confusing, because while some witnesses saw one man, others saw two, who split up and ran in different directions after the shooting.)

In any case, Oswald was spotted by a shoe salesman some minutes later on Jefferson Boulevard, not far from the site of the Tippit shooting. He was at the Texas Theater, where he did not stop to buy a ticket but just walked in. The shoe salesman called the police, and when the house lights went on in the theater, the salesman pointed out Oswald sitting alone in the audience. After a short scuffle (in which Oswald called frantically to the other people in the theater, “I am not resisting arrest! I am not resisting arrest!”), he was handcuffed, his face bruised, and led outside. He was taken to Dallas police headquarters, where word began to spread that he was the man who had murdered J.D. Tippit and likely, assassinated the president.

But disturbing contradictions were turning up. The Dallas police, all familiar with firearms, had found a weapon at the Texas School Book Depository, a rifle stamped “Mauser”, which all of them knew was a superior German rifle. However, within less than 24 hours, the police were reporting that the weapon found was a cheap, inaccurate Italian rifle, a Mannlicher-Carcano (which the FBI quickly found Oswald had bought by mail order earlier in the year). All trace of the “Mauser”–all mention of it–was suddenly hushed. And when the FBI ran the rifle through their world-class fingerprint lab, they could not find a print.

The witnesses at the Tippit shooting were also problematical. Their description of the gunman (or gunmen) did not come close to fitting Lee Harvey Oswald–though supposedly it was in response to that description that he had been picked up by police. Witnesses said the man firing the gun was short, heavy-set and in his 30’s. Oswald was 24 and very slender. To make matters worse, the cartridges the police found at the Tippit murder scene were made for a pistol. But Oswald owned a revolver, not a pistol. And even more peculiarly, the cartridges didn’t even match each other. Dallas PD Officer Poe, who marked them with his initials for the chain of evidence, could not find his initials on the cartridges he was shown later, which indicates they were not the cartridges recovered at the scene.

Oswald was interrogated at police headquarters for over 12 hours, but not one word was recorded (which meant none of it could be admissible in court later). When he was paraded in front of reporters his demeanor was calm, and instead of proclaiming his great deed in front of the world, he stubbornly maintained that he had not shot anyone and further, that he had nothing against Kennedy. When he was shown some of the evidence seized in a search of the garage where he had stored some of his belongings, he told the police that the photo of him holding a rifle and a pistol and dressed in black was a fake; it was his head pasted on someone else’s body.

Constantly present when Oswald was in public was a Dallas nightclub owner named Jack Ruby, who was well known to the Dallas police and liked to host them at his club, the Carousel. Footage available on YouTube shows Oswald being moved in and out of various rooms at police headquarters, with a man who looks a lot like Jack Ruby never far away.

Kennedy’s body was taken to Bethesda Naval Hospital for an official autopsy, but there too, strange things were happening. Orderlies saw different caskets brought in at different hospital entrances–one the expensive ceremonial coffin bought in Dallas, the other a cheap gray casket. The wrapping of the body was different, and most oddly, the doctors at the autopsy (and all those present in the room) saw an entirely different kind of head wound than the one described by a dozen doctors and nurses who attended Kennedy at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. (Check out David Lifton’s Best Evidence for more information on these strange anomalies, including the alarming possibility that JFK’s body was altered to make the wounds look different and more consistent with a single shooter than multiple shooters.)

The surreal weekend continued, with Oswald paraded in a bizarre police lineup where he was placed with teenage boys, which angered him. Who couldn’t pick him out of that group? (Among those who did was an hysterical woman named Helen Markham, who claimed to have talked to Officer Tippit for 20 minutes after he was shot. Since he was dead on impact, that must have been some conversation.)

On Sunday morning, as the world mourned and the president’s body was lying in state (where a quarter of a million people would file by to pay their respects), newsmen were notified that Oswald was finally going to be moved to the Dallas County Jail. Surrounded by police (and handcuffed to one), Oswald moved forward in the basement of Dallas Police Headquarters, where a car was waiting. TV cameras were rolling; the whole world was watching.

There was a sound of a car horn blaring, and suddenly a man leaped forward and fired. It was Jack Ruby, and that one shot smashed into Oswald’s stomach and dropped him at the scene. He was rushed to Parkland Hospital, where doctors tried to stabilize him, but the effort was hopeless. He was pronounced dead.

The president was dead. A Dallas police officer was dead. The accused assassin was dead, shot on live television in front of millions.

What the hell was going on?