James Joyce once remarked that Rome reminded him of a man who made his living “by exhibiting to travelers his grandmother’s corpse.” It strikes me that this observation also applies to the commercial exploitation of President Kennedy’s assassination. After more than half a century no scrap of evidence is immune from being dislodged, mutilated, and reconstructed so as to fit more securely into the imaginative web of an aspiring conspiracy theorist. Did Oswald act alone? Was there a gunman on the grassy knoll? Did the doctors performing the autopsy alter the forensic evidence? Was Kennedy’s body transferred to another coffin? Was the assassination a right-wing military coup d’état “with Lyndon Johnson waiting in the wings”?
This last theory -- concocted by Oliver Stone for the movie JFK -- surpassed all previous efforts in combining ideological rigidity, factual manipulation, and commercial exploitation. The truthfulness of this assessment is open to any reader willing to peruse the writings of Gerald Posner (Case Closed), Brandeis Professor Jacob Cohen (“Yes, Oswald Alone Killed Kennedy,” June, 1992, Commentary) and finally the massive work of lawyer Vincent Bugliosi (Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy).
The sad fact is that the dead president has entered the marketplace as a salable item. His death is not a question of historical interest but an exploitable commodity that may be packaged with impunity. Is it really a desire to get at the truth that motivates the never-ending publication of conspiracy books and the periodic production of television specials commemorating that fateful November day?
Why, if the media are really interested in the truth, are most Americans ignorant of even the rudimentary facts about the case? When, for example, can you remember any prominent member of the Fourth Estate mentioning these critical facts: Oswald worked at the Texas book depository; eyewitnesses actually saw someone shoot at the motorcade from the sixth floor of the building; a witness 110 feet from the window provided police a description that fit Oswald quite well; no one else was with Oswald at the time of the shooting; Oswald had arranged book cartons to create a shooting blind by the sixth floor window; most aural witnesses heard three shots; Oswald (who didn’t drive and regularly hitched a ride to work) told his co-worker that he had some “curtain rods” wrapped in the brown paper he carried with him that morning; that brown paper, three cartridge cases, and a recently fired rifle were all found on the sixth floor of the book depository building; the rifle had been mail-ordered by Oswald a few months earlier; Oswald alone left the building after the assassination and later murdered a police officer in front of several eyewitness; Oswald kept an “Historic Diary” that made clear his radical political views and mental instability; a few months earlier Oswald had attempted to assassinate General Edwin Walker, a fervent anti-Communist and former Texas gubernatorial candidate; four years earlier Oswald left the United States for the Soviet Union only to return in 1962; by the time of the Kennedy assassination Oswald, who was separated from his Russian wife, had become a great fan of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
I could go on and on. I mention only a few highlights from the mountain of evidence that convinced three government committees that Oswald alone killed the president. The sad conclusion to which I must come is that most people involved in the mass dissemination of information are not really interested in these facts. That includes the bogus 1978 House Select Committee on Assassinations a majority of whom “concluded” (based solely on ridiculously subjective audio evidence from an open police motorcycle microphone) that there were four, not three, shots fired -- and thus, a second gunman.
Former assistant counsel for the Warren Commission, David Belin, provided a plethora of objections to this committee’s findings, noting that there was only one place where people actually saw a gunman and that was the School Book Depository. Furthermore, though many witnesses thought a shot or shots were fired from the grassy knoll in front of the presidential motorcade, no weapon or gun shells were ever found in that area. Thus, Belin noted ironically, we have a gunman that no one ever saw who fired a single bullet from only 100 to 125 feet away that not only missed the president but also missed the entire limousine.
As for the acoustical evidence so valued by the Democrat-led committee, Belin observed that the tape contained the sound of chimes, which aren’t in Dealey Plaza, but failed to include the sound of motorcycles speeding off to Parkland Hospital or the sound of police sirens, both of which should have been there. Finally, Belin pointed out that every microphone in the presidential motorcade was on Channel 2, while the tape in question was on Channel 1. All of this evidence supports the contention of the Dallas Police that the open-microphone chopper wasn’t even in Dealey Plaza in the first place -- a conclusion buttressed by several subsequent expert panels that thoroughly debunked this acoustical Rorschach data. But what does evidence matter when a congressional committee wishes to keep conspiracy dreams alive that years later would be blown to gargantuan proportions by Oliver Stone. The unpalatable alternative would be that JFK was killed, in Jackie Kennedy’s despondent words, by “some silly little communist.”
In George Orwell’s 1984, the Ministry of Information constantly rewrote history to fit the party’s ideological requirements. Our reality is more crass. History today has become a victim of both ideology and the marketplace. Truth and decency are the casualties. In such a society lusting for conspiracies, some people are obviously slain in perpetuity.