JFK Assassination Theorists

There was a time when almost any hip person could discuss, in impressively minute detail, the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy and the dense tangle of conspiracy theory that has sprouted around it. As the decades roll on, and more people grow up who don't remember where they were on that dreadful day - because they were in training pants or were merely hypothetical constructs - this stand-up folk art is vanishing. Now it's needed again. Oliver Stone's JFK has heaved into view like a controversy juggernaut, giving you a difficult choice. Namely, do you hunker down, hide from it, and hope the storm passes quickly? Or do you make a frenzied attempt to get up to speed argumentatively? Normally option one is the way to go; this is what I do following the release of every summer's "explosive" Spike Lee film or any cultural outcropping - such as When Harry Met Sally... or You Just Don't Understand - that deals bravely, frankly, or honestly with men, women, and relationships.

But that won't work this time. Forget for a moment that several thousand thoughtful newspaper columnists are fond of the assassination's haunting resonance in American life, and simply note the fact that the movie has arrived at holiday time. That means lots of party jabber, which places you at risk of proximity to, or one-on-one confrontations with, windbags who "know" everything about the case. Do you really want to stand there, mute, powerless, your teeth grinding, your spirit collapsing down to singularity, as might-as-well-be-Greek facts, opinions, and declarations assault your joyousness?

"We know Nixon was in Dallas for a Pepsi-Cola board meeting on the weekend of the slaying, and that he lied about it...."

"Eyewitnesses at Bethesda say at least two caskets arrived that night...."
"Ultimately, JFK was felled by the very demons his policies created."
"There was a coup d'etat in America...."

No. Young people who like to be topically prepared need primers, while old-timers need a review. Okay. But hundreds of books on the subject exist. Which ones are must-reads? Which are nutto? Who can you believe? That depends on who you ask. As the first step in my cramming regimen, I lobbed those questions at two dozen currently active assassination buffs and received at least that many answers. Consider this array of views from three generations of sleuths, which starkly illustrates the weird elusiveness of "truth" in this subject area:

Harold Weisberg - at 78 a patriarch among anti-Warren Report hecklers - is author of the four-volume Whitewash series and Post Mortem: JFK Assassination Cover-up Smashed - delivered a message of gloom and warning. Twenty-eight years into this, the basement of his rural home near Frederick, Maryland, is crowded by 60 file cabinets groaning with documents pertaining to the JFK case - many boosted from the federals by his lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act filings. Weisberg is convinced today that the official cover-up muddied the waters so thoroughly that the truth will never be known. He's sure there was a conspiracy. But he's also sure that many of his colleagues are sloppy sensationalists - "nuts," he calls them - who leapfrog the evidence and engage in unsupportable speculation. If you want facts, he says, study his work and that of the late, great Sylvia Meagher (Accessories After the Fact, 1967, a blistering attack on the Report). Do not believe Stone. (It was Weisberg who, as part of his own counterattack against the version of reality being promulgated in JFK, leaked a copy of the script to the Washington

Post's George Lardner Jr. last spring. Lardner proceeded to trash it, for reasons we will return to.) Be especially leery of two books Stone optioned as source material - Jim Garrison's On the Trail of the Assassins and Jim Marrs's Crossfire. On the Trail is a 1988 memoir by the former New Orleans district attorney who, in the late Sixties, indicted and tried but failed to convict an alleged assassination co-conspirator. (Garrison's story provides JFK's dramatic framework.) Crossfire summarizes 25 years of research into the case. Weisberg says both are junk, so JFK - as he phrased it in an angry June 3 letter to Stone - amounts to "a Mack Sennett producing a Keystone Kops with a Pink Panther star making a Mardi gras of one of the greatest of our national tragedies."

In September, during a lengthy indoctrination session near his home in Fort Worth, I told Jim Marrs - a friendly, bearded, veteran journalist - what Weisberg said about him. He graciously responded that Weisberg is, no doubt about it, one of the greats. But he's flawed. All those years of noodling in the documents have rendered him "unable to see the entire mosaic." Thus, theory-wise, he comes up short. The fact is, says Marrs, almost 30 years of research "have proved the basic facts of the conspiracy," which, he insists, involved the highest levels of the United States government and the power elite. Sure, neophytes ought to mainain healthy skepticism about that claim - Crossfire opens with a plea to the reader not to put blind faith in any one source when it comes to this most Byzantine of subjects - but fundamentally they should trust the case made by the men and women who have "done the digging." Marrs advises you to start with the best of the recent books, which reveal far more than works by the early buffs. Crossfire, for one, and Anthony Summers's Conspiracy. Don't waste time with the Warren Report, even as a starting point. It's a Big Lie that will only confuse you.

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