JFK 50 Years Later: It’s Still … Means, Motive and Opportunity

NEW SLAUGHTERWith the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination comes a lot of predictable commentary.

We’re getting the inevitable re-resurgence of Camelot-era hagiography. “Oh, the glamour!” “Oh, the grace!” “They were our royalty!”, “They were so rich and so beautiful!” Likewise we’re enduring the usual musty, journalistic eulogizing about the immensity of the tragedy and how it was a “turning point” for American culture, our “loss of innocence”, the beginning of our distrust of authority, etc. Ditto another round of conclusive-sounding assertions of the veracity of Warren Commission’s ruling on who-dunnit, assertions that, like the Commission itself, seek to reassure us in the absence of any kind of real certainty.

I was 12 when Kennedy was killed and as stunned as everyone else. (The old Vaughn Meader comedy record was a staple at the Lambert boyhood manse.) A lot of people were still on edge after the previous autumn’s Cuban missile crisis, so word that the accused/likely assassin was a “communist sympathizer” … kicking around 1963 Dallas … had almost everyone fighting back fears of another nuclear showdown.

… and then Jack Ruby killed “the killer.”

I watched it happen that Sunday morning and when it was announced that Oswald had died my first thought was, “Now we’ll never know why he did it.” And we don’t. And there are good reasons to believe that’s why Ruby did what he did.

Respectable, responsible journalism venues, your Time and Life magazines, your New York Times and Washington Posts and your network newsrooms have accepted Oswald as the assassin since the moment he was collared in the Texas Theater. I’d like to say that appropriate, intense skepticism was applied at some point over the past 50 years, but I really can’t. Oswald has always been the one and only.

In my personal experience, discussions with other journalists on the minutiae of JFK killing have been a bit underwhelming. Few if any could explain what Arlen Specter’s Magic Bullet Theory was all about. Most had heard of it, but after that their eyes got pretty glazey. And the glaze got even thicker once I wandered off the plantation and started talking … means, motive and opportunity.

Mainstream journalism runs on conventional wisdom, and after the Jim Garrison meltdown in New Orleans in 1967 every theory counter to the Warren Commission’s became professionally toxic. The accepted default in newsrooms was, and remains, that Oswald acted alone, the government said so, it’s yesterday’s news  … let’s move on. To suggest you remained skeptical, to suggest that the 24 year-old Oswald’s associations in  New Orleans and Dallas were exceedingly odd and that there were parties with far — far — higher levels of … means, motive and opportunity … who might find it useful to manipulate a guy like Oswald was/is pretty much like saying, “I just saw Elvis, Janis and Jim Morrison land a flying saucer in front of the White House.”

So, about 20 years ago, or soon after Oliver Stone’s loony-but-provocative “JFK”, I finally let it go. I’ve rarely talked about it since. Certainty will never be achieved. I’m not interested in convincing anyone of anything. Believe what you want. The ratio of skepticism-to-acceptance we have today is, I’m guessing, pretty much what it’ll be 500 years from now. Moreover, it no longer matters. Where maybe something could still have been accomplished 10 years after the assassination, or even 15 — when the House Select Committee on Assassinations asserted that there was a conspiracy, and even ID’d those with means, motive and opportunity — at 50 years out the horses have long since left the corral and been reduced to glue.

G. Robert Blakey, counsel to the 1978 House Committee has often said that the JFK murder has become a kind of Rorschach test for those looking at it. What we see is in many ways more illuminative of our individual prejudices and beliefs than the reality of the event itself.  There’s a hard truth in that, that I accept.

Just as I accept that I’ll remain a skeptic of the Warren Commission theory for a long time to come.

Without re-litigating the whole case, here’s why:

Over the years CBS, ABC and most recently PBS’s NOVA have argued in favor of the Commission’s view based on the only aspect of the crime testable by science — namely the forensics of the shooting in conjunction with the Zapruder film. Each has hired experts, staged reconstructions, fired rifles, extracted bullets and established in ways that would be convincing in any courtroom that it is possible for one bullet to do everything Arlen Specter and the Commission said it did.

… and each therefore concluded that … Oswald did it.

To which I always say … wait a minute.

It’s one thing to make a case that it is possible for one man to have done all the damage recorded on camera (and in the mangled autopsy) and a whole other thing to say that man was Lee Oswald. But the two are almost invariably mashed together as inseparable conclusions … based on a problematic palm print on the rifle found stashed at the Book Depository and the circumstantial evidence collected and vetted by the Commission.

Comedian-actor Richard Belzer (“Homicide”, “Law and Order: SVU”) has had a second career for years as a kind of Howard Zinn  of contemporary American politics. He has churned out several books on the JFK hit and when interviewed invariably returns to one moment that for him most undermines the Oswald-as-shooter scenario (as well the Commission’s choice of who and what evidence to accept as most accurate). The moment was when a Dallas motorcycle cop dropped his bike in front of the Book Depository seconds after the motorcade gunned it for Parkland hospital, ran in, yelled for the boss, a guy named Roy Truly, and ordered him to accompany him upstairs. Upon reaching the second floor cafeteria they encountered a guy at a vending machine. The cop asked Truly to identify the man, which Truly did as Oswald, an employee, and they continued on up.

What it means is that within 90 seconds of shooting … the President of the United States, kind of big deal for which a person might both be (and look) a little excited, a not so great a marksman has run across to the opposite end of the sixth floor, stashed the rifle behind some boxes, run down four flights of stairs, dropped coins in a vending machine and appeared composed and unflustered when confronted by a cop. While the speed required to accomplish those actions hasn’t been recreated without signs of obvious exertion, I suspect it is, like other aspects of the Commission’s case possible under a certain set of circumstances.

But it is means, motive and opportunity that carries the day for me. Oswald barely had the first (a for-shit rifle and very limited skills as a marksman), is deep into dime store psychology on the second (“he was a nobody who wanted to be a somebody”) and, were it not for his second floor cafeteria appearance, has indisputable credibility only on the third. He was employed right there on the motorcade route.

As Daniel Schorr, the bete noir of the Nixon White House once told me when I asked about his interest in the JFK killing, “I like stories that are ascertainable”, which the JFK saga most definitely is not. The unascertainable, reputation-sullying quagmire of every theory other than the Warren Commission’s may explain why so few news organizations have aggressively pursued the most tantalizing of the “means, motive and opportunity” angles.

Oliver Stone lost me with his “LBJ gave them their damn [Vietnam] war” angle. Not even in 1963’s subservient media culture would there be a way to keep chatter of an assassination cabal from leaking out of government offices. Governments keep paper records (and recordings). Every reporter has sources of some sort within or close to the CIA and the White House. Ascertainability is possible.

Not so with organized crime.

If you want a practicing, professional journalist to glaze over in disdain, bring up the role of the mob in anything that went on in 1963 or even today. As limited as my press colleagues’ knowledge has been on the topic of JFK forensics, the first mention of Carlos Marcello and the mob always has them scanning over my head for an emergency escape. Since almost none of them has even heard of Marcello, the longtime head of the New Orleans mob … I’m another whacked out “grassy knoller” counting UFOs in the Rose Garden.

I have found very few journalists who know that Bobby Kennedy, prior to becoming Attorney General vowed and immediately upon being sworn in made a top priority of throwing Marcello out of the country … and that he actually did it. RFK literally had Marcello kidnapped off the streets of New Orleans and dumped in Guatemala, simultaneous with an unprecedented, coordinated effort to take down his sprawling operation … which besides the usual racketeeering included seedy strip clubs across the South and Texas. In fact, the 1978 House Committee specifically ID’d Marcello, along with Jimmy Hoffa and Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana as people with … means, motive and opportunity to kill JFK.

But — a reality check here — no ink-stained newsroom beat reporter does ascertainment on the Mob. As I say, to follow the news even today you’d be inclined to believe organized crime has ceased functioning in the United States … a turn of events which truly would make us exceptional in human history. Crime kingpins are brown, scarfaced, moustachioed guys like Pablo Escobar. They operate in sweaty Latin American countries. Based on the lack of reporting we could easily believe they have no peers within our borders. No stateside kingpins. Just street level distributors like Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale in “The Wire”.

More to the point in the JFK era, it was the official view of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI that organized crime was a non-factor in the United States, a view that infuriated Bobby Kennedy especially since the FBI’s “investigations” of Marcello’s New Orleans operations were consistently misdirected and thwarted.

For me this is, ironically, the Occam’s Razor phase of the story.

In order to accept that Oswald acted alone you have to ignore/outright dismiss his very strange associations with Dallas’ very right-wing “White Russian” community and the crowd he assorted with in New Orleans, as well as his lack of expertise as a marksman, his jailhouse assertion that “I’m just the patsy” [an interested choice of words] and accept as his motivation that he was … suffering from low self-esteem. It’s not what you call a neat scenario.

By stark contrast, in the Marcello-driven version of events you have a bona fide, serious-as-a-heart attack adversary, requiring by far the fewest assumptions to reach a conclusion … if …  if it is a conclusion you’re comfortable making.

Means: Organized crime, should you choose to believe it exists, has professionals it can call upon to kill anyone. (Ask Whitey Bulger’s FBI compatriots.) And you don’t need an Oliver Stone-sized conspiracy. Just maybe a half dozen guys doing what they do.

Motive: Not only is this little prick Bobby Kennedy coming after one of the leaders of the American mob in that era, he’s a damned Kennedy who appears to have forgotten all the business the Mob and his father did back in the day. Getting harassed and dumped in Guatemala is not a way you treat friends. More to the point, by hitting the brother, you neuter the Attorney General.

Opportunity:  Open car. Parade. Plenty of cover … and a chump, set up to think he’s a player in some spy game, primed not only to take the fall, but be killed off in quick order. (By the mobbed-up owner of a seedy strip club … who did it, we are asked to believe, in order to spare poor Jackie Kennedy a return to Texas for Oswald’s trial.) The hand-the-cops-the-dead-patsy ploy is classic mob architecture. Plus, as a plot, it understands quite well the cultural climate of that era. The “communist sympathizer” angle virtually guarantees  that responsible elder statesmen like Gerald Ford, CIA Director Allen Dulles, segregationist poster boy Richard Russell, and all-purpose Cold War counselor John McCloy will see the peril of super-power confrontation and gravitate to the lone, glory-seeking-nut explanation, which is infinitely easier to make with that particular guy dead.

Also, should there be even the faintest interest in pursuing an organized crime angle, those same statesmen will quickly appreciate that an aggressive mob inquiry means a wholesale re-write of the “fallen King of Camelot” narrative, with the shocked public getting a highly disillusioning education in how Joseph Kennedy made his fortune and how cozy the sexually compulsive JFK was with the seamier side of the show biz-Vegas interface. Bobby Kennedy seemed to grasp the dilemma.

Given the low likelihood that courtroom-worthy evidence would ever to spill out of the mob — no files, no recordings, and no witnesses — the choice for the Commission was actually pretty easy. Build a credible-enough case that sets the long-dead Oswald as the lone shooter, calm the country, let everyone mourn and savor a fallen hero and move on. It’s what patriarchal leaders are supposed to do.

But as Rorschach tests go … this version of the story paints an exceedingly different view of the United States than most people care to entertain.