By Donald H. Carpenter
This March marks the 50th anniversary of one of the great miscarriages of justice in US history: the persecution of Clay Shaw by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison.
It is an unprecedented and Byzantine saga by any standard. Today it may seem slightly less bizarre because the occupant of the Oval Office—like Garrison—is a conspiracy theorist and pathological liar, one who finds the likes of Roger Stone, Michael Levin, and Alex Jones significant and credible.
But the story ought to be recounted on this anniversary, if only as a reminder that what Richard Hofstadter memorably called the “paranoid style of politics” is not exclusive to the right. It has had—and continues to have—more than its share of purveyors, practitioners, and cheerleaders on the left.
Legend traces the genesis of Garrison’s probe back to a chance conversation in November 1966 between the DA and US Senator Russell Long (D-Louisiana), when they found themselves sitting next to each other on a commercial airline flight. Russell’s father, Louisiana Governor Huey Long, Jr. (D), had been assassinated in 1935, and the senator was skeptical of the Warren Report.
Since the report’s release in September 1964, dissatisfaction with the Warren Commission’s findings had been steadily mounting, with numerous books and articles questioning the accuracy of the panel’s conclusions appearing early in the fall. Although the precise date is unknown, it is accurate to say Garrison secretly began his investigation around the time of his encounter with Long. Their conversation either encouraged or precipitated the DA’s interest in the assassination.
The question of origin sometimes overlaps with the question of legitimacy. Some critics later maintained that Garrison only launched his probe to divert attention from an investigation by Life magazine (and other media) into organized crime’s influence in Louisiana. Others insist that Garrison had a genuine interest in the Kennedy assassination all along, and that it was the increasing number of publications critical of the Warren Report that incited the district attorney to exercise his almost unlimited power to launch an investigation.
Garrison began by picking up three already spent leads. One had to do with an oddball individual named David Ferrie who was a pilot, formerly employed by Eastern Airlines. Ferrie habitually made extreme political statements, and had been arrested a few years earlier for allegations of sexual activity with an underage male. Shortly after the assassination, a Ferrie acquaintance named Jack Martin alleged that Ferrie, who had gone to Texas just before the assassination, might have been the getaway pilot for accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. The FBI had interrogated both Martin and Ferrie in 1963, eventually dismissing the allegations as nothing more than the drunken rants of a man (Martin) who had an axe to grind with Ferrie. Three years later, Garrison decided to take another look at the story.