11 Seconds in Dallas, Dealey Plaza, Elm Street, forensic metallurgy, Forensic Metallurgy Associates, Frank DeRonja, House Select Committee on Assassinations, HSCA, James Tague, Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald, Lyndal Shaneyfelt, Max Holland, Position A, Robert Frazier, shooting reconstruction, Warren Commission, Warren Report, Zapruder film
As Air Force One carried John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline on that short hop from Fort Worth to Dallas on November 22, 1963, the president turned to her and made a never-forgotten comment on this last morning of his life. “We’re heading into nut country today,” he said. In his hands the frowning young president held the infamous full-page, black-bordered advertisement in that day’s Dallas Morning News, an ad that effectively labeled him a communist. In Nut Country, author Edward H. Miller portrays those Dallas “nuts” and, as his subtitle elaborates, poses a provocative connection: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy.
Who knew that those nuts, in all their conspiratorial notions, foreshadowed the so-called “Southern strategy” that Richard M. Nixon followed to achieve his razor-thin victory in 1968 (Barry Goldwater having laid the groundwork four years earlier). Miller, beginning with those 1963 nuts and their antics, carries the story to the next level—how these conservatives (well, ultra-conservatives) transformed the beliefs of so many Dallasites into ballot box victories, and set a pattern for GOP successes throughout the once-Democratic Solid South that persists to this day, it’s latest permutation being the Tea Party.
First, let’s remind ourselves of a few of those best-known nuts who were making national headlines from Dallas in the early ‘60s. Army Major General Edwin A. Walkermoved to the more hospitable clime of Dallas after resigning under pressure from his military commission because he introduced an ultra-conservative program to his troops and urged them to read John Birch Society literature. Fundamentalist preacher W. A. Criswell, pastor of Dallas’s huge First Baptist Church (the Rev. Billy Graham was a proud member), said, among other things, that the election of a Catholic president would bring an end to religious freedom in America. The famous and wealthy oilman H. L. Hunt’s crude novel Alpaca advocated giving extra votes to those who paid the most taxes, and he sponsored numerous ultra-conservative broadcast programs and publications. Bruce Alger became in 1954 the first Republican congressman from Texas in many years, and was the only representative to vote against the school lunch program for children, calling it “socialized milk” (the measure passed by a 348 to 1 vote). Dallas Morning News publisher Edward M. “Ted” Dealey, at a White House reception, told President Kennedy to get off Caroline’s tricycle and act like a real man on horseback. Frank McGehee, founder of the rabidly anti-communist National Indignation Committee, packed the auditorium with zealots when UN ambassador Adlai Stevenson spoke on UN Day in 1963, attempted to keep him from speaking, and assaulted him afterwards in the parking lot. Less than a month later the president was assassinated a few blocks away.
These ’60s extremists shared a fundamentalist belief in the literal interpretation of the Bible as a guide for contemporary politics, and they didn’t hesitate to say so. Racist convictions were sometimes blatant but often semi-disguised in coded language. Inevitably, there was an unquestioned acceptance of the inherent wisdom of unfettered private enterprise, and a universal belief that states’ rights were being usurped by a power-hungry federal government. A widely-held conviction was that Earl Warren and his Supreme Court were usurping traditional American values (remember the “Impeach Earl Warren” signs along the highways?). If that sounds like an earlier version of Ted Cruz’s political platform, ‘tis no accident. Cruz is a lineal descendant of Walker and Alger, Dealey and McGehee.
Several factors made “Big D” especially receptive to ultra-conservative politics. In the 1952 presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson took the side of the federal government in contending that oil-rich tidelands off the coast of Texas belonged to the nation instead of the state. The Republican candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower, favored state ownership. This issue was the proverbial last straw that prompted Texas Governor Allan Shivers to bolt from the party of Jefferson and Jackson; he was joined by a majority of Texans in both the 1952 and 1956 presidential elections, thus bringing an end to Texas’s role as a certain Democratic vote in the electoral college. Another milestone occurred when new President Lyndon B. Johnson revealed that he was no conservative when it came to civil rights, greatly hastening the exit of conservatives from the Democratic Party and to an embrace of the newly revived and increasingly right-wing GOP. Still, it took decades for the Texas’s transformation to filter down to state and local races.
Still, the headline-makers of the late ‘50s and ‘60s generally lacked the organizational abilities or aptitudes to create a political strategy capable of producing votes at the ballot box. When the aforementioned Walker ran for the governorship in 1962, he finished a dismal sixth in the Democratic primary won by John Connally. How was political ascension precisely achieved in Dallas? The more difficult but less visible business of translating an ideology into electoral victories would be left to others. Their names do not ring bells for today’s readers, but they are aptly described by Miller.
Barry Goldwater, Bruce Alger, Dallas, Darwin Payne, Dealey Plaza, Edward H. Miller, Edwin A. Walker, GOP, H. L. Hunt, John Birch Society, John Connally, John Tower, Kennedy assassination, Nut Country, Peter J. O'Donnell, Richard Bass, Richard Nixon, Rita Bass, Robert J. Morris, Southern strategy, Ted Cruz, Ted Dealey, W. A. Criswell
A key indicator of where David Talbot is going in his portrait of CIA Director Allen W. Dulles comes from his treatment of C. Wright Mills and Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Mills was a Columbia University sociologist whose 1956 book, The Power Elite, caused a minor sensation in the seemingly placid ‘50s. Liberal and conservative scholars alike depicted the American political process as a balancing act among competing interests, which included big business, organized labor, farmers, and professional groups. But Mills, as Talbot notes approvingly, did not believe such a perspective was “adequate even as an approximate model of how the American system of power works.” Instead, Mills posited a Marxist-lite critique that presented governance in the United States as an elaborate conspiracy theory of unaccountable elites. He argued that corporate, military, and governmental leaders worked hand-in-glove solely to enrich and empower themselves and the institutions they headed, and cast doubt on the belief that the United States was some version of a democracy.
How did presidents—America’s nominal leaders—fit into this system of elite control? According to the Millisian analysis, Eisenhower’s prime directive was to preserve an elite that benefited from a “permanent war economy.” That would seem to be at odds with Ike’s famous parting shot, in which he warned Americans that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist . . . . Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.” Perhaps that portion of Eisenhower’s nationally-televised farewell address from January 1961 was a gaffe, which Michael Kinsley famously defined as a politician accidentally telling the truth.
Much more often, according to Talbot, President Eisenhower acted the role of an amiable dunce who followed the diktats of the power elite. Ike had been “a peace-loving warrior” during the great global conflict of the previous decade, but by the time he sought the presidency in 1952 he was an “aging general,” well-meaning perhaps but subject to manipulation and oftentimes just plain clueless. He obligingly took orders from the “Dulles-Dewey group” (a combination brain trust and bank consisting of future CIA Director Allen, his brother and future Secretary of State John Foster, and former GOP presidential nominee Thomas Dewey). These were the men, for example, who “tapped [Richard] Nixon for vice president.”
Unfortunately, as in so many episodes related in the book, the true story is at odds with Talbot’s invented version. After the GOP convention nominated Eisenhower, Herbert Brownell, Ike’s campaign manager (who would become attorney general), told Eisenhower the time had come to select a running mate. After ruminating for awhile, the nominee handed his short list to Brownell, who then consulted leading Republican pols, including Dewey, but not the Dulleses. How Nixon got picked is recounted in an exhaustively researched new book about Eisenhower and Nixon, The President and His Apprentice, by Irwin F. Gellman.
Talbot goes on to assert that during the eight-year Eisenhower presidency, no one in the administration—not even Ike himself—matched the Dulles brothers in power. In particular, the president is depicted as knowing shockingly little about what Allen Dulles and the CIA were up to, while lacking the intelligence and energy to insist on knowing. These portraits of Ike and the Dulleses are a graphic novel (comic book) rendering of the national and international politics of the 1950s, and not in a good way. The charge that Eisenhower was an amiable dunce is an old and political one, dating back to the time he was still in office. Eisenhower was so popular and scandal-free that Democrats had little choice but to claim he was more interested in playing golf than running the country. While researching The CIA and Congress, the majority of which dealt with the Eisenhower era, I saw some episodes of an out-of-touch Ike, especially during the last few years of his White House tenure, which were illness-plagued. But there was more frequent evidence of a shrewd political figure. It may be going a tad too far to claim that Eisenhower’s was a “hidden-hand” presidency, a revisionist argument political scientist Fred Greenstein first put forward in 1982. But the five-star general surely was not a cipher.
Talbot’s book, of course, really purports to be an expose about Allen Dulles’s directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency. Here there are serious problems, rooted in a number of bad choices by the author. Among them:
Ray Locker’s book is a disappointment. He obviously invested a great deal of time reading primary documents and listening to presidential recordings, the kind of basic research that is critical to any insightful account of the Nixon presidency. Unfortunately, Locker then mixed primary source material with highly dubious secondary sources, thereby casting doubt on the integrity of the entire work.
Nixon’s Gamblebegins promisingly. Locker accurately describes Richard Nixon’s proclivity for secrecy and his divide-and-conquer strategy to marginalize institutions that he did not trust: the State Department, in particular, but also the military and the Central Intelligence Agency. Nixon’s mishandling of these stakeholders caused an unprecedented reaction, particularly in the Pentagon. For more than a year, the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s liaison office at the National Security Council purloined documents containing information that was not being shared by the president and his equally secretive national security adviser.
Little about this story of secret back-channels and severe institutional jockeying is particularly new, though Locker does a commendable job of pulling together the strands and putting it all in context. Nixon had good reason, of course, to worry about leaks and their impact on his bold but surreptitious initiatives with respect to China and the Vietnam war. The clandestine negotiations that led to the China breakthrough, and the back-channel meetings in Paris with the North Vietnamese, could have been endangered by an unregulated flow of information to the press. And, of course, there is nothing really unique about presidents keeping secrets, especially in the realm of national security. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt famously said that he never let his right hand know what his left hand was doing. Given that Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the national security advisor, were trying to end U.S. involvement in a war and simultaneously triangulate relations with the Soviet Union and China, they cannot be blamed for obsessing, to a degree, over the secrecy of their initiatives.
Bob Woodward, Deep Throat, E. Howard Hunt, G. Gordon Liddy, J. Edgar Hoover, James Robenalt, Jeb Magruder, John Dean, John Ehrlichman, John Mitchell, Ray Locker, Richard Nixon, Richard Nixon, W. Mark Felt, Washington Post, Watergate, William Sullivan
Tim Weiner, winner of a National Book Award for Legacy of Ashes (2007), a history of the CIA, and a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, has turned his attention to Richard Nixon in the scathing One Man Against the World. Because of the continuing release of tape recordings, telcons, and other primary sources—a gift to historians that keeps on giving—Nixon books remain a flourishing cottage industry. Just this publishing season, Weiner has been joined by Evan Thomas (Being Nixon) and Irwin Gellman (The President and the Apprentice) who also promise new interpretations in part because of recently declassified or underused sources.
Whereas Thomas’s biography is balanced and Gellman’s history of Nixon’s vice presidency tilts toward a favorable conclusion, Weiner’s view of Nixon’s presidency is a Shakespearean horror story of mendacity, criminality, and paranoia. It is well-written and often thrilling, but for many it will be overkill. Allowing the main characters to speak for themselves, thanks in good measure to the tapes, the author appears to have mined his sources, many of which have been released over the past decade, for the most inflammatory and shocking conversations. Indeed, virtually all of his endnotes refer to the rich collections of primary sources—he rarely cites secondary sources and there is no bibliography. (Disclaimer—I am one of those who enjoys seeing his books cited).
Despite Weiner’s ostensible reliance on primary sources, and notwithstanding the publisher’s extravagant claims for the book, there is little or nothing that is new here. Most of his seemingly original findings have appeared elsewhere, though uncredited.
The controversy over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s extant and missing emails briefly put long-time Clinton advisor Sidney Blumenthal back in the news, with more surely to come after June 16. That is the day when Blumenthal is scheduled to testify before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which is investigating the deaths of US ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on 11 September 2012. It turns out that Blumenthal, Hillary’s “Svengali-like confidant since the 1990s,” advised the secretary on Libya.
Decades have passed since Andrew Sullivan rightly termed Blumenthal “the most pro-Clinton writer on the planet,” capable of making Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Kennedy-worship look downright tame by comparison. And it has been many years since Blumenthal’s less savory turn as a White House aide, speechwriter, in-house intellectual, press corps whisperer, and compiler of dossiers on aggressive reporters during the Bill Clinton’s second term. Consequently, news organizations felt compelled to remind their audiences of Blumenthal’s résumé: as NPR’s Ron Elving put it, “Who Is Clinton Confidant Sidney Blumenthal?”
Oddly, one salient fact was invariably missing from these profiles. While they often noted (as did the National Review and Bloomberg) that Blumenthal’s penchant for conspiracy theories had once earned him the nickname “Grassy Knoll” inside the White House, the fact is Blumenthal’s moniker is not figurative, but literal. Four decades ago, Blumenthal was not only in league with JFK assassination buffs who claimed shots were fired from the proverbial grassy knoll—he also argued earnestly that “the reason the hopes of the ‘60s were not realized was because a group of people at the top made certain they were dashed.”
Assassination Information Bureau, Bill Clinton, Bob Katz, Carl Oglesby, Clay Shaw, David Lifton, Government By Gunplay, Harvey Yazijian, Hillary Clinton, House Select Committee on Assassinations, House Select Committee on Benghazi, Jeff Gerth, Jim Garrison, Kennedy assassination, Mark Lane, Oliver Stone, Ralph Schoenman, Sidney Blumenthal, Sylvia Meagher, Warren Commission, Warren Report, Zapruder film
Private Equity at Work: When Wall Street Manages Main Street Eileen Appelbaum & Rosemary Batt Russell Sage Foundation. 381 pp. $35
By Alan Tonelson
If Private Equity at Work gets the large audience it deserves, great times should be in store for America’s public relations industry. Eileen Appelbaum and Rosemary Batt’s exhaustive study of the private equity sector and its impact on the US economy gives these often high-flying investors the kind of black eyes that typically produce a stampede to image-makers like Kekst and Company.
Bad enough are many of the relatively familiar concerns the authors meticulously document about this part of the nation’s virtually unregulated shadow banking system. Has anyone who follows the economy or finance, even as a layperson, not heard of the hits often absorbed by workers and communities when companies are bought and sold solely for short-term gains through leveraged buyouts, the dominant manifestation of private equity? And the casino-like nature of these (and many other types of) transactions often have been portrayed as a central flaw of American-style capitalism, especially with the economy still struggling to emerge from a financial crisis and recession triggered by fast-buck finance.
Much more striking, and less well known, is all the evidence presented by the authors exposing private equity as a failure even by the Darwinian standards its companies favor and indeed claim to embody. As Appelbaum and Batt make abundantly clear, the sector flunks numerous major tests of free market virtue. Private equity’s overall returns for investors are sub-par. Its activities often have nothing to do with turning around floundering companies. Its operations tend to be as transparent as a burka. And a major source of returns and earnings for its own general partners and staff stem directly from favors arguably bought with Washington lobbying—most prominently, the tax code’s favorable treatment of debt financing for takeover activity, and lucrative earnings from so-called “carried interest” as lightly-taxed dividend income. The carried interest discount allows financial engineers to avoid paying millions in income taxes.
The combination of humdrum performance (for sky-high fees) and opacity helps produce one of the most stunning revelations of Private Equity at Work: The sector’s victims include not only displaced (and often blindsided) workers and ravaged local tax bases, but many of those who invest in private equity firms themselves. And inside this irony is another that the authors face squarely and admirably, given their unmistakably progressive political orientation: Public employee union pension plans are among the biggest of these private equity investors.
The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy Larry J. Sabato Bloomsbury. 603 pp. $30
By David Reitzes
Evaluating a president’s place in history, even with the benefit of hindsight, is seldom easy. Applying the proper perspective to as iconic a figure as John F. Kennedy has proven well-nigh impossible. From the instant his presidency was cut short by a burst of gunfire fifty years ago, mythology has overwhelmed reality.
Any historian who tackles this subject is therefore, by definition, audacious. But Larry J. Sabato is doubly so. To his ever-lasting credit, Sabato believes Kennedy’s term in office, the assassination, and the aftermath are an indivisible historical whole and must be written about as such.
. . . [I]t is impossible to understand the Kennedy legacy without understanding the assassination—the sequence of events, as well as what most Americans think happened and why. Millions have never been, and will never be, satisfied with the official findings of two separate government inquiries—not least because the inquiries came to opposite conclusions on the critical question of conspiracy. The assassination dictated that JFK would not have the time create a full record and make his whole claim on history. For fifty years the unfinished record of the man and his presidency has stirred Americans as they mourned an unconscionable loss and wondered what might have been. This “ghost legacy” is as powerful as the real one.
This is a bracing change from the approach of most historians who have written about Kennedy, whose tendency has been to treat the assassination as an unwanted complication. Of course, it is not easy to write about an event that remains a controversial mystery to so many, with a majority of Americans consistently believing that the truth about it has never been told Consequently, it’s not unusual to see historians handle the subject rather dismissively, as Robert Dallek did in An Unfinished Life:
Despite an authoritative 1993 book, Case Closed, by attorney Gerald Posner refuting numerous conspiracy theories, the public, inflamed by a popular 1991 Oliver Stone film, JFK, believed otherwise . . . . The fact that none of the conspiracy theorists have been able to offer convincing evidence of their suspicions does not seem to trouble many people. The plausibility of a conspiracy is less important to them than the implausibility of someone as inconsequential as Oswald having the wherewithal to kill someone as consequential . . . as Kennedy.
Despite Sabato’s willingness to undertake the necessary task of making history whole again, The Kennedy Half-Century is a great disappointment. Sabato’s in-depth treatment of the assassination is precisely where the book falters. The author often ends up sounding more like a fevered assassination buff, pandering to popular, uninformed opinion about the assassination, rather than someone who was a Rhodes Scholar, founder of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, and is the University Professor of Politics at UVA.
Bill Newman, David Reitzes, Dealey Plaza, Earl Warren, Jefferson Morley, John F. Kennedy, Kennedy assassination, Larry J. Sabato, Lee Harvey Oswald, Lyndon B. Johnson, Nicholas Katzenbach, Robert Dallek, Warren Commission
Since late April, Reuters, the Orange County Register, The Nation, Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker have published articles lamenting the lack of a director at the Richard M. Nixon Library (RMNL) in Yorba Linda, California.
All the articles (excepting Jeffrey Frank’s slightly more nuanced New Yorker piece) have the same narrative, almost as if they were part of an orchestrated campaign. The uncommon delay in finding a new permanent director (going on three years) is the fault of Nixon partisans, so the story goes, who are holding out for a congenial person to rehabilitate the only president to resign in disgrace. And the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is being stymied in its admirable effort to present Nixon in an objective, unvarnished light.
As proof, the articles reprise the conventional, heroic narrative about the tenure of Tim Naftali, who headed the library from 2007 to 2011. Naftali “presided over the installation of a new, historically accurate Watergate exhibit,” The Nation article said, which Nixon loyalists “vehemently objected to,” according to Reuters. That left Naftali “fiercely at odds with the . . . [Nixon] family and close supporters of the 37th president,” the Orange County Register reported. The Register also quoted Naftali to level the allegation that Nixon loyalists are consciously stalling so they can allegedly “write the text” for a pending $15 million renovation of the museum, which is the public face of the library, since most visitors to Yorba Linda do not use the archives. The Los Angeles Times article dispensed with a reporter and made these points in an article written by Naftali himself.
As the late Alexander Cockburn liked to observe, “The First Law of Journalism is to confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.”
There are serious issues up for debate here, not the least of which is whether presidential libraries should be shrines, places that debunk their namesakes, or something in-between. There is also the question of whether Nixon deserves special handling. Before considering such issues though, it might be well to reconsider Naftali’s tenure. As the cliché goes, there are two sides to every story—even one involving Richard Milhous Nixon.
In a widely-noted remark at Richard Nixon’s funeral service in April 1994, then-President Bill Clinton said, “may the day of judging President Nixon on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.” Naftali was supposed to hasten and facilitate that day as the first NARA-appointed director. Yet the portrait of Naftali that emerges after taking a closer look at his directorship is not as flattering as the above clippings. The former RMNL director is skilled at public relations, knows how to use the press to advance a case, and has a talent for self-promotion. But through acts of commission and omission, he failed to enrich and preserve the historical record. In one particularly egregious instance, he even helped falsify that record.
Angelo Lano, Barry Sussman, Ben Bradlee, Bob Haldeman, Bob Woodward, Canuck letter, Carl Bernstein, Charles Nuzum, David Young, Deep Throat, Donald Campell, Donald Segretti, Dwight Chapin, Earl Silbert, Edward Miller, Fred Malek, Geoff Shepard, Harry Rosenfeld, James Flug, James Rosen, James Sterling Young, Jeff Himmelman, John Dean, John Ehrlichman, John Taylor, Judith Hoback, Miller Center, Millicent Gleason, Oral History, Paul Musgrave, Richard M. Nixon Library, RMNL, Robert Odle, Russell L. Riley, Seymour Glanzer, Sharon Fawcett, Spiro Agnew, Tim Naftali, W. Mark Felt, Watergate, William Ruckelshaus, William Timmons
On the afternoon of October 1, 1973, President Richard M. Nixon and his chief of staff, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., slipped away from the White House and went for a rambling, nearly two-hour car ride through the Washington countryside.
Nixon and Haig left the White House because they did not want to risk anyone overhearing them talk about a sensitive matter. Or perhaps they feared that someone might use remnants of the White House recording system, though it was supposedly disconnected, to capture their words. Given all the leaks to the press, and the exposure of just about every administration secret up to and including the existence of the White House tapes, paranoia wasn’t entirely unjustified.
Just prior to this unscheduled outing, Nixon’s long-time personal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, had come to the president in a panic. She breathlessly told him she had accidentally caused a four to five minute buzz on a subpoenaed tape she had been transcribing. And the recording appeared to be a crucial one: it encompassed meetings on June 20, 1972 between the president and his top aides, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, on what was Nixon’s first day back in the White House since the Watergate break-in, which had occurred three days earlier.
Nixon told Woods not to worry, as he didn’t think the specific portion of the tape she accidentally altered had been subpoenaed. Still, he immediately called Haig, according to Nixon’s memoir RN, and told him what happened. The two men then left the White House for their impromptu car ride.
Two months after Woods’s private admission, the discovery of an 18½ minute gap on that tape caused a national furor, second only to the public’s reaction to the Saturday Night massacre. Public disclosure of a two-toned buzz or hum that caused the gap in conversation supercharged calls for impeachment and finally unraveled the landslide electoral victory Nixon had achieved just two years earlier. It left the political landscape scarred, even four decades later, and plagued by culture wars that persist to this day. Nixon’s term could not have ended in a more devastating way for the office of the presidency or the nation.
Yet more than 40 years later, the infamous gap remains one of Watergate’s most enduring and tantalizing mysteries. Technological efforts to recover what was erased (or obscured by the humming noise) have all failed, although on fleeting portions of the tapes faint, almost ghostly, human voices can be detected. In 2009, it was thought that a forensic examination of Haldeman’s handwritten notes might reveal the substance of the conversation. That experiment by the National Archives failed too.
Recently released testimony from Nixon himself just might hold the key to unscrambling what happened forty years ago. And it turns out that answering two of the three main questions about the gap—who caused it and why—not only solves most of a historical mystery, but is also critical to understanding Nixon’s downfall.
Alexander Butterfield, Alexander M. Haig, Archibald Cox, Fred Buzhardt, H. R. Bob Haldeman, impeachment, James D. Robenalt, Jill Wine-Banks, John D. Ehrlichman, John Dean, John J. Sirica, Nixon tapes, presidential recordings, Richard M. Nixon, Rose Mary Woods, Senate Watergate Committee, Spiro Agnew, Stephen Bull, Uher 5000, Watergate
In the Zapruder film, the earliest obvious reaction we can see to the commencement of the assassination is that of Rosemary Willis. Rosemary Willis was 10 years old when she witnessed President Kennedy’s murder. She can be seen in the Zapruder film after it resumes at frame 133, running along the south side of Elm Street, in a red skirt and a white, hooded jacket. During the first 5 seconds of the restarted film, Ms. Willis turns her gaze away from Kennedy towards the Book Depository, slows from a run, and stops abruptly. Her body language clearly strikes a pose of thunderstruck bewilderment while almost everyone else visible in the Zapruder film appears nonplussed.
The two animations below were created by Gerda Dunckel from the Zapruder film (the copyright of which is owned by The Sixth Floor Museum). The animations run from the Zapruder film’s first frame, Z133 to Z221, ending just before the second shot was fired at Z222.
The first animation is a close-up focused on Ms. Willis:
The second animation is an extreme close-up of Ms. Willis:
Initially, during frames 133—160 of the Zapruder film, Ms. Willis keeps time with the president’s Lincoln Continental. Soon, however, certainly by no later than Z161, Ms. Willis begins to slow down noticeably (her swinging arms have dropped by Z161 as she slows, compared to the height of her arms in previous frames). By Z197 (and probably earlier), Ms. Willis has come to a complete stop. During this sequence, Ms. Willis is facing in the direction not of President Kennedy to her right front, but of the Book Depository to her right rear. This is very odd—unless something more significant than watching President Kennedy had caught her attention.
11 Seconds in Dallas, George Hickey, Gerda Dunckel, HSCA, Jack Ready, Kennedy assassination, Kenneth Scearce, Paul Landis, Rosemary Willis, Secret Service, Six Seconds, Warren Commission, Warren Report, Zapruder film
Editor’s Note: In the half-century since President Kennedy’s death, one arm is capable of holding all the reliable works that attempt to understand the assassination by understanding the assassin. Two of the most outstanding in this niche are Jean Davison’s Oswald’s Game (1983) and Norman Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale (1995), the latter notable for the author’s negotiated access to the Minsk KGB’s file on and surveillance of Lee Harvey Oswald.
Yet the book against which all such efforts must be measured is Priscilla Johnson McMillan’s Marina and Lee, which is being reissued this fall by the Steerforth Press. As Thomas Powers observed in his 1977 New York Times review, Marina and Lee was a “miraculous book . . . miraculous because McMillan had the wit, courage, and perseverance to go back to the heart of the story and the art to give it life.” McMillan restored agency to Oswald, and by so doing left no room for the tapestry of conspiracy theories that had been woven around him, possible only so long as he remained a cipher. So rich was the book’s texture that when Mailer sat down to write his Oswald biography, he quoted long passages from Marina and Lee verbatim, and in his acknowledgments wrote that a “special statement is necessary to cover the contribution of Priscilla Johnson McMillan.”
The 50th anniversary is ripe for another look at Oswald, if only because the end of the cold war opened a window for reportage that had not been possible earlier. What is not explicable or defensible is Peter Savodnik’s calculated neglect of Marina and Lee in The Interloper. Savodnik, regrettably, did not think he could pull off his book without pretending that McMillan’s book did not exist.
Despite this shabby behavior, The Interloper is one of the few books deserving of attention on this anniversary. Washington Decoded asked Priscilla Johnson McMillan, a member of its editorial board, for her considered opinion.
The Interloper may be the one book appearing this year that attempts to understand the Kennedy assassination by taking a microscopic look at the assassin. The result is a nuanced and sympathetic view of Lee Harvey Oswald, a view so human that it crowds out and leaves no room for mechanistic theories of a conspiracy.
The author, Peter Savodnik, is a Russian-speaking writer who spent many months in Minsk, the city in which Oswald lived during most of his 2½ years in the Soviet Union. There, Savodnik interviewed Erich Titovets, a man who knew Oswald fairly well, and the very few others who remember the interloper who arrived in 1960 hoping to remain forever. Savodnik even traveled to Israel to interview Ella German, the attractive Jewish woman whose rejection of Oswald’s marriage proposal in January 1961 had much to do with the American’s rejection of Soviet life and eventual decision to return to the United States.
Savodnik sees Oswald as a seeker after something affirmative who, in reaction against a childhood of moving from place to unhappy place with a selfish, unstable mother, longed for a home and steady sense of purpose. But Oswald wanted something more. He was a Marxist who idealized the Soviet Union as a country that treated all of its citizens equally and provided baseline amenities to everyone. What he found instead was a bureaucracy such as he had encountered in the Marine Corps and ‘round the clock surveillance by the KGB. He recorded his hopes and disappointments in his “Historic Diary” and in “The Collective,” several essays he wrote while in Minsk.
Naturally, Savodnik uses Oswald’s writing to trace his feelings about his life in the USSR and concludes that he felt isolated and alone, having failed to connect and find a place for himself within the society he had idealized from afar. It was in Minsk, Savodnik says, that Oswald realized that he would always be a outsider, an interloper, and where the “desperation and fury coursing through his whole life were most fully on display.” Savodnik goes so far as to say that if the reader understands Oswald’s life in Minsk, he or she will understand much about how the Kennedy assassination came about.
This claim is a stretch: the anger and violence that were to characterize Oswald’s behavior after his return to the United States were barely visible during his time in Minsk.
exact entry site of President Kennedy’s head wound is the most
perplexing medico-legal controversy stemming from the assassination. It
has confounded assassination researchers and credentialed experts for
conclusions over the entry wound’s location—and the tightly-associated
debate over the damage to the cranium—have lingered for so long they
in a simple technique familiar to every skilled mortician, however,
makes it possible to resolve the contradictions between the findings of
the original pathologists and the official inquiries that revisited the
medical evidence in 1968, 1975, 1978, and 1998. It is finally possible
to square this particular circle and put the issue to a well-deserved
The Controversy in a Nutshell
All five of the official forensic investigations have been unanimous on
one point: a single, high-velocity missile entered the rear of the
president’s head, with the instant, gruesome results
captured in the
Zapruder film beginning at frame 313. Expert opinion is in disagreement
about almost everything aside from that.
The three military officers/physicians who performed the postmortem on
the night of November 22 placed the entry wound near Kennedy’s external
occipital protuberance (EOP), a little knob typically about two inches
above the hairline. The autopsy report stated, “Situated in the
posterior scalp approximately 2.5 cm. laterally to the right and
slightly above the external occipital protuberance is a lacerated wound
measuring 15 x 6 mm. In the underlying bone is a corresponding wound . .
These prosectors also noted the grievous damage to JFK’s head. They
described a large irregular defect of the scalp and skull on the right
involving chiefly the parietal bone but extending somewhat into the
temporal and occipital regions. (The parietal bone extends from the
occipital bone, which is essentially the back of the head, to the frontal bone,
essentially the forehead.) This finding was consistent with the
recollections of more than 25 eyewitnesses, most of them
medically-trained, who reported seeing an exit-like wound about the size
of a small orange in the rear of the president’s head.
Figure 1 is one unofficial attempt from 1967 to depict the damage to the back of
the head (BOH) as described in
Robert N. McClelland’s testimony
before the Warren Commission. McClelland’s description was one of the more precise eyewitness accounts. But accounts of the damage to
this area understandably varied, as the majority of medical personnel
had been preoccupied with trying to resuscitate JFK at Dallas’s Parkland
The BOH opening, in all likelihood, was created after the bullet’s
explosive impact exposed the president’s brain through a tear in the
rear scalp and an opening between two or more dislodged (but not
blown-out or missing) pieces of loose rear skull. This observation is
supported by the fact that the lateral X-ray shows no missing rear bone
whatsoever. Dr. J. Thornton Boswell, one of the prosectors, did say in
1996 that he repositioned some bone pieces before the X-rays and photos
were taken; it seems logical that he pushed some loose pieces of skull
(dislodged but still adhering to the scalp) roughly back into place.
The initial postmortem finding regarding the location of the
entry wound in the head was accepted until 1968. In that year Attorney
General Ramsey Clark commissioned four experts to revisit the postmortem
because of a public controversy that had arisen over the findings. While
the so-called Clark Panel did not have the decided advantage of
examining the body directly, it was composed entirely of forensic experts, whereas only one of the prosectors had training in that
specialty. Citing one X-ray in particular, these experts declared that
the prosectors had incorrectly located the rear entry wound in the head.
The Clark Panel Report claimed the X-ray in question revealed the entry to be
as high as the area of the president’s cowlick, or almost four inches (or ten centimeters)
higher than the location established back in November 1963.
A single photographic view
was also cited to underpin the Clark Panel’s correction; number 42 representing that view is reproduced here as Figure 2. This photograph was presumed to have been
just after JFK’s corpse arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital, site of the
autopsy, and it presumably showed the entry wound well above the EOP—in
the vicinity of the president’s cowlick rather than near the EOP. The
Clark Panel made no mention of the dubious practice it had engaged in of
using a movable body part, such as the scalp, to locate the entrance wound. Normally, as one wound-ballistics expert put it,
the “location of a penetrating wound to the cranium is usually
pinpointed by the cratered hole in the skull.”
other manifest difference between the Clark Panel and the findings of
the original prosectors concerned the visible damage to the rear of the
president’s head. The Clark Panel reported what seemed self-evident from
Figure 2: aside from the cowlick entrance wound, the BOH was relatively
unscathed; indeed, the scalp was apparently intact.
bottom line was that the Clark Panel findings did not fundamentally
change the conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald had fired the one bullet
that penetrated the president’s skull, in addition to the separate shot
that pierced JFK’s upper back. Nonetheless, the amended conclusions were
stunning: assertion of a four-inch error in the entry wound, and
refutation of visible BOH damage. The notion that the postmortem
contained such gross errors in the first place left doubt where there
should have been absolute certainty.
ARRB, Assassination Records Review Board, autopsy protocol, Barb Junkkarinen, Bethesda Naval Medical Center, Chad Zimmerman, Clark Panel, Dr. George Burkley, Dr. J. Thornton Boswell, Dr. James Humes, Dr. Michael Baden, Dr. Pierre Finck, Dr. Robert Karnei, Dr. Robert McClelland, forensic pathology, House Select Committee on Assassinations, Jim Garrison, John Canal, John Stringer, Josiah Thompson, Kennedy assassination, Larry Sturdivan, Paul Hoch, Ramsey Clark