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Conspiracy weary

Fifty years on, the assassination of John F Kennedy has become a morass of theories, less about a solution than the desire to see a comprehensible reality, Saul Austerlitz writes.
View of flowers on the backseat of Vice-President Lyndon Johnson's Lincoln convertible as it sits parked near the entrance of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Johnson's car was two lengths behind the car in which President Kennedy was assassinated; after the shooting, the entire motorcade was driven to the hospital, where Kennedy was pronounced dead. Art Rickerby / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images
View of flowers on the backseat of Vice-President Lyndon Johnson's Lincoln convertible as it sits parked near the entrance of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Johnson's car was two lengths behind the car in which President Kennedy was assassinated; after the shooting, the entire motorcade was driven to the hospital, where Kennedy was pronounced dead. Art Rickerby / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Saul Austerlitz

We can begin anywhere we like, truthfully, but let’s start with the umbrella man. On November 22, 1963, as President John F Kennedy’s motorcade passed through the streets of Dallas on the way to a scheduled speech at the Trade Mart, a man in a black coat opened a black umbrella and held it over his head. The motorcade passed by, making the sharp turn onto Elm Street and passing the Texas School Book Depository, where a 24-year-old man named Lee Harvey Oswald – purportedly, and therein lies our story – lay in wait.

What might have been a small flare of eccentricity on a clear, 71°F Texas day was instead forever marked, and preserved, by what happened moments later. Kennedy was assassinated, and our expectations about history and progress and the American character were permanently tilted on their axis.

This November 22, it will have been 50 years since Kennedy was shot. It will also have been 50 years that Americans have been arguing over the Kennedy assassination: one shooter or two? Lone gunman or conspiracy? Right-wing or left-wing plot? The subject itself has waxed and waned in the national eye, having last peaked after the release of Oliver Stone’s wildly controversial film JFK in 1991. But, as Don DeLillo writes in the introduction to his novel, Libra, about the president’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, “some stories never end”.

The Kennedy assassination is a stagnant swamp of conspiracy and counter-conspiracy that is less about any potential solution than the desire to see a secret, comprehensible reality underneath the messy confusion of reality. Death, especially violent or unexpected death, is a fundamentally illogical event. How can it be that our friend, our loved one, our president, who was so alive only a moment ago, is now permanently, irrevocably gone? The mourner demands logic where none is to be found. The assassination debate is, at its heart, a historiographical one: can lone men really change the world or is history always a matter of groups and larger coordinated actions? Is the world fundamentally a rational or irrational place?

Who was the umbrella man, anyway? Was he a signal man for the hidden assassins, perched behind a stand of trees on Dealey Plaza and scattered elsewhere, providing the choreography for the killers? Was his umbrella actually “a sophisticated, battery-powered rocket-launcher attachment that fired a flechette [a small steel dart] containing a paralysing chemical into the president’s throat”? Or was he just a guy with an umbrella?

And if there was a conspiracy, who was behind it? The CIA? The Soviet Union? Fervently anti-communist, right-wing zealots? Fervently leftist, pro-Castro zealots? The Cuban president Fidel Castro himself, getting payback for Kennedy’s attempts on his life? Texas oilmen? The FBI? The vice president Lyndon Johnson, hungry for power? One moment, America poses for a photograph – the happy family gathered to politely clap as the president passes by, smiling his movie-star smile and waving. The next, a man is dead, history has been altered and we demand to know more.

The books written on the Kennedy assassination are so extensive that they could likely fill up a significant chunk of the shelf space in the Texas School Book Depository – now, a museum of the assassination. For each, evidence is gathered and mounted, and a case presented, fictional or otherwise. Disorderly facts and speculations gather into a recognisable picture; or a recognisable picture is rendered blurry and indistinguishable by disorderly facts and speculations. A simple question – did one man act alone in killing the president? – is complicated by deliberations over the CIA’s involvement with anti-Castro groups in south Florida, the three mysterious hobos spotted in Dallas that day, the exact nature of the relationship between Oswald’s assassin, Jack Ruby, and the other man Oswald killed, the Dallas police officer J D Tippit, and a million other unanswered, unanswerable questions.

“This was the Land of Ago, where everything echoed,” the time-travelling protagonist of Stephen King’s deliciously pulpy 11/22/63 observes of his trip back to early-1960s Texas. He has ventured back on a quest to keep Oswald – the conspiracy is mostly dismissed here – from killing the president, and setting off, or so he believes, the violent unrest of the 1960s. The echoes of the Land of Ago are the catnip of conspiracy theorists. Everything is connected, everything is ultimately linked to a hidden power “omnipotent, sinister, and malicious”, in the words of the eminent historian Richard Hofstadter.

Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment, published in 1966 and the granddaddy of all conspiracy manuals, contains a secret of its own, one its author mentions only as an aside. Lane was not only a scholar and researcher of the discrepancies with the official account of the Kennedy assassination, but appeared before the Warren Commission as an attorney, hired by Marguerite Oswald to represent her son’s interests.

In asserting that Oswald was unlikely to have been able to assassinate the president – or, at least, to have done it by himself – Lane was not so much putting forth a disinterested argument as protecting a client. (Paranoia cuts both ways; Vincent Bugliosi, author of the 1,500-page conspiracy-debunking doorstop Reclaiming History, once served as Oswald’s prosecutor for a televised mock trial conducted in Britain in the 1980s.) As such, Rush to Judgment does not tell us what happened so much as issue a 400-page dossier of dissents from the Warren Commission’s findings, ranging from the niggling (did the plaster that fell on the head of Bonnie Ray Williams, watching the motorcade on the fifth floor of the Texas School Book Depository, come from Oswald firing his rifle one floor above?) to the essential (did the FBI lean on witnesses to get them to change their testimony?). “Perhaps the most charitable explanation,” the CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite once concluded of his work, “is that Mark Lane still considers himself a defence attorney … [whose] duty is not to abstract truth but to his client [Oswald].”

Lane’s preferred mode of attack is to pull out neglected or contradictory threads of witness testimony, acting, in true defence lawyer fashion, in the hopes of raising enough small puffs of doubt to create the appearance of a smoke cloud obscuring the truth. The illusion of reason only lasts as long as Lane can maintain calm; once he delves into the story of the Dallas journalist, purportedly present at a meeting at Jack Ruby’s flat, and later murdered in a “karate attack”, we lose faith in Lane’s appearance of disinterested rationality.

Lane, establishing the tone for conspiracy researchers to come, is enamoured of scientific rigour, and thoroughly uninterested in the genuinely confounding aspect of Kennedy’s assassination – Oswald himself. How did a 24-year-old former Marine defect to the Soviet Union, return to the United States and then seemingly pass underneath the radar of American intelligence while he plotted to kill the president? Ah, but here I am posing my own, decidedly conspiratorial, question.

With its maps and drawings of the president’s wounds, and its regular references to missing CIA documents and ballistics studies, Anthony Summers’ Not in Your Lifetime offers a certain academic objectivity in its attempts at rigour. Still, an academic would likely know that JFK was released in 1991, not 1995.

Summers is troubled by flares of irrationality in what he views as a perfectly rational world. How could it be that Oswald would take a photograph of himself with the ideologically clashing The Worker and The Militant newspapers in hand? “No genuine self-respecting socialist,” Summers argues, “would have advertised himself holding both at once.” The alternative to logical rigour is conspiracy.

James Ellroy’s novel American Tabloid, picking up where Lane and company leave off, sets out to “embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time”, creating two archetypal fixers/hustlers to mediate between the Kennedys, the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, and the Cuban exiles. (Only the KGB fails to show for Ellroy’s mother-of-all-conspiracies hoedown.) “It’s so big and audacious,” one character remarks of the burgeoning plot, “that we’ll most likely never be suspected … I’m saying that we’ll present them with an explanation, and the powers that be will prefer it to the truth, even though they know better”. The disparate strands of the conspiracy surge together, just as Summers or Lane would have us believe. Fiction parallels conspiracy with deliberate rigour.

Books like Lane’s and Summers’ have a missing document as well — the executive summary. These books rarely see fit to conclude. They are all loose threads, and no tapestry. It is far easier to say no to the official story than to provide a counter-narrative of one’s own. To attempt to do so is to acknowledge how ill-fitted the varied pieces of conspiracy narrative – the Cuban exiles and the Mafia dons and the CIA spooks – are when placed in proximity to each other.

The most reasonable voice among the doubters belongs to Edward Jay Epstein, whose first book, Inquest, chronicled the limitations of the Warren Commission, and whose second, Counterplot, detailed the demagoguery of New Orleans DA Jim Garrison, who sought to reopen the Kennedy case in 1966. Epstein hoists Garrison with his own petard, documenting his ludicrous allegations and perpetually shifting claims. At one point, Garrison, with the assistance of Lane and other researchers, suggested that there were five different spots from which shots were fired in Dallas, and a16-man assassination team.

Thrust is met by counterthrust, accusation by counter-accusation. Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History methodically, laboriously, sometimes shrilly decimates the conspiracy theorists’ pet illusions: the magic bullet that purportedly struck both Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally, the second shooter on Dealey Plaza. Its bulk makes it unlikely that anyone actually reads Reclaiming History in its entirety, but even a brief dip into its waters is enough to summon a certain prosecutorial zeal in undoing the more blatant conspiracist fantasies.

Lest anyone think I am here to debunk the tinfoil-hat brigade once more, a word of biography. When I was 13 years old, I had my first life-changing intellectual experience. My father and I went to see Stone’s JFK, about Garrison’s lonely crusade to prosecute a local businessman for his involvement in what Garrison claimed was a criminal conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy.

For the next year or so, I read practically every Kennedy-assassination conspiracy book I could get my hands on, progressing from the magic bullet to the second shooter on Dealey Plaza to darkest of all, in Jim Marrs’ Crossfire, Johnson himself as the secret chief plotter of his predecessor’s death. (“Et tu, Lyndon?” Marrs ominously wonders at the close of the book.) The thicket of facts and suppositions and imponderables was terrifying and magnificent, a dank suppurating pond of lies and secrets. It was also a heady introduction to the world at large, which promised to contain more nuance and complexity than a pleasant Southern California childhood might have indicated. Convoluted matters were afoot, and part of the work of the citizen-intellectual was to investigate, to unravel the intertwined threads of the fatally intricate tapestry of history.

JFK is now practically a synonym for shoddy history and conspiracy thinking, and perhaps taken as literal fact, it is all that. But the film is to be understood less as a literal analysis of a conspiracy to kill the president, or as a Garrison biopic, and more as a masterful evocation of the paranoid style in American politics. No one should go to JFK for their facts, but everyone should see it for its unparalleled insight into the conspiratorial mind.

JFK is better understood as a horror film, summoning all our buried fears of the subversive forces lurking beneath the official order, and bringing them to vivid life. Mysterious, freshly shaven hobos jump off boxcars near Dealey Plaza, teams of gunmen silently move into place in the “kill zone”, and a cabal of military men plan Kennedy’s death to ensure a continued American presence in Vietnam – where there were all of 16,000 military advisers at the time.

Garrison (Kevin Costner) delivers a rousing courtroom oration that occupies the last 30 minutes of JFK, quoting William Shakespeare and Lord Alfred Tennyson, comparing Oswald to Franz Kafka’s Joseph K, and pleading with jurors, “do not forget your dying king.”

We never really understand Garrison’s case, which is probably for the best, because when he finally explains it, even in Stone’s cleaned-up version, it is a nonsensical daisy-chain of inconsistencies and speculations. And Stone leaves out the real-life Garrison’s speculation that the Kennedy assassination was “a homosexual thrill-killing”, or the role played by Nazis.

During my assassination passion, I never read Gerald Posner’s much-praised Case Closed, in part out of an instinctive fear that this debunking of the conspiracists might prove too convincing. As it turned out, I was right. Where Bugliosi and some of the other debunkers are as paranoid and denunciatory as their opponents, investigative journalist Posner is miraculously calm in his approach. Where others are instantly caught in the brambles of assassination minutiae, Posner stays rigorously focused on laying out the case against Oswald.

Moreover, Posner provides us with the first politically and psychologically satisfying portrait of Oswald – one that clears up many of the perceived anomalies swirling around his past. Here is Oswald touting communist doctrine in high school, threatening President Dwight Eisenhower’s life, and promising that “one day he would do something which would make him famous”.

His return to the US was not, seemingly, a product of intelligence-service connivance, but merely one of 36 such cases of returned Soviet-bloc defectors in the years before 1963. Heading out to assassinate right-wing General Edwin Walker in April 1963 (he missed), he left his wife Marina a note that informed her, in the event that “I am alive and taken prisoner”, how to get to the city jail.

When the Soviet Union proved disappointing, Oswald transferred his political affections to Castro and the new Cuban regime. Posner speculates that Oswald likely read a widely disseminated interview with Castro on September 7, in which the Cuban leader warned the Kennedy administration that “if they are aiding terrorist plans to eliminate Cuban leaders, they themselves will not be safe”. Did Oswald kill Kennedy on the perception of orders from Castro? The explanation, while far from assured, makes more sense than the rumours of Corsican mercenaries, Oswald doubles, or surgically altered corpses peddled by the conspiracists.

Perhaps we ultimately seek conspiracies because they provide us with order – or an orderly brand of chaos in which raucous and disjointed human events converge and conjoin. Once we believed in progress, where the world was forever in a state of bettering itself. Now, many of us believe instead in conspiracy, where secret forces are forever in a state of hiding the truth from us. The fulcrum point just might have been that day in Dallas in November 1963, when the seemingly orderly progression of American history was permanently jolted by one man with a gun.

Everyone also wants to uncover the hinge moment when tragedy could have been averted. We root for a different outcome, even as we know this one is the only one we have, or ever will. “Leave him,” 11/22/63’s protagonist silently wishes as he watches Marina Oswald. “Get away from that skinny, mother-ridden monster posthaste.” Even the eminently rational Thomas Mallon succumbs to the fantasy in his non-fiction book Mrs Paine’s Garage, suggesting that had Michael Paine only told his wife Ruth about Oswald’s rifle, she may have been prompted to boot Lee out of the house she had invited the Oswalds to share with them, and thereby not procured for him the job at the Texas School Book Depository, and thereby kept Lee Oswald a fringe thinker with violent ambitions, rather than the assassin of the president. Everyone travels back in time, one way or another.

The great-man theory of history, whereby Napoleon Bonaparte or Winston Churchill hold the reins of the future, guiding it where they will, has spent half a century having holes poked in it. And yet, the impact of a lone man with a gun has not been blunted; just ask Yigal Amir, who successfully derailed the Oslo peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians by assassinating prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Conspiracies appeal because, after Kennedy, we want to believe that there is a real story out there, waiting to be uncovered. And so we will debate, once more, whether Oswald acted alone or not, whether there was a second shooter on the grassy knoll, and just what Oswald meant when he called himself a “patsy”.

In 1978, during the US House of Representatives’ investigation into the conspiracy theories surrounding the deaths of the Kennedys and others, a man named Louis Witt came forward and testified that he was the umbrella man. He had been present on November 22 not to kill the president, or to signal the killers, but “to heckle the president’s motorcade”. Witt was still angry that the president’s father had served as ambassador to the Court of St James when British prime minister Neville Chamberlain had signed his notorious agreement with Adolf Hitler, promising “peace in our time”. The umbrella, Witt said, was a silent protest intended to taunt the president for his family’s capitulation before Hitler. The truth – if truth is what it is – is so peculiar as to beggar the belief of the conspiracy theorists themselves. Even the mind of Mark Lane could not have come up with something so ingeniously unlikely, so peculiar, so apt. Case closed, right?

That same House committee also concluded, however, “on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy”. There will never be an end to the Kennedy assassination, just as there is no end to the ocean or the sky. We are all conspirators together, conspiring to believe that the world is not senseless, that history – both our own, and that of the world we take part in – happens for a reason, that there is an order to our affairs. Conspiracy is, paradoxically, a utopian project.

Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to The Review.

Updated: November 14, 2013 04:00 AM