28 January 2016

JFK and I - The Death and the Assassination

The most exciting things going on in America today are movements to change America.
- Mario Savio

It is impossible to overstate the impact the assassination of President John F. Kennedy had on millions of individuals. Myself included. I was nine years old. I remember Kennedy’s election but I have no clear memory of Eisenhower as president. Kennedy was really my first president. He was not some wrinkled, bespectacled old man who droned on and on like all other political leaders seemed to do. JFK came off as young, handsome, athletic and yet, for us kids, fatherly. He was my ideal of a president and leader. Even as a mere lad I could tell he was articulate and intelligent and suave.

My elementary school was a block and half from my grandmother’s house so I would go there everyday for lunch. I would sit down in the living room, turn on the TV and grandma would bring me a meal. One particular late November Friday afternoon I turned the set on expecting to watch the Donna Reed Show. Instead there were men in suits talking gravely about the president being shot and killed. Grandma and I watched in stunned silence. Then I returned to school and told all my chums that our president had been killed. Not a one of them believed me. It seemed too fantastic.

At the sound of the bell we returned to our classroom. Our teacher, Miss Phillips, was late entering the room. She finally came in fighting back tears. She told us of the events in Dallas and that we were dismissed for the day. Students all about whispered to me that I was right. What an awful vindication.

I was a nine year old boy and no world event, no matter how earth shattering, was going to bring me to tears or even worry me very much. I went home and like most Americans sat in front of the TV, but I also took time go outside and play as was my wont to do in those days. The shattering impact of Kennedy’s murder was slow to sink in, but over time the impact was profound. Not only was my ideal of a president gone, but Kennedy’s successor was Lyndon Johnson, just the type of wrinkled, bespectacled old man who to me epitomized the boring politician that predominated American politics. Worse still within a short time Johnson had escalated America’s immoral and costly participation in the Vietnam war. So in addition to not being Kennedy, he was a bad guy. (Whether Kennedy would have pulled troops out any sooner or disillusioned us by staying the course is a topic for another time.)

Of course the main issue was that my fragile trust in the United States was forever shattered. Patriotism seemed sadly passé, especially in light of the culture revolution that was ushered in within months of the Kennedy assassination by the arrival on American shores of The Beatles. Soon I had causes and beliefs and attitudes and hopes and they all centered around the new, the hip, the uber cool and the questioning of authority. The Beatles were just the biggest wave in tsunami of changes to the American psyche. The war became unpopular and protests were not just something guaranteed by the constitution but a veritable right of passage. The Civil Rights Movement, which preceded even Kennedy’s presidency, was still ascendent in the mid ‘60s.  Protest was individual as well as mass symbolized, in mine and many cases, by growing long hair (and thus coming into conflict with Dad).

Now other voices demanded to be heard. Women’s liberation, gay rights, Native American groups, created a wonderful cacophony of demands, questions, and grievances. All of it was in the name of a more equitable society that recognized past wrongs and would promise a fairer future. The raising of group conscienceless was accompanied by desires for individual explorations and expansions of the mind, the spirt and the body. The times were very much changing.

Kennedy was a martyr to an America that seemed no longer to exist, the one in which, as in World War II, Americans were the good guys. But there was hope that a new America in that mold could emerge when in 1968 JFK's dynamic and equally charismatic (to me, anyway) brother Robert, ran for the presidency. There was hope for our government yet if RFK could get elected. If John was a father figure, Robert was the cool uncle and he was in striking contrast to the other stodgy old men who were also seeking the presidency.

Then he was assassinated too. And this on the heels of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Now truly there was no hope, no chance, no way we could count our government to lead us. Anyone we could believe in would be killed. The world of politics was hopeless, it was no avenue for change. The government was an impenetrable monolith reserved for the elites and those elites were the old, wealthy and conservative. When instead of RFK, the next president was the impossibly square and inherently evil Richard Nixon, I was resigned. It was time for revolution.

Things only got worse as the war in Vietnam continued through Nixon’s first term and the beginning of his second. Indeed it was expanded into Cambodia and more bombs were dropped on our “enemies” in Southeast Asia than had been dropped by the U.S. in all of World War II. It was all so sad, so ludicrous and so emblematic of a cruel and unjust government. The entire Watergate affair merely confirmed what many of us suspected about the government, the real surprise was that it could be exposed. At least journalism was alive and well.

But any hopes for real change were dashed with the resounding electoral victories of Ronald Reagan. Some of us had had to endure him as California’s governor for eight years and now this conservative old man who unabashedly put the interests of rich, white, straight, men ahead of all else was president. Count me out. From the hope of Kennedy to the bleakness of Reagan was a tremendous fall.

Throughout all this there was another disturbing aspect of the Kennedy assassination that somehow managed to come to light despite efforts to suppress and obscure it. For me it was during those early dark years of the Reagan presidency that I first became aware of the fact that the official government account of the JFK assassination — that a lone kook named Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin — was utter nonsense. I started devouring books about the assassination, many of which were far fetched, but no more so than the pronouncement of the Warren Commission that Oswald acted alone. It was all quite shocking. Not only had my president been struck down in his prime, but there were shadowy figures responsible, at least some of whom were linked to the US government.

Over the years there have been many bizarre theories about the assassin put forth to try to convince people that Oswald was the assassin. The magic bullet is one of those. Another has been aired more recently. A respected documentarian, Errol Morris made a short film explaining away the infamous Umbrella Man. There is irrefutable photographic evidence that during the assassin a man standing within view of Kennedy’s motorcade opened and closed an umbrella at about the time the shots were fired then strolled away. It looked for all the world like he was giving a signal, perhaps that the target had been hit. This was pretty difficult to explain, especially since no one could find the Umbrella Man. Morris’ film claims that someone belatedly came forward, many years after the fact, claiming to be the Umbrella Man. He explained that the opening of the umbrella was meant as a protest against Kennedy’s father’s appeasement policies before World War II while serving as US ambassador to England.

Of course.

Almost 20 years after the war was over people were still protesting against Kennedy’s father’s actions in such an obscure way? Even if JFK saw the umbrella man, is it logical to assume that he'd make the connection? It's perfectly logical to those who are desperate grasping at straws in an effort to prop up the lone assessing theory.  Why the umbrella man calmly walked away as or immediately after bullets were fired in the area he was standing has not been explained.

Even sans umbrella man, everything about the Warren Report was suspicious. Investigators put forth the "magic bullet" theory with a straight face, trying to convince us that this one bullet went one way then another way and yet another, causing multiple wounds to both Kennedy and Governor Connolly, finally coming out in almost pristine condition.

Here's are a few tidbits from a paper by the late Carl Oglesby, written in 1992, called Who Killed JFK, listing some items he felt created serious doubt about the Warren Report:

* Oswald's description was broadcast over police radio within fifteen minutes of the assassination. No one knows how this description was obtained.
* No interrogation records were kept for those arrested at Dealey Plaza, or for Oswald.
* The pictures of Oswald holding a gun appear to be faked.
* JFK's body was removed from Dallas before an autopsy could be performed there.
* JFK's corpse left Dallas wrapped in a sheet inside an ornamental bronze casket. It arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington in a body bag inside a plain casket.
* The autopsy photographs of JFK's wounds differed radically from the descriptions of the doctors at Parkland Hospital.
* A whole tray of evidence, including what was left of the president's brain, remains missing from the National Archives.
* The pristine condition of "the magic bullet" found on JFK's stretcher suggests it was planted. Why? Because it is impossible for this to happen. It is not just suspicious, it is incriminating. This projectile was planted, period. Where and how would anyone get a pristine bullet that had been fired from that very rifle? It takes the work of a ballistics expert and possession of the barrel from the rifle itself, if not the intact rifle.
* Numerous films made by witnesses to the event were confiscated.
* Many more witnesses have died than would normally be expected, many in mysterious circumstances.
* Both the FBI and the CIA concealed important evidence from the Warren Commission.
* Oswald never, ever practiced against a moving target. He never in his life practiced bolt-action rapid fire shooting. The 6.5 mm Carcano is the best possible rifle to use if you want to make it tracable to a fired bullet that is used as evidence.

One of the more bizarre notions put forward by lone gunman kooks is that people -- presumably such as myself -- find more comfort in the idea of conspiracy to kill the president rather than the idea of one twisted individual. Seriously. Yes a still unmasked conspiracy probably involving the CIA is a real comfort. The contortions that supporters of the Warren Commission go through in defense of their contentions beggars belief.

It seems a virtual certainty that the CIA was involved in some level of the assassination, perhaps in cahoots with the Mafia (a group with whom they were having dealings at the time) and perhaps at the behest of the military or right wing extremists. It is impossible over 50 years after the event to say with certainty, so thorough has the cover up been. (By the way, should anyone ask the question you why hasn't anyone talked or confessed, the answer is many have, including the infamous Howard Hunt who made a death bed confession.). My further understanding of the John Kennedy assassination (there exists many questions too about Bobby Kennedy's slaying) has only added to the life long trauma stemming from his death. Once faith is shattered repairing it is virtually impossible.

I cannot pretend to fully understand exactly how the assassination has effected me. It suffices to realize that it both changed the world I lived in and changed me as an individual most deeply. It certainly started me on a life long path of mistrusting and questioning the US government. It also helped inure me to the horrendous sort of public tragedies that seemed to be daily occurrences in the tumultuous Sixties. But I never gave way to cynicism, the Sixties also taught me about the strength of solidarity, the power of the people and that hope springs eternal where there is love and faith and will.
"There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction." - John F. Kennedy

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