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“Assassination is the extreme form of censorship,” George Bernard Shaw once wrote. If so, then what exactly was suppressed in the murder of President John F. Kennedy, by whom, and for what reason(s)?
For two generations now, these questions have cast their special pall over the American political landscape, obsessing successive waves of law enforcement officers, lawmakers, filmmakers, journalists, authors, historians, physicians, forensics expertsand now, any slob with a VCR and $19.98, thanks to MPI Teleproductions.
Two years ago, the company began marketing a VHS tape called Image of an Assassination: A New Look at the Zapruder Film. The first authorized for mass merchandising by the Zapruder estate, the MPI video is now regarded as the best available viewing copy. It offers several ways of viewing this clearer, sharper, and more colorfulbut still silent26-second film. For example, one sequence was re-formatted to track the president’s head at center screen, once in real time and then again in slow motion. It is not, as they say, for the squeamish.
However, what JFK assassination researchers awaited even more eagerly than MPI’s superb upgrade of the “old” Zapruder film were its “new outtakes”the never-before-seen “sprocket-hole” material. Though severely cropped in previous incarnations, the Zapruder film released by MPI is actually 64 percent wider than before. Now, on the left side of each frame, alternating with the holes that kept the film locked and loaded inside Zapruder’s camera, one can watch what amounts to new footage. Sharper eyes may have gleaned more from the long-suppressed sprocket data, but mine focused on Secret Service agent Clint Hill running furiously to catch up with the president’s limousine. Only after Hill sprints across a kind of longitudinal line in the MPI version of the filmleaping from the sprocket zone to the more familiar, cropped frames we’ve all seen many timescan you see Hill’s famous climb atop the limousine’s trunk and restraint of Mrs. Kennedy.
Others you can try to spot from your La-Z-Boy include “Umbrella Man” and the “Lady in Red,” two highly scrutinized bystanders visible in the original Zapruder film, and “Badgeman,” the elusive second gunman on the grassy knoll. First noticed in a photographic enhancement developed in 1982, “Badgeman” actually consists of a nebulous aggregation of black and white pixels that resembles, to some, a man wearing a uniform and badge, producing a puff of smoke and fire with a weapon pointed directly at the president.
All are permanent companions of a group unfortunately termed “conspiracy theorists,” or Warren Commission “critics.” Doubtless rankled by the negative connotations of their labels, these individuals must learn from the anti-abortion activists, who succeeded, against great odds, in changing their journalistic label to “pro-life” activists. Even “JFK assassination researchers,” which the Kennedy folks prefer to be called, hardly serves their interests, because it raises the question: When does the research finally end, with the case truly closed?
Like a Kodachrome-colored Rorschach test, the footage Abraham Zapruder shot on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, continues to divide wide numbers of Americans into two camps, whose ferocious inclination is to view each other in zero-sum terms: those who believe in Lee Harvey Oswald’s solo guilt and those who believe the shooting was the result of a conspiracy. Joining the mountainous literature on the subject, Silencing the Lone Assassin: The Murders of JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald, by John A. Canal, represents a novel attempt to have it both ways.
For starters, Canal fits into none of the above-mentioned categories of individuals long consumed with these events. He describes himself as a former Air Force electronics instructor who “received a personal letter of appreciation from President Carter for solving a problem that had degraded the Electronics Warfare Training of fighter pilots.” He adds in his about-the-author statement: “Undoubtedly his years as an Air Force instructor have assisted him in producing a clear and methodical presentation…”
Actually, what really could have assisted Canal was an editor. Consider the book’s graceless first three sentences:
The assassination of John F. Kennedy has received more attention and analysis perhaps than any other single event, much less murder, in American history. While officially, according to the Warren Commission, Lee Harvey Oswald alone assassinated JFK, other investigators, researchers, and authors have pointed fingers at the CIA, FBI, Mafia, anti-Castro Cuban exiles, pro-Castro Cubans, [the] military-industrial complex, ultra-right-wing activists, and yes, even President Johnson! In fact, if every shooter from even half of all the conspiracy books were actually present in Dealey Plaza when JFK’s motorcade passed through, there would have been more lead flying around than at Gettysburg!
From the start, Canal shows that he writes poorly (“more attention and analysis perhaps than any other single event, much less murder…”), imprecisely (“even half of all the conspiracy books…”), and in bad taste (“more lead flying around than at Gettysburg!”). Moreover, by saying, “and yes, even President Johnson!” the authoran admitted amateur in the field of investigative scholarshipshows at the outset of what should be an unbiased exploration a rather unflattering disdain for theories he should seek to dispel not through hyperactive use of exclamation marks, but through dispassionate evidentiary analysis. By paragraph’s end, anyone who hoped to find a definitive study in Canal’s 121 pages (plus appendixes, notes, and the like) realizes how foolish he or she was to believe such a goal could be achieved in so few words. Later, outright embarrassment overwhelms the reader of such sentences as “Let’s face it, Oswald was three french fries away from being a ‘Happy Meal!’”
Also hobbling Canal’s work are factual sloppiness and muddled thinking. Many assertions carry no source attribution at all, and his beloved exclamation marks appear everywhere, even inside quotations from the final report of the House Select Committee on Assassinations (whose report concluded there was “probably” a conspiracy to kill Kennedy and engaged in little to no exclaiming).
Moreover, whereas “Badgeman” may well deserve derision (to decide for yourself, consult 1994’s The Killing of a President: The Complete Photographic Record of the JFK Assassination, the Conspiracy, and the Cover-Up, by Robert J. Groden, a longtime conspiracy advocate and photographic expert later hired by O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team” to challenge the authenticity of snapshots showing Simpson wearing the same Bruno Magli shoes as the murderer of Simpson’s wife), Canal is nevertheless wrong to ridicule claims about “Badgeman” on the basis that they derive from “‘enhancements’ (can I call them ‘doctored photos?’).” Amazingly, just a few pages later, Canal cites an upgraded copy of the Zapruder film (though he fails to mention the MPI release, casting doubt on whether he availed himself of the best evidence in the case) to buttress an unrelated point: “Indeed, the enhanced footage clearly shows the president and [Texas Gov. John Connally] reacting to being wounded at the same instant.” Apparently, photographic enhancements make valid evidence for only one side of the debate.
Still, Canal brings a painful earnestness to his task. “OK, I respect those two ‘counter arguments,’” he writes at one point, as if debating at the local barbershop, while employing subheadings like “And the Shooter Is…” and “Points of an Oswald-Ferrie Association”). For this reason, one is inclined not to hold the publisher’s obvious editorial negligence against a well-intentioned author. After all, as noted above, his overall conclusion represents a novelty in the genre.
Simply put, Canal argues in two separate sections that Oswald alone killed President Kennedybut that Jack Ruby was performing a mob “hit” when he killed Oswald two days later. In this, Canal clearly owes much to lawyer-scholar Gerald Posner and his thickly footnoted 498-page (plus appendixes, notes, and the like) 1993 epic, Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK. Embracing the Warren Commission’s finding that Oswald bore sole responsibility, Case Closed quickly became the most polarizing work on the subject in 30 years. Fourteen of Canal’s first footnotes cite either the Warren Commission Report (“the best possible information base”) or Case Closed (“brilliantly done…in my opinion the ‘non-conspiracy textbook’”).
In only three cases does Canal dare to correct his idol. The first focuses on bullet fragments recovered from the president’s head and limousine. Canal faults Posner for relying on the HSCA report’s finding that two fragments were found on the limousine floor: “First, four fragments were recovered from the floor of the limo, not two.” Where Posner had noted that the fragments from Kennedy’s brain “matched the three testable fragments found on the floorboard of the limousine,” Canal found: “[I]t’s far more important to state that the brain fragments matched [Warren Committee Exhibit No.] 567, [a bullet fragment] found on the front seat (not the floor) and ballistically matched to [the Mannlicher-Carcano rifle allegedly used by Oswald], so that a clear connection can be made between the brain fragments and that same rifle.”
The second Canal-Posner schism arises over the role of David Ferrie, a Civil Air Patrol comrade of Oswald’s from the ’50s who later found employment with the fearsome New Orleans crime figure Carlos Marcello. Ferrie’s acquaintanceship with both Oswald and Marcello, and his admitted actions in the hours following the assassination of President Kennedy, have long attracted scrutiny, especially in Oliver Stone’s much-reviled 1991 film JFK. Ferrie’s post-assassination actions included immediately leaving Marcello’s side during a Nov. 22 court proceeding, heading to Oswald’s former rooming house in New Orleans to inquire if the lady there had seen Oswald’s library card (which Canal concludes was an unsuccessful ruse designed to gain access to Oswald’s room), and driving 350 miles through a vicious thunderstorm to arrive in Houston at 4 a.m., only to depart hours later for Galveston, some 50 miles southeast. About an hour after Ferrie’s arrival in Galveston, Canal notes, an associate of Jack Ruby’s named Breck Wall arrived there as welland received a documented call from Ruby. “It’s interesting that Gerald Posner, who goes into amazing detail about what I think are much less important issues, doesn’t even mention the ‘Ferrie library card’ incident,” reproves Canal.
Jack Ruby’s motivation for killing Oswald occasions the third and final point of contention between Canal and Posner. Citing dozens of witnesses’ testimony about Ruby’s instability following the assassination, Posner concluded the shady Dallas nightclub owner shot Oswald in a desperate bid for respectability, hoping to go down in history as the noble man who killed the despicable man who’d killed the world’s noblest man. Moreover, Posner seized on the serendipity that allowed Ruby to arrive at the location where he got his unobstructed shot at Oswald:
Ruby later concluded, “The ironic part of this is had I not made an illegal turn behind the bus to the parking lot, had I gone the way I was supposed to go, straight down Main Street, I would never have met this fate because the difference in meeting this fate was thirty seconds one way or the other.”
Canal disagrees, suggesting that Marcello arranged through Ferrie for Ruby to kill Oswald, ostensibly because the 24-year-old misfit had “infiltrated” New Orleans’s Cuban exile community, learned about Marcello’s funding of the exiles, and learned, also, of the kingpin’s involvement in CIA-funded attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.
Already, this is what pool sharks would call a “four-bumper” shotbut there’s more. To the strapped Ruby’s hunger for a Mafia paycheck in exchange for whacking Oswald, Canal adds another, more personal motive for Ruby to take on the job: Ruby was supposedly funneling arms to the Cuban exiles and feared Oswald might have found this out, too.
The sad reality is that a million stray facts, diverging in every direction, pose problems for almost any theory of the Kennedy assassination. What was Ruby doing posing as a newsman at Dallas Police headquarters press conference, standing “three feet away” from Oswaldthe day before Ruby killed him? Similarly, is anyone truly convinced, despite the weighty scientific literature supporting it, that something called “jet effect” can propel an object (like the president’s head) backwards, even when it is struck from the rear?
We come back, as always, to the dress manufacturer and his silent home movie, which captured so much, and yet so little, of the assassination. “Of all the witnesses to the tragedy, the only unimpeachable one,” editorialized Life magazinewhich snapped up all rights to the film within 48 hours of its development”is the 8-mm movie camera of Abraham Zapruder.”
Yet in an impressive new collection of scholarly essays titled Murder in Dealey Plaza: What We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Then About the Death of JFK, edited by James H. Fetzer, readers can find a 16-page color insert that seeks to impeach the unimpeachable. Contrasting “authenticated” photographs of Dealey Plaza with key Zapruder frames, researcher Jack White finds bystanders present in one who don’t exist in the other, plus signs and trucks that shrink or grow in size, or disappear altogether. Even Zapruder and his assistant, Marilyn Sitzman, who steadied her boss as he took his film, appear to “waltz” suspiciously around their perch in a way that cannot add up mathematically, given the times certain photographs were taken, the lines and angles of their perspectiveand so on, ad infinitum.
In the end, amid the endless research and argumentation, as the percentage of Americans who were even alive in November 1963 continues to ebb away, so, too, do the facts of the assassination. In their place we will have only the differing interpretations of the 8-mm Rorschach test, along with overly romantic conceptions, held almost universally, of John F. Kennedy and his presidency. CP