By Bob Carr
A gentleman never wears brown and a serious person never even talks about the Kennedy assassination. It's hard, however, to distance yourself in Dallas. Here, the Texas School Book Depository, where Lee Harvey Oswald had his sniper's nest, has been converted to the Sixth Floor Museum. You look down at Dealey Plaza as Oswald did through the 4X telescopic sight of his Mannlicher-Carcano cradled on a book carton.
The World War II Italian gun cost $12.78, its telescopic sight $7.17. Both were bought, American-style, from a mail-order house in Chicago.
It was, according to experts -- here we are being drawn into argument with conspiracy theorists -- a very accurate weapon. And Oswald -- more argument with the dissenters -- was a proficient marksman at much greater distances than the 81m that separated him from the open limo carrying the president.
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Looking from the window at the X painted on the road surface, I thought assassination too solemn a term. This was plain, unvarnished murder.
John Kennedy had what critics call character faults. While president he may have smoked reefers in bed with mistress Mary Meyer and tried LSD with her. He certainly bedded Judith Campbell, a top mafia man's mistress. These indiscretions might have resulted in impeachment had he lived to win a second term. Friendly Time correspondent Hugh Sidey believes so. But just under three years into his presidency, he was achieving what might be called a certain grandeur. He was beginning to move beyond the Cold War and towards civil rights for African Americans.
So consider this: the man who secured the first nuclear test ban treaty and was arguing with southern governors to let African Americans enrol at university was felled by a 24-year-old wife-beater with no cause but his demons.
With help from a hotel concierge, I located a member of "the research community".
That's Dallas code for an assassination nut, in this case a retired security man owning more than 100 books on the issue and attending annual conferences of conspiracy theorists. He conducts tours from Love Field, where Air Force One had landed at 11.39am, to the Parkland hospital where Kennedy had been pronounced dead at 1pm.
As you inspect rooming houses where Oswald and his Russian wife Marina lived or see the run-down cinema where he was seized, it's Oswald's lonely, angry life that stares back at you. You are nudged towards the lone nutter theory endorsed by the Warren commission. And I kept thinking of the view of novelist Norman Mailer in his book Oswald's Tale that there's enough in Oswald, this vulgar nonentity, to explain the deed.
And Mailer knew all there was to know about the overlap of CIA, mafia and exiled Cubans in Kennedy's America.
Yet when Robert Kennedy, brother of the president, heard the news of the assassination, his immediate action was to ring CIA director John McCone and ask whether the agency had been involved. For the attorney-general to even think this points to a war within the Kennedy administration. This is the starting point for David Talbot's 2007 book Brothers, a sophisticated account of how the idea of a conspiracy persisted within Kennedy circles.
Talbot argued that Cuba was the Iraq of its day. To the "national security elite it was where the forces of good and evil were arrayed against each other, the epicentre of the struggle that would come close to a literally earth-shattering climax". And the military and intelligence bosses thought their own president was dangerous.
For his part, Kennedy had despaired of the CIA after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs affair in 1961. In the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, he had overruled the unanimous proposal of his joint chiefs of staff of a full-scale invasion of Cuba. He was to say privately, "I am almost a 'peace-at-any-price' president," and this seemed to be woven into the June 1963 peace speech where he argued for Americans to examine their attitudes to the Soviet Union, the Cold War and the possibilities of peace.
You don't have to struggle with James Ellroy's unreadable novel American Tabloid to grasp the fact of a sewer running just under American political life in these years. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr put it more elegantly, writing of "the underground streams through which so much of the actuality of American power darkly coursed: the FBI, CIA, the racketeering unions and the mob".
Talbot's thesis is that members of the Kennedy inner circle believed in a conspiracy or were open to its reality. Except there is no evidence. None.
Further, Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley says of the president, "His differences with the hardliners who opposed him were mostly tactical, not strategic. He wavered between bold, liberal visions of the future and conventional Cold War thinking." He and Robert still wanted to use the CIA to kill Fidel Castro. His intentions on Vietnam were elusive.
Today, the anti-conspiracy case has overwhelmingly the bulk of the arguments.
Published in 2007, Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History boasts 1664 pages with a separate CD-ROM carrying an additional 1128 pages of footnotes. It's said that if the book were produced in standard volumes of 120,000 words each, it would make 13 volumes, every line wrestling conspiracy theories to the ground.
Faced with it, I know how Ishmael felt when, dragged under the ocean, he watched Moby-Dick churn by. Or, as Bryan Burrough wrote in The New York Times, "This book should be applauded. I'm not sure, however, that it should be read."
More manageable is Gerald Posner's 580-page Case Closed, published in 1993 and since updated. Posner savages Oliver Stone's 1991 movie JFK, which elevated Jim Garrison, district attorney of New Orleans, in his manic attempts to prove a conspiracy. Posner reminds us that Garrison first alleged a conspiracy that was "a homosexual thrill killing". He later endorsed "a Nazi operation" sponsored by oil-rich millionaires. Later a CIA operation with Jack Ruby as paymaster. Later a plot by White Russians, with Robert Kennedy joining the Warren commission as part of the cover-up. The movie was a disgrace because it invested Garrison's lunacies with glamour.
As for Dealey Plaza, of the nearly 200 witnesses who expressed an opinion on the number of shots fired whose testimony or statements are in the National Archives and the 26 Warren commission volumes, more than 88 per cent heard three. This is the official story. The House Select Committee on Assassinations, established by congress to review all material, claimed in 1979 there was an additional shot based on a recording of the police radio network. But this was rushed and sloppy work and more recent acoustical science dispels it.
There's no evidence of mafia involvement. There is no link between the mafia and Oswald, or a pattern of the mafia killing American politicians.
Posner dispels the classic conspiracy argument that there had been "mystery deaths" of witnesses to the assassination. In fact, he points out the long life span enjoyed by important witnesses, even three who claimed to have seen a second shooter. Even 30 named as the second shooter by conspiracy buffs. There is not a single mystery death.
Posner concluded, "Chasing shadows on the grassy knoll will never substitute for real history. Lee Harvey Oswald, driven by his own twisted and impenetrable furies, was the only assassin at Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. To say otherwise, in light of the overwhelming evidence, is to absolve a man with blood on his hands, and to mock the president he killed."
President Lyndon Johnson reportedly resorted to the mantra, "Lone gunman. No conspiracy" in his talks with US Supreme Court chief justice Earl Warren.
His motive was to settle public opinion and rein in right-wing extremists who wanted to blame Castro. But he was right. Lone gunman. No conspiracy.
Bob Carr was the premier of NSW from 1995 to 2005 and is a board member at the US Studies Centre.