Nigel Turner is the producer of the television series, The Men Who Killed Kennedy. Made for the Central Independent Television company, it started off a two-part documentary broadcast in October, 1988: The Coup d'Etat and The Forces of Darkness. Three more installments were made two years later: The Cover Up, The Patsy and The Witnesses. The sixth episode, The Truth Shall Set You Free, was added in 1995.
These documentaries have been highly controversial. In the documentary broadcast in 1988 Stephen Rivele argued that the assassination of John F. Kennedy had been organized by Antoine Guerini, the Corsican crime boss in Marseilles. According to Rivele, Lucien Sarti fired from behind the wooden fence on the grassy knoll. The first shot was fired from behind and hit Kennedy in the back. The second shot was fired from behind, and hit John Connally. The third shot was fired from in front, and hit Kennedy in the head. The fourth shot was from behind and missed. As well as Sarti, also named Sauveur Pironti and Roger Bocognani as being involved in the killing. However, Pironti and Bocognani both had alibis and Rivele was forced to withdraw the allegation.
In another episode, Charles Harrelson, who some investigators believed was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, told Turner that "on November 22, 1963, at 12.30, I was having lunch with a friend in a restaurant in Houston, Texas." He also told Turner that he would not have accepted such a contract as he knew that if he had, he would have ended up, like Lee Harvey Oswald, being killed by the Mafia.
For the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Nigel Turner produced three more installments: The Love Affair, The Smoking Guns and The Guilty Men. The first in the series was an account by Judyth Vary Baker of her (at first, unwitting) involvement in an anti-Castro conspiracy. A young woman who had received specialized training in cancer research, she was invited to New Orleans by Alton Ochsner to aid Dr. Mary Sherman in a research project that was being developed to kill Fidel Castro.
In 1963, Judyth met Lee Harvey Oswald and became involved on the clandestine side of the research project. Both had unhappy marriages and were attracted to each other. She and Oswald began working together: they were both hired May 10, 1963, at Reily's Coffee Company, which provided cover jobs for them. Several labs were involved, including a tumor and tissue culture processing mini-lab, at an apartment owned by anti-Castroite Dave Ferrie. Lee Oswald was selected to courier the biological materials to Mexico City, but the project was called off due to Hurricane Flora. Oswald was ordered to Dallas.
Oswald kept in touch with Judyth Vary Baker: they planned to escape to Mexico after his major assignment - his voluntary infiltration of an assassination ring against John F. Kennedy. Oswald believed a highly conservative Texas-sponsored cartel was working with the Mafia and rogue elements of the CIA and the FBI in the plot against Kennedy. He suspected that David Atlee Phillips was his handler. After Kennedy was assassinated, Dave Ferrie called Judyth and told her she was being watched. if she talked, she would die.
Researchers are divided on Baker's story: a number of researchers have seen most or all her original evidence files and defend her (such as Jim Marrs, Martin Shackelford, Wim Dankbaar, Howard Platzman) while other researchers attack her story (Jack White, David Lifton, John MacAdams, Dave Reitzes). Baker points out that almost all the researchers who have attacked her story have never met her or viewed her original evidence files.
This programme was followed by The Smoking Guns and looked at the research carried out by people such as James H. Fetzer, David Mantik, Douglas Weldon, Jack White and Vincent Palamara. This dealt with the controversial subject of the alteration of the Zapruder Film.
The third programme was called The Guilty Men and looked at the possibility that Lyndon B. Johnson, Malcolm Wallace and Edward A. Clark were involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The programme used evidence from the book by Blood, Money and Power: How LBJ Killed JFK by Barr McClellan. It also used other sources such as the testimony of Madeleine Brown and Billie Sol Estes and the research of Walt Brown, Ed Tatro, Glen Sample, and Gregory Burnham.
The original 1988 British broadcast named the three hit men and accused them of killing Kennedy. One, Sarti, was dead, but the other two were still alive. One threatened to sue Central and had a good alibi. Central quickly produced a 30-minute "apology" program in which the "assassin" told his story. The guests included Robert Groden, Robert Blakey, Howard Willens of the Warren Commission, and James Duffy. I was not invited. The moderator and all of the guests, except Groden, criticized Nigel for failing to do thorough research. Groden tried to emphasize the film's strong points.
The "apology" program, taped in Washington, aired only in England. Parts one and two of "The Men Who Killed Kennedy" were then re-edited to remove the accusations, but the show's credibility was damaged. That was the real reason ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS lost interest in purchasing US rights from Central, even though all four initially wanted the series.
The initial turning point was the first meeting that I had with the French narcotics trafficker at Leavenworth Penitentiary. His name was Christian David. He had been a member of the old French Connection heroin network. He had then been a leader of the Corsican drug trafficking network in South America known as the Latin Connection. And he had also been an intelligence agent for a number of intelligence services around the world. In exchange for my help in finding him an attorney to represent him against the possibility of his deportation to France after he finished his sentence at Leavenworth, he agreed to give me a certain amount of information concerning the assassination based upon his own knowledge. The first thing that he told me, very reluctantly and only after four or five hours of my arguing with him, was that he was aware that there had been a conspiracy to murder the president, and indeed in May or June of 1963 in Marseilles, he had been offered the contract to kill President Kennedy. That was the initial breakthrough, if you will. He was eventually deported to France. I remained in contact with him. I went to Paris to interview him in two prisons in Paris. And in the fear that he would be either committed to an asylum or that he would be convicted of an old murder charge, he gradually gave me additional information about the assassination.
David’s position was that there were three killers, and that they had been hired on a contract which had been placed with the leader of the Corsican Mafia at Marseilles, a man named Antoine Guerini. Guerini, he said, was asked to supply three assassins of high quality, experienced killers to murder the President, and that Guerini did so. In the course of one of the first significant conversations I had with David on this subject, he told me that he had been in Marseilles in May or June of 1963, and that every evening he went to Antoine Guerini’s club on the old Port of Marseilles to meet people who owed him money. And one evening, Guerini sent for him, asked him to come to the office which was above the club. Guerini told him that he had an important contract, and he asked David if he were interested. David said, "Who’s the contract on?" Guerini said, "an American politician." David asked, "Well is it a congressman, a senator?" And Guerini said, "higher than that... The highest vegetable." At that point of course David knew who he was talking about. David asked him where was the contract to be carried out. And when Guerini said it would be done inside the United States, David refused on the grounds that that was much too dangerous.
For those who wish to see no further progress in the Kennedy case, a much-trumpeted British television program . . . was a welcome event. Among its many follies, the program named as Gunman Two and Gunman Three two men whose names had come up during Rivele's discussions with (Christian) David, but who David had since specifically said were innocent. In the wake of the television program, one of the men produced a plausible alibi for November 22, and Rivele's exclusive story suddenly appeared -- however unjustifiably -- to have been exploded. Rivele's French publishers backed off, and no American publisher had been found as this book went to press. Rivele himself, disgusted with the Central TV fiasco, weary from years of non-stop investigation, turned to other work.
Episode One: The Coup d'Etat The first episode starts out with the events of November 22, 1963. Dr. Robert McClelland and Dr Paul Peters, doctors at Parkland hospital, and Aubrey Rike, the ambulance driver, are interviewed as the first to see the body of Kennedy after he was shot. The episode also spends a lot of time on the changes found in Kennedy's head between Dallas and Washington, changes allegedly designed to prevent an examination of Kennedy's wounds and the possible bullet routes. Dr. Cyril Wecht, an articulate forensic pathologist, expresses outrage at this, and Harold Weisberg, a prominent early critic, also pipes in. The show also chronicles the attempts to stop Dallas from continuing to investigate, orders coming right from President Johnson. Then there is Beverly Oliver. This woman breaks her silence of 25 years (she is also the basis for a character in JFK). A singer in the Colony Club next to Ruby's Carousel Club, she was also in Dealey Plaza that day. This is a remarkable coincidence, and her stories have been disputed. She had a dancer friend named Jada, and through her Oliver met Ruby with Oswald one night two weeks before the assassination. Jada gave an interview to the media right after the killing, and Oliver tells the viewer that Jada is now dead. Another witness who worked for the police department reveals that Jack Ruby called the police department the night before with a warning that if the cops didn't change the Oswald route for transfer the next day, "we are going to kill him." This episode concludes with a brief discussion of Mary Anne Moreman's famous photo, an image the producers suggest can solve the case.
Episode Two: The Forces of Darkness Beverly Oliver returns, telling us that she saw the man who killed Kennedy. In Dealey Plaza, she was the famous babushka lady, unidentified until the late '80s. She was standing next to Moreman, and is seen from the rear in the Nix film. She had a camera too, and her film was seized. Meanwhile, photo analysts Jack White and Gary Mack found the famous Badgeman in the Moorman image through photo enhancement. To them, their work confirms the story of one Gordon Arnold, a young soldier who was in Dealey Plaza, and who may have been chased off by members of the assassination team. Up on the knoll in front of the fence, he may also have felt a bullet buzz past his left ear. Like Oliver's film, Arnold's film was also seized. Mack and White's work on the Moorman picture confirms that Arnold was on the scene. The producers spring a colorized version of the photo enhancement on Arnold who then reveals that if he had know about this image earlier in the day, an image that suggests to Arnold that he talked to the men who killed Kennedy, he wouldn't have given an interview. Ed Hoffman is also interviewed for the first time. He saw the men whom Arnold also saw, packing up and leaving. Over 50 witnesses said that the shots came from the fence. This is all fascinating stuff, despite the fact that some may not be able to get their mind around the possibility that White and Mack are reading images into their colorized photo enlargement.
At this point, episode two amazingly takes the show on a sudden leap. Writer Steve Rivele is introduced. He worked on the Kennedy case for three years. His conclusions, recounted in a book called The Men Who Shot Kennedy, which I've never seen, posit that a man named Christian David, a drug trafficker and intelligence agent, knew the names of the killers. In return for help in finding an attorney to help David escape being deportation to France, he revealed some info about the assassination. In May or June of 1963, David says, he was offered the contract to kill Kennedy in Marseilles. When David was deported anyway, Rivele still managed to interview him, in France. Three killers were hired by a man named Antoine Gavenige (the spelling may be off here; the program offers sparse name tags). Rivele was able to find out the name of the third man, because he was dead. It was Lucien Sarti, a Corsican drug trafficker killed in 1972 in Mexico City. Though conversations with another informant, Michel Nicoli, Rivele gets what he believes is the full story. In 1963 the three killers traveled from Mexico City three weeks before the hit, driven into America via Brownsville with Italian passports, where they were picked up by Chicago mafiaso who spoke to them in Italian. Then they were driven to Dallas and put up in a safe house. For several days took photos and arranged their crossfire positions. Two were in buildings behind the President, almost on the horizontal. "You can't understand the wounds unless you understand that one of the men was on the horizontal," says the informant. As an assassin Sarti was prone to wearing uniforms and he may have dressed as a cop? Rivele says that there were four shots, three hits, one miss, and two shots nearly simultaneous. The men got out of Dealey Plaza easily, and hide in the safe house for 10 days. At that point, they took a private plane from Dallas to Montreal, then to Marseilles. Rivele believes that gangsters Carlos Marcello, Giancana, and Trafficante, were involved, along with Carlos Gambino. A Marseilles gangster named Paul Mondeloni the coordinator. Rivele turned his information over to the DEA in 1987, which in turn handed it to the FBI, whereupon nothing happened. This is all shocking news, but Rivele's theories have been challenged by critics of the critics, who say that the other two men, still alive but unnamed in the program, had alibis for that time period, one of them being in jail.
Episode Three: The Cover-Up Copyrighted 1989, this episode backtracks through the events of the day and concentrates on ignored witnesses and turf tussles between government agencies. Interviewed are FBI agent James Hosty, Dealey Plaza witnesses Bill and Gail Newman, who were closest to the President at the time of the shooting, and Mary Woodward, the closest journalist to the President. Many of the people in this episode, and the first one, were also interviewed for Larry Sneed's book No More Silence, an anthology of interviews with Dallas witnesses. L. Fletcher Prouty is brought on to say some of the things his surrogate X (Donald Sutherland) says in JFK. Brain removal is discussed by Paul O'Connor, a medical technician who worked on the body in an autopsy room crowded with 33 people, some of them mysterious civilians who gave orders to lead forensic pathologies Boswell and Humes. The three tramps are discussed. Charles V. Harrelson, who killed a federal judge in San Antonio, and who has admitted to killing five previous people (and who is also the father of actor Woody Harrelson) is offered up as one of the tramps and allowed to deny it (I've seen passing references but no details to a fact that all three tramps have been identified and Harrelson isn't one of them). Seth Kantor was a journalist who saw Ruby at Parkland Hospital, and he tells his story. Critic Larry Harris discusses Oswald. Finally there is the startling taped conversation between an FBI informant named Willie Somerset, a labor organizer, and a Georgia based racist named Joseph Milteer, broadcast here for the first time. Milteer seems to know an awful lot about the way the hit would actually come down (like Joe Peschi's Davie Ferrie in JFK). Kennedy, who might well have been killed in Miami instead of Dallas on the 18th of November, had his route changed as a consequence of that taped conversation. Groden says he found a photo of Milteer on Houston Street, and he is said to have called Somerset from Dallas that day. How the heck Milteer knew all this stuff is a mystery, and if only a coincidence, one of the greatest in history. He died in a house fire in 1965.
Episode Four: The Patsy Here we have an all-Oswald hour. The political position of the show is revealed by this episode's title. Six weeks before assassination, Oswald went to work at the Depository, while living in the Oak Cliff suburb, four miles out of Dallas (Oswald didn't drive). His kids lived at the opposite end, in oak cliff, in Irving, at the home of Russian speaking Quaker Ruth Paine, a mysterious woman the subject of yet another pro-Warren book by Thomas Mallon (Mrs. Paine's Garage). Buel Frazier is the man who drove Oswald to work on the morning of Friday, the 22nd. In the backseat were the famous curtain rods, a package about two feet long (the rifle was three feet long when dismantled). Frazier did not even know that the motorcade was going by the Depository. Did Oswald? By the way, did Oswald's room really need curtain rods? Was the packaging ever found on the premises? Next there is an interview with a cop who ran into Oswald in the lunchroom of the Depository. The show then goes on to treat the mysterious Tippet case, with its conflicting witnesses, and then Oswald's brief, media-hogging foray to New Orleans (where he was born), including interviews with the late Jim Garrison (the subject of a forthcoming biography by Joan Mellon). Garrison says, "That the re-writing of history made a villain out this young who wanted nothing more to be a fine marine is perhaps the greatest injustice of all". Oswald also went up to Clinton, Louisiana and drew some attention there. Several Clinton residents are interviewed. Finally, the 1981 exhumation of the Oswald's body is covered.
Episode Five: The Witnesses Originally the last of the episodes, and copyrighted 1989, this episode walks the viewer through the testimony of witnesses who were not called by the Warren Commission or whose testimony was altered (most of the interviews here and though-out the series were probably conducted by associate producer Susan Winter). Most of these people have popped up in the previous four episodes. New subjects include the photo of Oswald in the backyard, which many have claimed has been faked. Also, Oswald's line-up exploits are discussed. And the acoustic evidence that was introduced at the congressional House Assassination Committee hearings on the Kennedy case in the '70s wraps up the show. Thanks to the Committee, there are now two official conclusions to the case, one for and one against conspiracy. The show then touches on the "Vietnam theory" that is also found in JFK. "The biggest ally the conspiracy has had is the American media," says Groden, which may explain why this program was manufactured by the BBC.
Episode Six: The Truth Shall Set You Free Copyrighted 1995, and added to the package much later, the last episode strives for the grand overview, another version of what X was telling Jim Garrison in the park near the end of JFK. The previously camera shy Marina Oswald also now appears. First up is Tom Wilson, a former US Steel employee specializing in photonics, who in retirement turned his attention to photo analysis of the case, coming to the conclusion that the shooter hid in a drainpipe (a theory first introduced by small Texas town newspaper editor Penn Jones). Dan Marvin is a former Green Beret who may have been approached to perform an assassination on a Naval officer William Bruce Pitzer, at Bethesda, a man with inside knowledge of the case. Marvin turned down the assignment, and another Beret named David Vanick was approached, a man who vanished that day. Then, in November 1963, Pitzer, the head of the audio-visual unit at Bethesda, who had 16mm footage of the autopsy, was found dead in his office. Bill Turner, a writer for Ramparts, and author of the book Deadly Secrets talks about the patsyhood of Oswald and his escapade in Mexico City. Atlanta writers Lamar Waldron and Tom Hardin make the Cuban connection and suggest that Robert Kennedy's participation in that aspect of the Kennedy assassination brings a special poignancy to the proceedings.
So just what are we to make of Judyth? Her story appears to be a elaborate tapestry woven around several kinds of elements. First, she has taken the artifacts of a fairly ordinary life and invested them with huge significance. A form letter from Bertrand Russell’s secretary becomes the remaining trace of a string of letters concerning sex and politics. A letter from Senator George Smathers congratulating her on her prowess as a science student is, in reality, evidence that senators have staffs who comb newspapers for names to which letters can be sent to ingratiate the senator with constituents. But to Judyth this is evidence that people in high places have noticed her and have slated her for covert use. A copy of Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades” becomes a book that she and Lee read together.
Another element is bits of the folklore surrounding the assassination. The fact that Greer slowed the presidential limo when the shooting started, or that Adlai Stevenson got rough treatment in Dallas a few weeks before Kennedy arrived, or that Oswald (supposedly) owned a Minox all get knitted into the narrative. So do most of the usual suspects of conspiracy writers.
Finally, as David Lifton has pointed out, she has found the interstices in the biography of Oswald and inserted herself. For example, two of the witnesses to Oswald in Jackson, Louisiana (Edwin McGehee and Mary Morgan) described a woman in the car that Oswald drove. Since Marina denied that she made any such trip, this might seem to cast doubt on the notion that this was Oswald. But Judyth claims that she was the woman.
The classic case of Judyth inserting herself in the historical record involves a “Character – Financial Report” on Lee Oswald that can be found in Warren Commission volume XXIV. It’s a rather odd document, attributing to the Oswald’s a net worth of $2,500, failing to mention Oswald’s defection to the Soviet Union, and saying that Oswald enjoys a “favorable business reputation.” Judyth claimed to have written the report as part of an operation to provide a “cover” for Lee concealing questionable aspects of his life. Unfortunately, the FBI had, on the day following the assassination, interviewed the man who really wrote the report, one Henry Desmare of the Retail Credit Company. When Judyth and her supporters learned of the FBI interview, they began to claim that the Desmare interview was suspect, and that he (and perhaps the FBI agents who did the interview) were covering something up. In reality, investigators for the Retail Credit Company were badly overworked and had to resort to vague and innocuous boilerplate, guesses, and some outright fabrications.
In In October 2003, Barr McClellan published Blood, Money & Power: How L.B.J. Killed J.F.K. As its title suggests, the book makes an astounding claim that former President Lyndon Johnson, and other deceased officials and persons, were involved in a conspiracy to murder President Kennedy. This claim is patently absurd. Yet according to the New York Times, over 75,000 copies of the book have been sold.
McClellan is a retired Texas attorney who says he once represented LBJ. He also happens to be the father of Scott McClellan, President Bush's press secretary, and Mark McClellan, whom Bush appointed commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.
When subsequently promoting his book on Fox News, McClellan went even further, claiming that LBJ "had killed before. He knew how to do it. He was comfortable with it." When the astonished host asked if "the president was a multiple murderer," McClellan said, "yes, he was."
A month after the book's publication, the History Channel featured McClellan's contention in a documentary. The Wall Street Journal described the documentary as "conceivably the most malignant assault on sanity and truth (not to mention history) in memory." But it was shown far and wide: the History Channel's programs are sent to 125 million subscribers in some 60 countries.
In response to controversy raised by the airing of "The Guilty Men," an episode of the "Men Who Killed Kennedy" series, The History Channel has produced a new program called .The Guilty Men: An Historical Review. In this one-hour program, three distinguished historians examine America's fascination with the John F. Kennedy Assassination, the credibility of the theory that Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was involved in the assassination, and the way the theory was presented in "The Guilty Men" program. The Guilty Men: An Historical Review, moderated by former CNN Washington Bureau Chief and White House Correspondent Frank Sesno, will air on Wednesday, April 7th at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT.
Since "The Guilty Men" aired in November 2003 (one of a series of programs that aired at that time about alternative theories on the assassination of President Kennedy), The History Channel has received critical feedback from its viewers, as well as protests from family members and associates of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
After careful consideration of the concerns raised, Dan Davids, Executive Vice President and General Manager of The History Channel, asked Steven Gillon, Ph.D, professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and resident historian for The History Channel, to assemble three prominent historians to offer insight into the controversy. At Professor Gillon's request Robert Dallek, Ph.D (Boston University), Stanley I. Kutler, Ph.D (University of Wisconsin) and Thomas Sugrue, Ph.D (University of Pennsylvania) agreed to participate in the review. Mr. Sesno and the three historians are independent of The History Channel. Their review will be presented, unedited, in The Guilty Men: An Historical Review.
Although they acknowledge the lingering public doubts about the findings of the Warren Commission, all three historians believe that the theory that President Johnson was involved is entirely unfounded and does not hold up to scrutiny. The historians were highly critical of "The Guilty Men" and The History Channel decision to air it.
The History Channel accepts the criticisms of these historians. After reflecting on the historians' comments and conducting its own internal review, The History Channel recognizes that "The Guilty Men" failed to offer viewers context and perspective, and fell short of the high standards that the network sets for itself. The History Channel apologizes to its viewers and to Mrs. Johnson and her family for airing the show.
"This program is atypical of the thousands of hours of programming that The History Channel has produced since its launch in 1995. Over the years, we have earned the trust and loyalty of our viewers and we want to continue to earn it. We have a great responsibility and this time we did not live up to it. We hold ourselves accountable. As we have said before, nothing is more important to us than the accuracy of our programming and the integrity of our network," stated Dan Davids, Executive Vice President and General Manager of The History Channel.
As a result, The History Channel has taken the following actions: The History Channel has sent a letter of apology to Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson and her family expressing deep regret that the network has caused her discomfort and grief. The History Channel has decided that "The Guilty Men" program will no longer air over the network or be made available on home video. The History Channel has strengthened its review procedures to ensure that programs, especially those relating to controversial or sensitive matters, are presented in a manner consistent with the network's high standards.
The original, 1988 broadcast ignited a furor in Britain years before the series made its debut in the United States. The first two episodes, as originally broadcast, named a three-man Corsican hit team from Marseilles, France as having been responsible for firing all the shots in Dealey Plaza, and named names. Although one of the named assassins, Lucien Sarti, was conveniently dead, the other two (Sauveur Pironti and Roger Bocognani) were both alive and both had airtight alibis.“The only thing I know of Dallas is the soap opera I have watched on TV,” Pironti said. His lawyers threatened a “multi-million pound” lawsuit, and Central Television was subjected to public criticism bordering on ridicule. On its own initiative, Central sent its own reporters to France after the program aired, and they promptly notified the company that the allegations were bogus and “total nonsense.”
That was not quite the end of the matter. Independent producer-director Nigel Turner was censured by members of the British Parliament, and there was an attempt to revoke Central Television’s franchise based on the penalty for making inaccurate broadcasts in British law. Although that ultimate sanction was not applied, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, the British regulatory agency, did compel Central Television to commission another program devoted entirely to exposing Turner’s research ethics. This “studio crucifixion” of Turner, as it was called, was duly broadcast on 16 November 1988, marking the first time British regulators had ever forced such action. Turner’s response to the controversy was illuminating. “We expected this,” he said. “People have had 25 years to come up with alibis.” When asked why he did not bother to interview one of the alleged assassins (Pironti), Turner replied he didn’t because it was too dangerous. “We’re not talking about two-bit criminals. We’re talking about the world’s worst criminals.” The American journalist who generated the allegations in the first place, however, was somewhat more chastened. Episodes one and two of The Men Who Killed Kennedy were subsequently edited to remove the offending accusations.
An exhaustive analysis of all The Men Who Killed Kennedy episodes would be mind-numbing. But a few generalizations can be made. One important point to keep in mind is that the episodes in the series are mutually exclusive. That is, one could not possibly accept episode one and/or three as being accurate, and simultaneously, episodes six, seven or eight. The “standards” for this series remain what they were for episodes one and two: they are risible, if they exist at all. A consistent pattern is that people who were nowhere to be found in 1963-64, when the investigation of the assassination was at its height, suddenly surface from deserved obscurity with the most astounding stories. Frequently their reputations are doubtful at best and several are convicted felons. Allegations of criminal conspiracy are casually made without even the pretense of supplying any proof or corroboration; it is simply enough to level the accusation (the “big lie” technique). Invariably, the most terrible charges involve people who are now dead (Nigel Turner apparently having learned a hard lesson in 1988).
The History Channel recently observed the fortieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination with a series of films, "The Men who Killed Kennedy." The most widely-viewed hour, "The Guilty Men," cast Lyndon Baines Johnson in a starring role for ordering the assassination. The film was offered without fear, and without evidence.
LBJ's family and friends heatedly protested the program. Finally, after former President Gerald Ford weighed in with his objections, the History Channel engaged several of us to evaluate the program, and provided air time to discuss our findings and conclusions. Let us hope that is not the end of the matter.
The Kennedy assassination has been fertile, enduring territory for conspiracy theories. But if such elaborate notions are your cup of tea, put no hope in the scurrilous book by Barr McClellan, a onetime associate who worked in Johnson's personal attorney's office, and British film maker Nigel Turner's farcical film rendering of McClellan's musings, which the History Channel broadcast. Their work is a parody of assassination theories and beliefs; surely, this is history as a joke the living play on the dead. Such programs reflect our desperate desire to embrace a conspiracy rather than the crucial question of truth.
McClellan's wild charges involve characters across the political spectrum, from disgruntled Texas oilmen, to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the CIA, the military, Johnson's crooked Texas cronies, and Texas Governor John Connally - forget he almost was killed himself. The Right has to be pleased with the mugging of LBJ, while the Left can pin more evil-doing on Hoover. A perfect storm. Such are our faded memories that McClellan can afford to omit a Communist plot.
McClellan's background is worth a mention. He is a convicted forger, who then resigned from the bar before disbarment proceedings ran their course. His certitude knows no bounds: "LBJ murdered John F. Kennedy"; Johnson "knew of the assassination"; and he was involved "beyond a reasonable doubt." His "evidence" rests entirely on the alleged utterances of dead people, with the sole exception of that poster child for a con artist, Billie Sol Estes. A McClellan supporter wrote to me, urging that I call Estes to "get the truth." He said "Billie Sol Estes was there when LBJ ordered the killings, 18 of them in all. This includes JFK. Don't take my word for it, get it from the man who was there at the time the killings were ordered. Call Billie Sol Estes..." The FBI has investigated Estes's accusations, and they found his credibility "non-existent." A further cover-up? Then consider how this pitiful figure admitted to his sentencing judge in 1979: "I have a problem. I live in a dream world." In a rare sensible moment, the film maker wisely did without his services - but not without his fabrications.
Assassination conspiracy theories and books expounding them proliferate. But film is special. A conjurer's sleight-of-hand and verbal misdirection are ready ingredients for manipulating a mass audience. Richard Condon, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate, and who managed to spoof every recent American president, gave his own comic twist in Winter Kills, a novel (later a film) naming the perp as Patriarch Joseph Kennedy, distressed because his son had become too liberal. A comic genius, Condon never labeled his work as anything other than fiction. But Oliver Stone, in the new tradition of "docu-dramas,"gave us JFK, which lent an aura of authenticity to Jim Garrison's outlandish, gothic tale. Sadly, many of those under 25 believed him.
The History Channel film takes historical revisionism to unimagined depths. It seems everyone wanted Kennedy dead: he was going to withdraw from Vietnam in December 1963, so the CIA and the military wanted him out of the way; Texans wanted to preserve their oil-depletion allowance; J. Edgar Hoover believed Kennedy was about to replace him; and driving it all, of course, was Lyndon Johnson's insatiable appetite for power. Increasing the improbability of the thesis, it seems, heightens its appeal.