How the question of who killed JFK emerged in an unexpected way on the campaign trail
On Monday night in Fairfax, Virginia, Donald Jeffries, author and talk radio host, asked Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard about a book she was seen carrying, “JFK and the Unspeakable.” Published in 2008, the book is a Catholic philosopher’s meditation about the assassination of liberal president John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, one of the great historical crimes of American politics.
Gabbard replied she had not finished the book, but “from what I have read, it… speaks to what happened [on November 22] in a way that I haven’t seen anywhere else.”
It was a pretty cautious statement, but the custodians of the conventional wisdom pounced, nonetheless. Before Jeffries had posted the video on Facebook, Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent for New York magazine, tweeted about Gabbard’s comment, and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics Larry Sabato responded dismissively: “It explains everything only if you possess a conspiratorial mind and choose to discount available evidence to the contrary,” he wrote.
This lazy take is not only unfair to Gabbard, but it also scants “JFK and the Unspeakable,” among the best books on JFK’s assassination published in the last 20 years. Author James Douglass summarized the latest research on the national security power struggles that wracked Kennedy’s administration up to the day of his death. He also grapples with why we, as a society, have such a difficult time talking about the meaning of JFK’s murder. To confront JFK’s death, he concludes, is to confront an act of evil that we find unspeakable.
Sabato’s sniping also overlooks the fact that Gabbard’s doubts are hardly unknown in the American political elite. If the former Hawaii congresswoman has a “conspiratorial mind,” then so do former Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry and Al Gore, and maybe even Bill Clinton.
In 2013, Kerry said he thought Kennedy had been killed by a conspiracy, possibly emanating from Cuba, but declined to elaborate. At a joint appearance in a July 1992 campaign in West Virginia, Clinton and Gore were asked if they thought JFK had been killed by his enemies. At the time, Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” had just been a box office sensation with its all-too-believable depiction of the assassination as a coup by the CIA and Pentagon. The ever-slippery Clinton deflected the question to Gore, who said yes, he thought there was a conspiracy. Clinton then agreed with Gore.
Once in office, Clinton changed his mind and said there was no conspiracy. He also appointed a civilian panel in 1994, the Assassination Records Review Board, that began declassifying millions of pages of long-secret JFK files, a process that is still not yet complete 26 years later.
‘Felled by Domestic Opponents’
Now, you could counter that candidates on the stump will say anything to please a crowd or attract attention. In 2016, Donald Trump smeared rival Ted Cruz with the bogus claim that his father was somehow involved in JFK’s assassination. But Trump’s mendacity should not obscure the record.
Numerous power players of the 1960s had conspiratorial minds. JFK’s successor, Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ); his brother Robert Kennedy (RFK); and his widow Jackie Kennedy all privately spurned the Warren Commission’s conclusion that JFK had been killed by a man with no discernible motive. None of them actually shared Sabato’s blithe belief that the Warren Commission’s account of Kennedy’s assassination is irrefutable.
According to historians Timothy Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko, Robert and Jackie Kennedy told their painter friend William Walton just a week after the ambush in Dallas that they suspected JFK had been “felled by domestic opponents.” As recounted in David Talbot’s book “Brothers,” RFK discreetly investigated the possible involvement of CIA-funded Cubans and organized crime bosses in his brother’s death for the rest of his life.
Jackie Kennedy, in her conversations with author William Manchester, demurred on the controversial theory that a single bullet had wounded both her husband and Texas governor John Connally. (The so-called “single-bullet theory” is the forensic keystone on which the lone assassin theory depends.) Biographer Barbara Leaming wrote, “That certainly was not how Jackie remembered it.”
Publicly, Lyndon Johnson endorsed the Warren Commission report. Off the record, he scoffed at it, first to a CBS camera crew and then to Leo Janos, a writer for the Atlantic.
Other senior U.S. officials had the same reaction. Winston Scott, the chief of the CIA’s Mexico City station, suspected a conspiracy and wrote as much in an unpublished memoir. Former Cabinet Secretary Joseph Califano wrote in his memoir that he thought JFK was the victim of a Cuba-related plot. Col. L. Fletcher Prouty, chief of Pentagon Special Operations in 1963 and adviser to Oliver Stone for the film “JFK,” was sure there was a plot. “The reason for the assassination,” he wrote, “was to control the power of the presidency.”
‘Law of Silence’
Foreign leaders too, concluded JFK was killed by his enemies.
French president Charles de Gaulle, canny conservative and survivor of a right-wing assassination attempt in 1962, said Kennedy’s enemies had gotten away with the crime. He predicted a “law of silence” would prevail in Washington and the U.S. government would not seriously investigate.
Fidel Castro, canny communist and survivor dozens of CIA assassination conspiracies, concluded Kennedy had been killed by reactionary foes at home. “There were people in the American government who thought Kennedy was a traitor because he didn’t invade Cuba when he had the chance, when they were asking him,” the Cuban leader told Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg in 2013. “He was never forgiven for that.”
“So that’s what you think might have happened?” Goldberg asked.
“No doubt about it,” Castro answered.
On the question of who killed JFK, some of us find LBJ, RFK, Jackie, and Castro more credible than J. Edgar Hoover, Gerald Ford, Richard Helms, and Chris Matthews. Given the lies and the cover-ups of Hoover, Ford, and Helms, ours is not an irrational choice.
Last of the JFK Files
So not only is Tulsi Gabbard in good company when she expresses doubt about the official JFK story, but she is also talking about an issue that will confront the next president.
In October 2017, Trump broke a promise to release all the JFK files. Instead, he quietly issued a White House order saying he had “no choice” but to permit the CIA and FBI to keep secret thousands of JFK documents until at least 2021. According to the latest figures from the National Archives, 15,834 JFK files remain wholly or partially classified. In other words, it would be a crime to disclose their contents or talk about these JFK files on the presidential campaign trail in 2020 for reasons of “national security.”
And why, you might ask, are the government’s JFK assassination secrets still unspeakable today? That’s a very good question. Tulsi Gabbard has offended conventional wisdom by seeking the answer.
Jefferson Morley is a writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent of the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has been a reporter and editor in Washington, D.C., since 1980. He spent 15 years as an editor and reporter at the Washington Post. He was a staff writer at Arms Control Today and Washington editor of Salon. He is the editor and co-founder of JFK Facts, a blog about the assassination of JFK. His latest book is The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster, James Jesus Angleton.
This article was produced by the Deep State, a project of the Independent Media Institute.