Posts Tagged ‘Kennedy assassination’

Arlen “Make the evidence fit the conclusion” Specter died today. People will say good things about him. They will praise his long service in the Senate, and they’ll speak admiringly of both his toughness and his independence. They will mention his service as assistant counsel on the Warren Commission in 1964, but they won’t dwell on it.

Actually, I wondered if they would dwell on it, so I googled Arlen Specter Warren Commission. Specter had a long career, and his tenure on the Warren Commission lasted only about nine months. What a significant nine month, though. During that time, Specter authored and supported the Commission’s single bullet theory. It became the lynch pin for everything else in the Commission’s controversial report.

In a way, it’s not fair to hold Specter to account for this theory. If he had not developed it, someone else would have. That is, someone else would have had to do it. The charge from the president, Lyndon Johnson, was clear: give me a report that validates the FBI’s conclusions and evidence. Specter’s theory accomplished that. It’s the only theory that would validate the FBI’s conclusions. The FBI decided within twenty-four hours of Kennedy’s death that Lee Oswald shot the president, and that he acted alone.

The single bullet theory holds that a bullet from Oswald’s rifle hit Kennedy in the back, emerged from his throat, then tumbled so as to cause multiple wounds to John Connally, who sat in front of Kennedy. If the Commission did not put forth this theory, it could not conclude that Oswald was the only shooter. Given the FBI’s initial investigation of what happened in Dallas, the single bullet theory, and only this theory, ruled out multiple shooters.

A good deal of evidence indicates that Specter’s theory is incorrect. Connally is not hit until after Kennedy is shot in the back: at least three seconds later, in fact. The film JFK, in a scene with courtroom graphics and drama, memorably refutes the Commission’s single bullet theory in Jim Garrison’s penultimate courtroom presentation.

I imagine LBJ and others were grateful for Specter’s ability to construct a halfway plausible theory, and his willingness to stand by such an implausible one. That is, if you wanted to believe the Commission’s report, you could hang your holster on the single bullet theory. If you found the entire report implausible, you would find little to admire in Specter’s theory, too. The single bullet theory became the kernel at the heart of the Commission’s report, the keystone of the FBI’s packet of conclusions and evidence.

Today Arlen Specter dies at 82, forty-eight years and a month after the Commission released its report. Specter was 34 at the time. I wonder if he proposed his theory as an act opportunism – please the boss to see where that will take you – or if he actually believed what he wrote. If he’s like most of us, necessity convinced him of its truth. You could ask why a smart guy like Specter would have bought a hare brained theory about an implausible single bullet, but another question presses even more urgently. Who could have redirected the Commission’s report? The answer to that is simple: no one. LBJ would get what he wanted. The Commission would give it to him.

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One year, five months and three days from today we’ll observe the fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kennedy’s death. He died in a Lincoln Continental on Elm Street in Dallas. The time was 12:30 pm on November 22, 1963. An assassin blew his brains out.

Let’s be accurate: clinically speaking, JFK died in Parkland hospital about half an hour after he was shot. For practical purposes, he died in the car. The body takes a little while to shut down. He arrived at the hospital in time for the doctors at Parkland to pronounce him dead after he arrived.

It’ll be interesting to see what books about the assassination come out during the next year and a half. We have already seen a lot of good research published during the last ten years. We all hope the quality of upcoming books is equally good.

A recent book I’ve been reading on my Kindle is titled The Girl on the Stairs: My Search for A Missing Witness To The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, by Barry Ernest. This book deserves a review of its own, but I want to mention it here to introduce something else I’ve been thinking about.

If you pick up The Girl on the Stairs, you’ll see quickly how much time Ernest spends evaluating the Warren report, both in his research and in his writing. He cares about his subject, and his treatment of the Warren report is as careful as any I’ve seen. He wants to understand why the Warren Commission wrote it the way it did, rather than some other way. The missing witness, Victoria Adams, is central to Ernest’s story, but the Commission’s report dominates his analysis even more.

If you pick up a couple of other books published during the last several years, Brothers by David Talbot and JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass, you’ll find references to the Warren report much more sparse. These authors take up the assassination in a different way. They are not as concerned with forensic evidence as is Barry Ernest.

The forensic evidence, so poorly analyzed by the Warren Commission, is an important part of the assassination story, but it isn’t the only part. It’s also not the most important. The most important evidence and the most important analysis, in any criminal case, is to tell a story that establishes motives for the murder. Douglass in particular takes care to do that. Forensic evidence can tell you what happened. It cannot tell you why it happened.

So what have I been thinking about? I’ve been thinking about motives for the 9/11 attacks. As we evaluate the evidence related to that crime, we want to analyze it so as to tell a story about why it happened. We want to know why all the people involved with the crime carried it out. Based on evidentiary analysis we have to date, we don’t know that.

I hope we can take a longer look at this problem in future posts.

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