The assassination of JFK and the price of secrecy

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the murder of President Kennedy—just seven weeks away—Open Road Integrated Media has released four ebooks:   Kennedy Justice by Victor Navasky, Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye by JFK disciples Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers, Case Closed by Gerald Posner and Not in Your Lifetime by Anthony Summers.  

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I began my JFK observance with Not in Your Lifetime.  Summers, an Irish investigative reporter, tells a great mystery story.  With almost all the players now dead, he weaves interviews he conducted for earlier versions of the book, the records of the Warren Commission and the House Assassination Committee, photographs, rumors and stories, into a well argued case which points to, but can’t quite conclude who was behind the killing of JFK.  

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The cover up of the Kennedy assassination shows the price of secrecy in government.  According to Summers, only hours after the assassination, the new president, Lyndon B Johnson, realized that the public had to calmed.  Public opinion had to be steered away from demanding revenge against Cuba and the Soviet Union.  

Johnson appointed a Commission with the implied mission of determining that the shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Jack Ruby, who murdered Oswald three days later, both acted on their own.  Ever the wheeler and dealer, Johnson went to the Republicans to make sure the fix worked.

He appointed the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Earl Warren as chair.  Warren had been the Republican governor of California.  He appointed to the Commission, Allen Dulles, who had been pushed out as head of the CIA after the Bay of Pigs disaster.  Dulles steered the Commission away from asking too many questions of the intelligence community.  To keep Congress in line, Johnson selected the Republican leader of the House, Gerald R. Ford (later to be President).  Johnson brought the Democrats into the fix.  He appointed Hale Boggs,  Democratic leader of the House, to the Commission.  The ambitious staff lawyer Arlen Specter (later to be Senator from Pennsylvania) concocted the single bullet theory which explained how there could be only one shooter.

The fix worked.  The Warren Commission declared that Oswald and Ruby acted alone.  The story has held for five decades, though critics abound.

Contrast the secretive Warren Commission with Watergate.  Thanks to the Warren Commission, the conspirators got away.  With Watergate, we had government in the sunshine.  There were investigations by both the House and Senate, where partisanship acted as a check on both the accusers and the defenders.  There was an independent prosecutor.  There was an independent grand jury.  There were independent, competitive and aggressive news media.  The Watergate conspirators went to jail and the guilty President was forced from office.

If you like conspiracies, organized crime and espionage, this book is a bonanza.  Not in Your Lifetime gets my highest recommendation.

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Richard III unboxed and why I prefer the noir version

I am pleased to recommend The King’s Grave by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones (St. Martin’s Press).  This book is fun.  It tells about the dig at Leicester, where the bones of Richard III were unearthed–a year ago– below the former Greyfriars church, which itself was demolished more than 300 years before.  Richard lived from 1452 until 1485 and reigned from 1483 until his death.

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Screenwriter Langley is secretary of the Scottish branch of the Richard III Society.  In the manner of a mystery tale, she recounts the dig, the problems of funding it, and the scientific basis for the identification of the remains. 

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Langley tries to debunk the classic view of Richard III, arguing that he was committed to the traditions of chivalry, enacted governmental reforms and advanced the standards of justice.   She points out that he was a brave warrior, indeed, England’s last warrior king.  Richard III died in battle at Bosworth Field, in a civil war with the House of Tudor.  Langley describes medieval battle tactics, just as cannon and pistols were appearing.

Adding to the enjoyment are Langley’s British dialect—for example car park instead of parking lot—and British spellings.  

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Richard III was an interesting guy.  He lived during the time of Early Modern English.  His vocabulary must have been a treat and his spellings a challenge.  He lived during the Great Vowel Shift, so the sound of his Early Modern English must have been fun.  He was the first King whose investiture was in English rather than the Norman French of the aristocracy.

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What’s more, the anniversary of his death–August 22–is one day after the death of Leon Trotsky.  

Notwithstanding Langley’s defense (or should I say defence) of Richard III, I prefer the noir image invented by his foes.  So the story goes, his brother, King Edward IV died suddenly, leaving two nephews and a brother.   Richard killed his brother, the Duke of Clarence, so he could serve as Protector for his older nephew, the presumptive King Edward V.   Richard confined his nephews in the Tower of London (“The Princes in the Tower”) until they disappeared from history.  He got his mother to announce that Edward was illegitimate, clearing the way for Richard to be proclaimed King.  Not only was Richard III’s persona noir.  According to Shakespeare, he looked evil–with a hunched back, one shoulder higher than the other, and one arm withered.

Maybe Richard III was an honorable reformer, but I’ll take the noir Richard, any day.