Interviews June 2007

A Single Bullet

Thomas Mallon talks about JFK conspiracy theories and a new book that places the blame squarely on Lee Harvey Oswald.

What do you think of the footage captured by Abraham Zapruder at the scene of the assassination? It’s perhaps the most discussed, examined, and debated 26 seconds of footage committed to celluloid. What would a JFK-type assassination be like today, with cell-phone images and sounds posted on the Web minutes after the events transpired?

The cell phone camera does represent a kind of sea change, even well beyond the video camera, because there were a lot of people taking movies of the president that day. And a lot of people had little silent home movie cameras back then, just as, 30 years later, in the ’90s, the video camera became commonplace.

But the thing that I think is very, very different is that people only brought movie cameras and video cameras to an event that they knew beforehand was going to be an event. “The president’s coming to town, and so I’m bringing my camera because this is worth recording.” We now live in a world where everybody is carrying a camera all the time. So there are very, very few things that are going to go unrecorded. The photographic record of things is going to be so enormous, and cell phone videography is going to become much less crude, I’m sure, than it is now. Nobody needs a developer anymore; Zapruder had to go get his film developed. Certainly if the Kennedy assassination had taken place today, within minutes it would have been all over the Web, and it would have been looked at from a million different angles.

My suspicion is that in some ways all of this would have allowed for more evidence of a lone gunman. On the other hand, I think that there’s something about the Web that is in itself conducive to conspiracy belief; the way that everything is literally linked to everything else, and the way everything proliferates, and the way everybody has a soapbox upon which to rant. So I think, maybe if I had to take a bet, I would say that you would’ve had widespread conspiracy beliefs starting even earlier if everyone had been filming with cell phones.

Bugliosi writes that the Zapruder film has “been given more attention than it deserves.” What is your opinion? Do you think it’s the key to unlocking the mystery?

I think it’s very important, and of course one wishes that the film had had sound. If you could hear the number of shots, there would be infinitely less conspiracy speculation. But I think Bugliosi makes a very interesting point, and I think it’s fundamentally valid that—and it’ll drive the conspiracy theorists really crazy—even without the Zapruder film, the case for Oswald as the lone gunman is overwhelming.

And maybe without the Zapruder film you might have more people who were inclined to believe it, because I think one of the things that has predisposed people to believe in conspiracy is the way Kennedy’s head appears to fly backwards. That was what Garrison used to inflame the jury when he tried Clay Shaw. He kept showing that again and again, and in point of fact, Kennedy’s head actually does go forward for a instant, a very quick instant. And this, too, is explicable by physics. I think Bugliosi makes that point, and it’s typical of the pugnacity of the book. But I think it’s a fair statement. I don’t think the film is really the key to the mystery.

Some of the belief in conspiracy arose, to a great extent, out of this gradual psychological reaction that people had to the assassination; that nothing so awful, so big, could be done by one person. I know that in the months after the assassination, the vast majority of people were completely convinced that it was Oswald, and that he had done it alone. What they were doing was applying common sense to a mountain of evidence. But one of the things that happened eventually was that grief, and certain aspects of human psychology, as well as the convulsions of the 1960s, began to undermine this, even in the ordinary person of common sense, which is why you have such high numbers believing in conspiracy.

According to David Lubin, art historian, in his book Shooting Kennedy: JFK and the Culture of Images, Zapruder is a crucial cinematic text of the 20th century. Is it worthwhile or even sound to consider the film in terms of aesthetics, or do you think this amounts to a morbid line of inquiry?

The latter. It’s a horrifying home movie. Oh, the academic mind. There’s an aesthetic dimension to everything, and one of the things you can’t escape is that the Kennedys were better looking than the average movie star. They were so glamorous. If John Kennedy hadn’t been shot that day, if it had just been an ordinary day of political barnstorming, I think some of the pictures of the Kennedys, under that sunshine, Mrs. Kennedy in that particular outfit, would have become iconic. You would have seen some of those pictures as typical representations of how glamorous and youthful the Kennedys were.

I suppose it’s sort of blasphemous. I mean the book has that unfortunate title, Shooting Kennedy

Yes, that is so typical of lame academic work. The Zapruder film is revolting; all history turns into a kind of pageant after a while. And if you look at what distance has done to the Lincoln assassination, the average person does not sit down and read the story of the Lincoln assassination and feel moral outrage against John Wilkes Booth. Time does that to people. John Wilkes Booth, he’s just a figure you’ve heard of from the time you were in grade school, and he’s as much a part of history as Lincoln himself.

Right, he’s been co-opted.

Yes, that happens as time goes on, in history. And it will happen with the Kennedy assassination, too, but I don’t think we’re there yet, or should be there yet. There’s still a substantial portion of the American population that has living memories of the assassination, and remembers how horrible, how frightening it was. It still is a living thing, and the forensic dimension of that film is more important than the aesthetic dimension.

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Jessica Pavone is an Atlantic staff editor.

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