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.

Bugliosi refers to Oswald’s vacancy, his lack of personalizing qualities, and he seems to regard these traits as things that made him less than human. You, on the other hand, as far as I can tell, seem to conclude that Oswald’s persnicketiness was in fact what made him so very human. I wonder if you can talk about this discrepancy.

I’m not sure I would say that Bugliosi doesn’t see him as human. Although the lack of affect that he’s talking about, the lack of quirks that make you and me you and me—I think by and large that is a pretty good reading of him. Despite Oswald’s hard politics—and however uneducated he may have been, Oswald did have a fairly consistent hard left politics from the time he was a teenager—I still think the assassination was primarily a psychological crime, not a political crime; trumping all of Oswald’s political beliefs and fanaticism was a kind of psychological compulsion.

But I also think that he did have certain soft spots, the way everyone else does. To me that just adds to the collective mystery of what it means to be human and is in no way exculpatory. I think one of the things that’s so frightening is that somebody who had those soft spots could still do this. For all of his sullenness, he seemed to be quite sympathetic toward Ruth Paine vis-à-vis her divorce, and he would play with her children.

To me—and I say this on the basis of no evidence, this really is more of a novelist’s mind at work—one of the mysteries of the assassination has always been why Oswald did not fire at Kennedy when the car was coming toward him down Houston Street. The car makes that hairpin 120-degree turn onto Elm Street, and Oswald waits until then to fire his first shot. If he was using his rifle-scope—there’s some doubt as to whether or not he was, Bugliosi addresses that question clearly—he would have had a view of John F. Kennedy coming right toward him at a slow pace and getting increasingly large. In other words, he would have had a better shot every split-second. Why didn’t he take that shot?

There are some people who say, “Well, had he done that, people immediately would have looked up to the window, and his chances of escape would have been less.” I don’t think Oswald ever expected to get out of the depository alive. If he did, I think he would have had his pistol with him that day. I just don’t think he could bear to shoot John Kennedy full in the face. I think that it was too horrifying on some visceral level. And I think to shoot him in the back of the head is almost more like an aerial bombing. It was less personal.

And craven or cowardly?

Well, I think it was craven and cowardly either way. I understand the point you’re making, but I think that he certainly was not in any state of rage when he shot John Kennedy. I don’t believe that at all. Whereas in crimes of rage people are capable of horrible kinds of mutilation, I don’t think he had the stomach to do that full in the face. I don’t think he had the least bit of personal animus toward Kennedy. It’s like in In Cold Blood when Perry Smith says, “I thought that Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman. I thought that right up until the moment I cut his throat.” And there, what were they doing, the killers in In Cold Blood? Why did they put a mattress box under Mr. Clutter, in the basement? They had hog-tied him like an animal and wound up cutting his throat and blasting him with a shotgun, but they put a mattress box down because the floor was cold. And I think that’s part of the human factor.

Yes, like cognitive dissonance.

I think all of that goes into Oswald. Something was very wrong with Oswald, and it wasn’t his politics. Something was very wrong with him at the deepest interior spot. If he had not killed Kennedy that day, Oswald was certainly not through with violence. I mean, Oswald’s shooting of General Edwin Walker is tremendously central to understanding the Kennedy assassination. Let’s say Oswald were working somewhere else, didn’t have the job at the depository, didn’t have any chance to get near the parade route—Oswald was not through with violence. Oswald was going to kill a political figure at some point.

And is an element of that glory-seeking? Does that combine with the psychology of it?

Yes, I mean he would tell Marina he was going to be prime minister some day, even though we don’t have a prime minister. I think some of it was seeking glory; I do think he wanted to be famous, I do think he had the lust for fame that Booth and other assassins had. But I also think that he had a real desire to appear effective. Useful. Not just famous, but significant. I think he would have viewed the assassination—he would have constructed it in his mind—so that it felt like an achievement to which he could attribute a political aim, even if what was driving him to it was his own psychology. And I think that’s a little bit different from fame, certainly different from rage.

How did you first become interested in the assassination, and what sustained your interest for all of these years?

I was twelve when it happened. I was very interested in politics even at that age. I followed the news and current events, and was all geared up for the 1964 election—was really hoping that Goldwater would beat John Kennedy. Of course, first Goldwater had to beat Rockefeller for the nomination. The impact of it on me was massive and instantaneous. I was home from school that day—the typical person of my generation has the memory of hearing about it in school—I suppose I had a cold. I had a very indulgent mother. My uncle was at the house, we were playing chess, and my mother was running errands. She came back in and had heard it up on the main street of the town we lived in, and so I was watching television right from the get-go. I very much remember watching the television before it was clear that Kennedy was dead. I definitely remember that period.

As a reader of newspapers and books about it, I don’t think it was a steady interest. I mean, it certainly subsided with the years, but it was lurking in me. When I wound up writing this novel about the Lincoln assassination [Henry and Clara]—that sort of brought me back to it. It was definitely the writing about these bystanders to the Lincoln killing that resurrected the story of Ruth Paine in my mind. Ruth Paine was a name that I had certainly never forgotten, and I knew who Ruth was, knew her story, kind of carried it with me all of those years, but that was what triggered me to actually get in touch with her. I think I first made contact with her in 1995, which was a year after Henry and Clara.

I would still say it remains the single searing event in my life. Maybe because I experienced it as a child or early adolescent, it was so horrifyingly personal. It wasn’t a massive, anonymous death toll, as with 9/11; everybody felt as if they knew the Kennedys. I still have a letter that I got from the Kennedy White House. I wrote a protest—in my very young, Catholic way, I protested the Supreme Court decision about school prayer. I still have the letter saying, “President Kennedy”—one of his assistants signed it—“The President is always interested when boys and girls write to him,” and they enclosed a little bit of transcript from his news conference about it, and it has a four-cent Project Mercury stamp on it. It’s absolutely vintage. It was a personal thing.

What then do you think will be the ultimate fate or legacy of the conspiracy theorists? Will their theories persist and outlive them? What does a fourth- and fifth-generation CT look like?

I think that they will fade. There are certainly younger conspiracy theorists, but I would say that the community of buffs, or “researchers” as they like to be called, is by and large an aging community. I think that most of them are people who have living memories of the assassination. And I think that 100 years from now, if you ask an American citizen who killed John Kennedy, the person will answer, “Lee Harvey Oswald.”

I’m not saying this so much because I have this Frank Capra-like belief that the truth will out as because one of the things the conspiracists have never accomplished is to attach any other face, or group of faces, to the crime, in the public mind. Oswald is the one face that people have. One of the ironies of history is that the average person, the average American forgets, if he ever knew at all, that there was a conspiracy in the Lincoln assassination. Booth did have this little band of plotters, who were quite active on that night. But the average, reasonably informed American, when asked about Lincoln, will say, “John Wilkes Booth killed Lincoln.” I think that that will happen a hundred years from now with Kennedy and Oswald. And as Henry Kissinger would say, it will have the additional advantage of being true.

Presented by

Jessica Pavone is an Atlantic staff editor.

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