A Single Bullet

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

On November 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot dead. The president was assassinated by the vice president, the KGB, the Mafia, the Cubans, or the Secret Service, depending on who one asks. According to the federal Warren Commission, however, the lone gunman was a 24-year-old radical named Lee Harvey Oswald.

What’s happened since can best be described as a kind of transmogrification: the event, and the events surrounding it, have become endlessly complicated by conspiracy theorists (“CTs,” to use their parlance), who seized on the commission’s report and used its seeming incongruities and omissions as ample fodder for their beliefs. These individuals range vastly in ideology and credibility, and over the past four-plus decades, a raft of writings, theories, and notions have sprung from their many-tented camp.

Nearly every one of the thousand or so books that have been written on the subject has cried “Conspiracy!” in one form or another. However, a recent tome (close to 2,000 pages) written by Vincent Bugliosi, the hard-nosed Manson prosecutor and former Los Angeles County assistant district attorney par excellence, goes decidedly against this grain. The book, Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy, is nothing less than a resounding endorsement of the Warren Commission’s 42-year-old findings. Bugliosi is, in conspiracy-theorist lingo, a “lone-nutter” (or “LN”)—a disparaging term for those who believe Oswald’s solitary guilt is indisputable and that the “magic-bullet theory” is simply a bullet-trajectory fact.

In the July/August issue of The Atlantic, Thomas Mallon considers Bugliosi’s opus. Mallon—an Atlantic contributing editor and fellow “LN,” fluent in assassination history—is the author of, among other works, Mrs. Paine’s Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy, a singular account of the event, centering on Ruth Paine, the virtuous Quaker woman who became, quite innocently, enmeshed in the assassination. Mallon points out that Bugliosi’s examination of JFK’s death is oddly straightforward: what emerges in Reclaiming History is that, despite countless fantastic claims to the contrary, the government did not lie.

Thomas Mallon’s latest book is Fellow Travelers. He spoke with me on April 18th about Lee Harvey Oswald, conspiracy theorists, and his own book on the Kennedy assassination.

Jessica Pavone

The Kennedy assassination has been described as a “political Rorschach test,” suggesting that the way one perceives the shooting and the events surrounding it are as much a statement about the perceiver as the history and context in which they occurred. Could you speak to this?

I think that’s true. I think there is a certain, for lack of a better term, “political-personality” type that is predisposed towards a belief in conspiracy, and another that more naturally inclines to the “lone-nutter” theory. I would say that the preponderance of conspiracy theorists are left-wing. But there is definitely a right-wing contingent and another group whose politics are hard to classify. My sense is that somebody who is very inclined towards conspiracy belief is also predisposed toward an extreme view of politics.

Now you could say, “Well that’s disprovable because if so many people – something like 75 percent of Americans, according to the polls—believe in conspiracy, then 75 percent of the American population should be fanatical politically, and that’s not the case.” But I’m talking about people who have really thought about the assassination.

In the same vein, do you think that Vincent Bugliosi’s pro-Warren Commission position shows any kind of clear ideological bias, however much he declares that he’s strictly interested in the facts? I know that he’s a self-identified liberal...

Right, which I think, in a sense, goes to show what I was saying about how this cuts across the political spectrum. I think actually it’s healthy to see somebody who seems to have solid liberal credentials, who was very pro-Gore in the 2000 election, still taking the pro-Warren Commission view. You do find writers like Max Holland, who’s writing a history of the Warren Commission and was for many years a writer for The Nation, or somebody like Anthony Lewis, who was the most liberal of Times columnists and who was sort of the Paul Krugman of his day, turning out to be believers in the Warren report. And the Kennedys themselves—whether the current Senator Kennedy or the younger generation, you never hear them saying, “Oh, this needs to be investigated yet again,” implying that the Warren Commission was wrong. As for Bugliosi, I’m struck by his pugnacity and his thoroughness. But I’m not sure that it tells me anything about him politically.

Leaving aside one’s ultimate reading of the assassination, it seems to me that there are a lot of coincidences and strange factors at play, a perfect storm of politics, crime, socioeconomics and psychology, both group and individual. What do you think about this?

There are coincidences in the assassination for the same reason that there are coincidences in life. The vast, vast, vast majority of what may look like contradictions, ironies, mysteries—the vast majority of them are explicable. I think that is a real strength of Bugliosi’s book. Whatever you think of the scale of it, he does set out to provide factual explanations of things. You can’t explain everything, and if you could, something would be wrong. It would be too neat.

But one of the things that I think is true about the real and conspiratorial mind is that when somebody’s really got it bad, and is a really heavy-duty conspiracy theorist, they tend to believe that the plot was hatched farther and farther back and farther and farther away from Dallas. They think you have to go all the way back to the 1940s, or that it has its real roots in something that took place over in Europe. And I think that’s a mark of the conspiracist inclination, to go ever farther away geographically and temporally.

Conspiracy theorists have been described in various ways. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about who they are, exactly. Are they real scholars, professors, historians, morbid malcontents, pernicious patriots, cranks, the people who would argue that Humpty Dumpty was pushed?

One of the things that surprises me about Bugliosi’s book is that he is, in some ways, more generous to them than I would be. He frequently makes an effort to point out that he thinks they’re motivated by patriotism or sincere inquiry. I’m not so sure. I think some of them are, but I think it’s a truly dark, morbid fascination to them. Hmm. How inflammatory do I want to be here? On some level—subconscious in some, conscious in others—they find the assassination thrilling. And their preoccupation with it is, I would say, unhealthy.

There are a few supposedly respectable academics who have gone way out there in conspiracy theory, but I would say that most of them are kind of gumshoes, amateurs, and people who probably were impacted by the assassination. Their emotions were impacted by it in what was originally a genuine way, but somehow the tissue around that impact has become infected, and it’s become something that they don’t want to let go of. The thing that they would hate most is for anything that they would have to regard as definitive proof to come along. I think we do have definitive proof that Oswald killed Kennedy, but if definitive proof of their own theories came along somehow, I think they’d be terribly bereft.

They’d have to forfeit.

They’d have a terrible, massive depression—and would go on to something else.

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.

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.