The Day Democracy Died

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” - John Adams

The Day Democracy Died

“Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” - John Adams

I remember that the day was typical for a Michigan November. A hard wind was blowing beneath a sky the color of a dirty sidewalk, curved and fixed over all the months of approaching winter. Outside, the air was too cold for comfort but not enough to create snowfall. The horizontal hold on our Zenith TV, meanwhile, had permanently failed and I was sitting beside the living room window, reading, when Gary knocked. Before I opened the door, he was holding up a book.

“This is it, man,” he said. “Here’s the proof. I told you it wasn’t Oswald,” he said.

“What is it?”

“Mark Lane’s book.” He handed it to me. “It’s called Rush to Judgment and it tears apart LBJ’s Warren Commission cover-up. Makes me angry as hell.”

“If it does, why aren’t reporters writing about a coverup?”

“Some of them are. But not many. Would you? You said you want to be a writer and reporter. Don’t you think if they can kill presidents they can easily kill reporters?”

“I don’t know, Gare. Can I borrow it?”

“I wish you would.”

Gary was politically precocious and was to guide me into my own studies and perceptions of powerful forces working in our country. He was also my best friend, a diminutive blonde comic who set me to laughing through our troubled childhoods. We were both in our mid-teens when Mark Lane’s first book exploded into our lives and shattered the Norman Rockwell imagery of America that we had been consuming with the rest of our peers. Lane’s research made a convincing case that a conspiracy had killed the president and there was an organized cover-up. I was forever changed by those conclusions, just like my country had been after Dallas.

I had watched President John Fitzgerald Kennedy save the world on live television and was unable to understand how he had been murdered in Texas. On the day of my eleventh birthday, I was transfixed as the young president gave an 18-minute speech on TV to the entire country about the Soviet Union placing missiles in Cuba. The situation was not tolerable, he said, and his intention was to force Nikita Kruschev to have them removed from their frightening position 90 miles off the Florida coast. In our elementary school, we had been practicing air raid drills for the dropping of nuclear bombs and watching JFK speak made real a possibility the world might end in a global conflagration of bombs and fire.

Exactly one year and one month later, the president was dead in Dallas. I was coming of age in a country, not where right and wrong were clear distinctions, but a place where the man chosen by his fellow citizens to lead the nation could be killed, in bright sunlight on the streets of one of its largest cities. Everything I was taught about American morality and innate goodness, proved by my father and his generation protecting the planet from Hitler, felt as mortally wounded as JFK. My school bus driver sat sobbing over her steering wheel, listening to the news when I climbed up the steps to go home. All that was supposed to be safe, stable, and predictable about America, felt like it was coming undone. When I watched the president’s little boy on TV as he saluted the six white horses and his father’s passing casket, I cried, though it was as much about my own fears as it was a sadness for the great loss.

The immediate arrest of Lee Harvey Oswald two hours after the shooting seemed calculated, in retrospect. When Gary brought up the subject to me, he wondered how someone who was able to plan and execute an assassination of that magnitude might have bungled his escape. Nothing made sense, of course, but Americans were comforted by the notion that one crazy man was able to bring down their president. True freedom had its risks, but at least, we were assured, there was no Soviet involvement or a domestic conspiracy. The succeeding president, LBJ, told the Dallas police chief, “You’ve got your man,” which made the government and law enforcement sound efficient. We were protected, the country would move on, which was also part of the plan.

Sixty years later, as various theories about the president’s death have proliferated, I have heard countless people insist, “Oh, people want to believe in conspiracies. They’re much more attractive than the simple facts.” My sense is that the precise opposite is true. Americans find comfort in the lone assassin idea, a crazed individual rises up from our midst and commits a horrific crime, an idea considerably less disturbing than an organized scheme of execution that might lead to a coup. In fact, the lone killer story may have worked had there not been another TV event that prompted even the disaffected to begin asking questions. As Oswald was being transferred underneath Dallas police headquarters, a local night club owner walked in and murdered him with a pistol.

How in the hell did such a thing happen? The key suspect in one of history’s greatest tragedies was readily exposed to Jack Ruby, a man with mob debts and connections, who was able to simply approach Oswald and shoot him in the gut on live TV. The slaying came only hours after Oswald had told reporters, “I didn’t kill anyone. I’m just a patsy.” His statement may have prescribed his own death sentence because patsies cannot be guaranteed to remain silent. There is, of course, a more real likelihood that Oswald’s slaying was a part of the grand scheme. Scholarly and legal investigations through the next six decades have made it quite clear there was not sufficient evidence to obtain Oswald’s conviction in any jurisdiction.

The “why” of Kennedy’s assassination has always attracted my curiosity as much as the “who.” I believe the disinformation that flowed from the Warren Commission and government institutions have made it impossible for the shooters on the kill team to ever be truly known. In fact, if one of them were still alive and stepped forward to accept their guilt, few would be able to believe the confessional. Not many people believed James Files, a man serving 50 years in prison for the attempted murder of two police officers. Files offered a level of detail that many assassination experts considered striking when he was recorded in a video interview at Statesville Prison in Illinois.

After taking part in the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Files said he went to Chicago where he met Charlie Nicoletti, a mafia hitman. According to Files, Nicoletti was the second gunman with him in Dealey Plaza. In 1977, Nicoletti was due to testify before the House Special Committee on Assassinations but was murdered when shot three times in the back of the head. The same day Nicoletti was killed, George de Mohrenschildt died of a shotgun blast to the mouth in Palm Beach, Florida. He had been a friend to Oswald in Dallas and told a journalist in 1977 that he had provided occasional favors to the CIA in return for the agency’s assistance in his businesses. Both Nicoletti and Mohrenschildt were going to be questioned by members of Congress about their involvement in the assassination. Files’ claims of delivering the kill shot to JFK, meanwhile, were later undermined by a private investigator who said he had phone records to prove Files was in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Files’ details did not impress skeptics who believed he could have picked up the information from books published about the assassination. No record of military service he claimed was ever recovered, either.

I have agonized mightily about ever writing on the JFK assassination. There is too much material to parse and crosscheck, and the subject does not lend itself to completion or corroboration. The research and refutation may never end and the emotional roller coaster extends beyond the far horizon. There is, however, even to the casual reader, an overwhelming body of information to contradict the Oswald narrative. He was a CIA asset but he never pulled a trigger that day. The shooters, though, killed America’s post-war innocence and optimism and left a hole in our history. We still want, and even seem to need, to believe it was Oswald. I do not understand how a nation can survive, and even thrive, when it refuses to own its true history, though. Political assassinations are just as possible in our democratic republic as they are in third-world countries with tin-pot dictators. Why can we not believe our government killed its president?

Much has to do, I suppose, with the nature of the evidence. In the early years after the killing, every person who stepped forward with information contradicting the Warren Commission’s version of events was confronted, chastised, called out as confused, and often even threatened. There is also zero doubt some were killed. The public had no idea what might be the actual truth, and in the sixties we still trusted our government regardless of what we were being told. When researchers began looking at the Grassy Knoll as the source of the kill shot, the name of the location became a kind of punchline for crazy conspiracists who were intellectually equated with believers in UFOs. There is no small amount of hilarity in the fact that UFOs have become legitimized by a government that still refuses to acknowledge a conspiracy that killed our president.

The story of Lee Bowers is an iconic example of how hard it is to get at the truth of November 22, 1963. He was a railroad switchman stationed in a tower with a partial view of Dealey Plaza and complete exposure to the Grassy Knoll. Bowers told author Mark Lane and the Warren Commission that he saw three different cars come into the switchyard area, drive around and then leave. A short time later, which he estimated to be about eight minutes before gunshots were heard, he noticed two men he had not ever seen in the area, who were standing by the fence behind the grassy knoll. Bowers said when he heard gunshots he also noticed a flash of light or a puff of smoke at that location.

What happened to his testimony? The Warren Commission gave him no credibility. The coverup could not allow the idea of the Grassy Knoll sniper’s nest to be a possibility. Bowers, a few years later became the president of a construction company in the Dallas area even though he was often publicly ridiculed for his descriptive memory, and, eventually, it may have even cost him his life. On the morning of August 9th, 1966, he was driving to his job from Midlothian down to Cleburne, Texas on Highway 67. An eyewitness, who was repairing fences along the roadside, claimed Bowers’ vehicle was forced into a bridge abutment by a black car that sped off. In the four hours before he died, Bowers told emergency physicians that he felt like he might have been drugged when he had stopped for coffee prior to the wreck. No autopsy was performed nor was a suspect driver ever identified. Bowers’ brother said he suffered severe allergies and may have nodded off while driving after taking too much antihistamine.

Nonetheless, the evidence of a great lie about the JFK murder is, in fact, so bountiful as to make it an absurdity to ignore the idea of a conspiracy. An important new addition is the documentary JFK: What the Doctors Saw. Jacquelynn Lueth interviewed seven of the physicians who had treated the president when his already lifeless body arrived at Parkland Hospital. They agreed unanimously that the autopsy report and pictures later provided by the government did not comport with what they saw regarding JFK’s head wounds. An entrance wound above his right eye was not mentioned and another in his throat was described as an emergency tracheotomy in the autopsy report from Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Also absent was any detail about the large chunk of missing skull at the left rear of his head. The conclusions of the Parkland physicians were that the body had been doctored after it left Dallas.

The film also explores an idea first mentioned in David S. Lifton’s book, Best EvidenceHis argument and research insist there were two caskets on Air Force One when it left Texas. The mahogany version seen in the historic film being offloaded in Maryland, Lifton claims, did not contain the president’s body. Witnesses interviewed for Lueth’s documentary say there was, indeed, a second, plain shipping casket that was used to move the president’s corpse to a different location for reconstruction before being delivered to the official autopsy theater. It was taken off Air Force One after the media and LBJ and staff had departed the scene on the tarmac. There is even testimony that a different brain, one without shards of metal or the path of a bullet torn through the tissue, was inserted into JFK’s skull, and that there later was a piece of skull with hair that had been sewn into place over the massive exit wound at the back of his head. The forensics about a bullet’s path could have been resolved years ago were it not for the fact the president’s brain was reported as missing from the National Archives in 1966, and has never been found.

The canon of assassination literature and films and documentaries is as overwhelming as the labyrinthine trail to the truth. I have space here to only mention a few bits of information that ought to cast doubt and invigorate a conspiracy skeptic’s interest. In his book, Lifton also quotes two motorcycle police who later looked at the president’s limo and said there was no doubt a bullet hole existed in the front windshield.

“I was right beside it. I could have touched it. It was a bullet hole. You could tell what it was.- Dallas Motorcycle Patrolman H.R. Freeman (David Lifton, Best Evidence.1988 Edition pp 370-371)

“There was a hole in the left front windshield. It was a hole, you could put a pencil through it, you could take a regular standard writing pencil and stick it through there.”- Dallas motorcycle patrolman Stavis Ellis (David Lifton, Best Evidence.1988 Edition pp 370-371)

British documentarian Nigel Turner, who produced the ground-breaking series, The Men Who Killed Kennedy, interviewed Dr. Evalea Glanges, who was present at Parkland the day of the killing. She was intimately familiar with guns during her life as a hunter and target shooting hobbyist, and described seeing the windshield bullet hole very clearly while standing immediately next to the limo. Dr. Glanges said, eventually, a Secret Service agent got into the vehicle and drove it off the hospital’s premises. Her testimony, excerpted below from Turner’s broadcast, destroys the lone nut, single shooter garbage the government has peddled to the public from the moment the first shots were fired.

What happened to the limousine, one of the most important crime scenes in American history? It was flown to Washington and put in the White House garage. A secret service agent who drove the car from Andrews Air Force Base to the garage noted in his report that there was a very specific location of a bullet hole left of the centerline. Instead of a forensic examination of the car, however, it was stripped and cleaned, and, apparently flown to the River Rouge facility of the Ford Motor Company in Detroit. According to George Whitaker, Sr., who was a manager at the facility, he was called to a meeting where he was shown the windshield with the bullet hole and told to use the entire glass for a template to create a new screen for the car. His further orders were to destroy the windshield after he had used it to design the replacement. Whitaker’s comments can be seen at around 17:00 minutes in The Smoking Gun episode of Turner’s documentary series.

In the last segment of his series, The Guilty MenTurner presents evidence that LBJ was involved in facilitating the conspiracy’s coverup. The hour-long broadcast was so controversial that pressure from LBJ advisors Bill Moyers and Jack Valenti, as well as the Johnson family, prompted the History Channel to never re-broadcast the segment. In fact, the network produced what amounted to an apologia, which involved three historians who concluded the information was insupportable. Austin attorney Barr McClellan, who worked for one of LBJ’s high-powered attorneys and was a key interview for the documentary, said he was never contacted by the network and asked to substantiate his source material. Turner was reportedly out of reach, but McClellan said he stood by his information.

Sixty years on, very few people can make sense of that day, what it means or exactly what it has done to us as a nation, but it’s no longer really a mystery. The evidence points to a conspiracy involving the CIA, elements of the mob, the military, and even U.S. business interests. Anyone needing proof of a cover-up, or at least an inference needs to look at one of the key people LBJ appointed to the Warren Commission. Allen Dulles, who had been fired by JFK from his job leading the CIA after he had bungled the Bay of Pigs invasion, was named by the succeeding president as a top investigator of the assassination on the Warren Commission. Unknown at that time was the fact that the agency had an assassinations unit, which, coincidentally was described as ceasing to exist at the end of 1963. Unfortunately, that assertion is without basis in fact. Maybe the agency slowed down its work of killing while the heat was on for the JFK plot, but it did not get out of the political murder business. The CIA continues to kill, or assist in killing, in the Mideast and has been historically guilty of assassinating leaders of countries that do not serve whatever the agency deems to be the American economic and political purpose at the time.

The president’s death has been directly connected to the geopolitics and economics of that era. When he signed National Security Action Memorandum 263 (NSAM), putting an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, he angered the people who composed a derivative of what Eisenhower would have referred to as the military-political-industrial complex. Gen. Curtis “Bombs Away” LeMay, had been pushing for an invasion of Cuba and despised the idea that JFK was conducting back-channel communications with Castro and Kruschev to achieve a peaceful detente. The CIA was angry the president had refused American air cover at the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and the oil men of Texas were disgusted by plans the White House had to end the huge tax break called the Oil Depletion Allowance, which was worth $275 million annual profit to the state’s energy industry.

The idea was dropped when LBJ took over the Oval Office, and NSAM 263 was ignored as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalated. Johnson’s political patrons, Brown and Root construction of Houston, made hundreds of millions of dollars building airports, bases, hospitals, and harbors for the U.S. Navy during the ensuing conflict. The mafia, too, had felt betrayed by JFK and was also likely involved. Joe Kennedy had called on the Chicago bosses to find votes to elect his son and after JFK took office, his brother, the attorney general, went after organized crime leaders.

Those of us who have been living in this country since JFK was assassinated know the difference between the American aspirations of that time and our present predicament. Money greed and power have control over the government and act without restraint. Voting has been made more difficult with new regulations and representation has been rigged by gerrymandered districts. A tiny percentage of the population controls more than 95 percent of the wealth while Congress, owned by its donors and not the voters, continues to offer tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations. Multi-national giant businesses extract resources and pollute the global environment without concern because regulations are weak and unenforced. Our young have been lied into wars for oil and minerals and money while being convinced they were serving democracy. Unsurprisingly, new generations do not trust the government or the military and a nameless, shapeless dread informs our future.

All this darkness and pessimism can be traced back to that singular moment in Dallas. Doubt and fear have rippled across the decades when our delusions about the primacy and importance of our democracy were struck down with the president. Even one of the victims, Texas Governor John Connally, a conservative, revealed he knew there was something more afoot than a lone gunman. After being injured in JFK’s motorcade, Connally supported the work of the Warren Commission but ridiculed the investigation’s “magic bullet” theory that described one shot going through the president and Connally, making several turns and defying physics while emerging without damage in pristine condition.

Connally, late in his life, let slip a greater truth. While on a flight from Kansas City to Albuquerque, the former governor began a conversation with long time GOP political consultant and journalist, Doug Thompson, who had spent much of his career in Washington. Thompson asked Connally if he might be willing to return to New Mexico and help out a fundraiser for a candidate, which led to a dinner where bourbon and ranch water flowed over a conversation. Eventually, Connally offered that he had advised JFK not to travel to Texas but that LBJ had been “an asshole about it.”

Thompson was unable to resist a follow-up and asked a question the governor had never publicly confronted, at least not honestly. They were speaking in 1982, almost twenty years after Dallas, and Connally may have decided a moment of clarity might help his conscience after he heard the question.

“Are you convinced,” Thompson asked, “that Lee Harvey Oswald fired the gun that killed Kennedy?”

“Absolutely not.” There had been no hesitation about the answer. “I do not believe, for one second, the conclusions of the Warren Commission.”

“I have to ask then, Governor, why you haven’t spoken out about your opinion?”

“Because I love this country and we needed closure at the time. I will never speak out publicly about what I believe.”

If Connally had acknowledged the facts in public statements, he might have helped the country move toward closure. His silence, though, leaves him complicit in the plot and the coverup. His consent becomes another crime. America has moved on, but it is set upon a terrible course. Trump, his open criminal activity and plans to usurp what’s left of our democracy, are iterative developments descending from the fact that a president can be assassinated in the U.S., and there will not likely be any true accountability. A cascade of horrors continues to fall at our feet and we ignore them like so many scattered autumn leaves.

And our time of reckoning draws closer.