Last year I published a review of James Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. A friend of mine is reading the book now. He wrote this preliminary comment in a recent message: “Right now I’m reading Douglass’s book on the Kennedy assassination. I’m not convinced by him at this point. An extraordinary claim also requires extraordinary evidence.” Here’s what I wrote in response:
Thanks for your excellent message, and thanks especially for your compliments. In an article about van Gogh, a writer said we all face some uncertainty in our choices, but an artist bets his life. That seemed to apply to van Gogh, whose painting was not praised by artists, critics, art buyers or art viewers during his lifetime. I’m not an artist like van Gogh, but I appreciate the praise just as much as he would have appreciated compliments about his work.
Here’s a thought about the Kennedy assassination, and the narrative of that assassination generations later. There’s nothing extraordinary about political assassination. Political leaders are another group of people who bet their lives. They know that if things don’t go their way – if something goes truly wrong – they’re likely to be executed or assassinated. Political killings stand out in history not because they’re rare, but because they’re generally such significant events.
Douglass’s account of Kennedy’s death appears extraordinary because the government’s Warren report got in the first lick. It had enough backing after it came out to become the first widely accepted explanation of Kennedy’s death. If Douglass’s account had gained acceptance first, the idea that Oswald was a lone killer would seem extraordinary. Being first proffers a big advantage in history.
Take another interesting example from politics. On election night in 2000, the first unofficial tally in Florida had Bush ahead by about five hundred votes. On that basis, Tom Brokaw and a few others called the election for Bush. It turned out that the count in Florida was just as close as the Franken-Coleman vote in Minnesota in 2008. That is, the Florida vote was essentially a tie, and the only way to work out the winner was through some sort of legal process, as occurred in Minnesota over the course of almost a year.
The Supreme Court said we couldn’t wait around for Florida’s legal process. It declared a winner. It’s only basis for declaring Bush the winner was that Bush held an edge on election night – and, you could say, a better team of lawyers. If Tom Brokaw had declared Gore the winner on election night, I can’t imagine that the Supreme Court would have declared for Bush. Bush’s Florida tally got in the first lick.
The Warren report got in first. After that, opposing accounts seemed suspect, out of the mainstream, kooky. The conspiracy theorists are at it again, people would say. The researchers seemed suspect not because they were wrong, or because their evidence was inferior to the government’s evidence, but because they came in second. That’s one reason I admire Douglass so much: he stayed with his research, even though he knew a lot of people would regard him with suspicion. I even admire what Oliver Stone did in JFK, though I’m not sure how many people regard his film or his work as suspect!