Arlen “Make-the-evidence-fit-the-crime” Specter died October 2012, at 82. People will praise his long service in the Senate. They’ll speak admiringly about his toughness and his independence. They will mention his service as assistant counsel on the Warren Commission in 1964, but they won’t dwell on it.
They should dwell on it. His tenure on the Warren Commission lasted only about nine months. What a significant nine months, though. During that time, Specter authored and supported the Commission’s single bullet theory. It became the linchpin for everything else in the Commission’s controversial report.
In a way, it’s not fair to take Specter to task for this theory. If he had not developed it, someone else would have. That is, someone else would have had to do it. The charge from President Lyndon Johnson was clear: give me a report that validates the FBI’s conclusions and evidence. The FBI decided within twenty-four hours of Kennedy’s death that Lee Oswald shot the president, and that he acted alone. Specter’s single bullet proposal gave Johnson what he wanted. The idea that one bullet caused multiple wounds to both Kennedy and Connally is the only theory that validates the FBI’s conclusions.
The single bullet theory holds that a bullet from Oswald’s rifle hit Kennedy in the back, emerged from his throat, then tumbled so as to cause multiple wounds to John Connally, who sat in front of Kennedy. If the Commission did not put forth this theory, it could not conclude that Oswald was the only shooter. Given the FBI’s initial investigation of what happened in Dallas, the single bullet theory, and only this theory, ruled out multiple shooters.
A good deal of evidence indicates that Specter’s theory is incorrect. Abraham Zapruder’s films shows that Connally is not hit until after Kennedy is shot in the back: at least three seconds later, in fact. The doctors at Parkland hospital in Dallas agreed that a bullet entered Kennedy’s throat from the front. Bob Harris’s forensic analysis shows that Arlen Specter’s single bullet could not have followed the path that the Warren Commission said it did.
I imagine President Johnson and others were grateful for Specter’s ability to construct a halfway plausible theory, or more to the point, his willingness to stand by such an implausible one. If you wanted to believe the Warren Commission’s report, you could hang your holster on the single bullet theory. If you found the entire report implausible, you would find little to admire in Specter’s theory, too. The single bullet theory became the kernel at the heart of the Commission’s report, the keystone of the FBI’s package of conclusions and evidence. Take it or leave it.
Specter died forty-eight years and a month after the Commission released its report in Septermber 1964. Specter was 34 at the time. I wonder if he proposed his theory as an act opportunism — please the boss to see where that will take you — or if he actually believed what he wrote. If he’s like most of us, necessity convinced him of its truth. Of all people, Specter knew the necessary outcome of his investigation.
You could ask why a smart guy like Specter would have conceived a plainly implausible theory, inconsistent with virtually all the evidence available. Another question presses even more urgently. Who could have redirected the Commission’s report, so it might be based on an actual investigation and honest evidence? The answer to that is simple: no one who worked for the president could do that. Johnson would get what he wanted. In light of the president’s illicit demand for dishonesty, Specter served his president well. The Warren Commisson could not have accomplished its mission without him.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Jeffersonian on Monday, October 15, 2012, as Make the Evidence Fit the Conclusion.