The Jason Bourne thrillers have a lot of plot elements that pull you in: amnesia and discovery of one’s identity, close calls and exciting escapes. One of the more compelling narrative lines is Jason Bourne’s success as David against the government’s gargantuan criminal enterprise: CIA’s Goliath. He starts out as a patriot, and ends in a simple fight for survival. He foils all of his employer’s efforts to kill him.
Real life for Lee Oswald did not follow the Jason Bourne narrative. Goliath in Washington crushed David in Dallas on November 24, 1963. Part of the difference was that Oswald did not have amnesia, so he was unwilling to leave his young daughters to go underground. Nevertheless, Oswald knew what was coming.
Lee’s mother, Margeurite Oswald, declared – improbably at the time – that her son died in the service of his country. Even now that seems an incongruous thing to say, even if you know that Oswald was an agency asset set up to take the blame for the president’s murder. The CIA was happy to have Oswald run a fake Fair Play for Cuba operation in New Orleans, even as Oswald and David Ferrie worked on a project to inject Fidel Castro with malignant cancer cells. Does that sound like another fantastic plot to come out of the CIA’s Operation Mongoose? Do not discount it. Because of Oswald’s low-level involvement with super-secret intelligence operations, he was the perfect patsy-villain for the operation that unfolded in six seconds of gunfire in Dealey Plaza on November 22.
As you learn about who Oswald was, the more you understand why he looks the way he does in photographs taken after his arrest on November 22, 1963.
The people who betrayed Oswald and made him a scapegoat knew their business. Scapegoats are vulnerable and ostracized: no one will speak for them at the time. They are completely alone, as Oswald assuredly knew when he pleaded for an attorney during his last forty-eight hours. Instead of letting him meet with an attorney, the Dallas police beat him.
As you learn about who Oswald was, the more you understand why he looks the way he does in photographs taken after his arrest on November 22, 1963. In particular, you come to understand the shape and expression of his lips, interpreted at the time as a smirk, along with the look in his eyes. You see a smart young man, a doomed scapegoat, coming to terms with the treachery practiced against him. He knows what’s coming, yet he doesn’t want to believe it.
Many argue, “If all those conspiracy theories were correct, someone would have talked. Where are they?” A simple answer is that people have talked. Often, people who know the truth suffer ostracism and even death, in the same way Oswald did. Judyth Vary Baker waited forty-five years to tell her story, and Lee’s story. Baker had an affair with Lee in the summer of 1963. She worked with David Ferrie, Mary Sherman, and Lee Oswald in New Orleans during that summer. In a year, Oswald and Sherman would be dead. Ferrie would die early in 1967. Judyth Vary was the only one to survive. We are lucky she lived, for the memoir she published in 2008 tells a story no one else could tell. Her story explains Oswald’s fate. It exonerates him, and shows how he found himself, in the middle of a November afternoon in Dallas, accused of murdering the president.
Vary’s memoir, Me and Lee, sports what is supposed to be a tantalizing cover. Flip past the cover expeditiously. The cover shows little respect for the author: it suggests you are about to read a dime novel or second-rate romance, with the promise of sex in hot New Orleans. The memoir’s content is entirely different. Vary explains, by virtue of her detailed account of Oswald and his work, why Oswald could not have been the president’s assassin. She also explains how Oswald found himself in a position where the Dallas police and the FBI could accuse him of the murder.
Once you realize that Oswald worked for the CIA and FBI, and learn what he did for them, questions about Kennedy’s assassination begin to resolve themselves.
By late July 1963, Oswald foresaw that he would be whacked, just as Ferrie and Sherman were in 1964. He did not know how or when it would happen, but he knew he was vulnerable as the Castro project reached an inconclusive point, and he worked through possibilities for the future. When he went to Mexico City for six days in September-October 1963, he must have considered whether he should try to disappear down there. He came back to be with his two daughters and estranged wife. On Wednesday evening, November 20, he has a poignant farewell conversation on the phone with Judyth Vary. She is in New Orleans, and he calls her from Dallas, she guesses from a phone booth. They talk for an hour and a half. He knows the president’s trip to Dallas in two days likely means the end for him. He has already tried to warn the FBI about the plot against the president in Chicago earlier in the fall. Now he finds his handlers have placed him in the Texas School Book Depository.
Lee Oswald worked for both the CIA and the FBI through all of these eventful months, but he could not trust anyone in either of those organizations. When the Dallas police arrested him on Friday afternoon, November 22, the arrest did not come as a surprise. He cried, “This is it!” as police pulled him from his seat in the Texas Theater, where he went to lie low after the enormity in Dealey Plaza. He likely did not know that J. D. Tippit had been killed in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. The route he took from Dealey Plaza to his room on North Beckley Street, and then to the Texas Theater on West Jefferson Boulevard, did not traverse the neighborhood on East 10th Street where Tippit died.
When you consider Oswald’s experience during the forty-eight hours between his arrest on Friday and his murder on Sunday, November 24, you understand why he looked the way he did. Interrogated during the night and day, beaten about the face for no reason other than brutality and revenge, paraded in front of journalists and television cameras as the most hated man on the planet, friendless and without counsel, Oswald had to operate on his own. He suffered unbidden infamy without assistance. In this light, he does not look smug, and his apparent smirk looks not irritating, but prescient. He is a dismayed young man caught in a strong net, preparing himself for the worst. If the Dallas police had known he would stand up for himself, that he would volubly declare “I’m a patsy!” they may have been less ready to parade him around like a trophy. Nonetheless, they needed to parade him midday on Sunday, November 24, to give Jack Ruby a good shot.
Once you realize that Oswald worked for the CIA and FBI, and learn what he did for them, questions about Kennedy’s assassination begin to resolve themselves. Vary’s description of Oswald demonstrates what kind of person he was: energetic, intelligent, gracious and brave, savvy and competent. He was mature about the bad marriage he made in the Soviet Union, where he went for the CIA, and hopeful despite his poor prospects back in the States. Marguerite Oswald was right to point out that he was a patriot. He was not a Communist, a dangerous nut, a murderer, or a traitor. Right to the end, he did not reveal his work to anyone. He knew that without an attorney, his situation was as hopeless as it could be. Even so, he did not directly accuse his employers of betrayal. His declaration, “I’m a patsy,” does suggest he grasped the significance of his arrest. He recognized his employers had something to do with Kennedy’s death.