If you have not yet read James Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, do so. To see why I recommend Douglass’s book, read this review. For an easier read that complements JFK and the Unspeakable, read David Talbot’s Brothers. Both books, published in 2008, are worth your time. Both books present a view of the Kennedy years not available during the 1960s or, for that matter, any other decade before they were published.
The mathematician and philosopher Laplace said that “the weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.” That leaves to individual judgment whether or not one regards something as strange. Some might think the idea that Kennedy died for political reasons extraordinary, where others would regard a politically motivated assassination as entirely normal. Put briefly, the latter view holds there’s nothing extraordinary about political assassination.
Political leaders throughout history, if they have enemies, bet their lives. Almost all political leaders have enemies. They know that if things do not go the right way – if something goes amiss or they commit a serious error – they may be executed, assassinated, exiled, or removed from office in disgrace. People who operate in the political arena play for keeps. Political killings stand out in history not because they are rare, but because they generally spawn significant consequences.
To return to Douglass’s book, his account of Kennedy’s death only appears extraordinary because the Warren Commission had the first lick. The Commission’s report became the first widely accepted explanation of Kennedy’s death. It encompassed twenty-six volumes of carefully catalogued testimony and evidence. The chief justice of the Supreme Court blessed it. President Johnson accepted it. No wonder so many people at the time trusted its veracity.
If Douglass had published his account first, and leading potentates in the Catholic church had blessed his research, the idea that Lee Oswald killed Kennedy by himself would seem extraordinary. During the traumatic hours immediately after the murder, officials managed to fix Oswald’s guilt in people’s minds. Delivering the first apparently credible package of information confers a large advantage in this kind of situation, as it helps officials influence political perceptions and memories, and thereby shape political reality. You can recover from these rhetorical disadvantages if you believe the official account is untrue, but effective rebuttal takes work.
Think about another interesting example in political life of a weighty blow delivered first. 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. The over-eager reporters embarrassed themselves. Florida’s results in 2000 proved just as close as results for the 2008 Franken-Coleman Senate race in Minnesota. That is, the Florida vote was essentially a tie: the state had to organize and execute a legal – and political – process to determine the winner, as did Minnesota eight years later.
The Supreme Court said we couldn’t wait around for Florida’s legal process. It declared a winner. Its only conceivable basis for declaring Bush the winner was that Bush went to bed on election night with Tom Brokaw blessing his victory. When he needed a good team of lawyers to assert that Tom Brokaw was correct, he had that, too. If Tom Brokaw had declared Gore the winner on election night, no one imagines the Supreme Court would have appointed Bush to the White House. Bush’s Florida tally, together with NBC’s strange, statistically perverse decision to declare the winner before everyone went to bed, set a course for everything that happened afterward. Bush and Brokaw got in the first licks.
To form judgments about the troubling events in Dallas, the Warren report got in first. After that, opposing accounts seemed unreasonable and unwelcome, out of the mainstream, kooky, counter-productive, and suspect. The conspiracy theorists are at it again, people thought. The assassination 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.
When we compare the methods, logic, and evidence in the Warren Report to the methods, logic, and evidence of competing accounts, the alternate versions look more reasonable straight down the line. To take one key instance, the single-bullet theory, articulated in the Warren Report to account for the ballistic evidence, is so fantastic, so out of line with what we know, that almost every other explanation appears superior. If Douglass’s book had appeared in 1964, and the Warren Report had appeared in 2008, comparisons of quality would be no contest at all. Every careful reader would judge Douglass’s account superior.
Interestingly, George W. Bush chose not to go first when he resisted formation of the 9/11 Commission. He and his advisors hoped requests to launch a formal investigation would go away. When they did not, he signed legislation to form the commission in November 2002. It completed its work in August 2004, almost three years after the event.
By then, a number of 9/11 researchers had begun to publish their findings. Sober researchers described several anaomalies, most notably the controlled demolition of World Trade Center Building 7. Other questions related to destruction of the Twin Towers, distribution of wreckage near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the strange explosion at the Pentagon, odd behavior of the FAA and military air defense forces, cavalier treatment of crime scene evidence, and misinformation about the attackers. Numerous anomalies and contradictions coalesced to indicate that official accounts of what happened on 9/11 were false.
In light of these developments, President Bush would have conceded first blows to multiple other sources, had he not had super-compliant media to echo everything his government wanted to put out. From the first minutes and hours of the crisis, public media proved willing to serve up the government’s line.
Accounts of how WTC 7 fell illustrate this phenomenon of compliance. So many people knew in advance that this forty-seven story building would come down. When it did collapse into its own footprint, right before suppertime, the media repeated official government explanations, uncritically and without independent investigation. The building fell due to fire and structural failure, no questions asked! The White House could not have asked for more. When you have people willing to report even obvious lies as the truth, you do not need a formal commission to certify your version. Media consensus and general acceptance of authority serve just as well.