The Spectator

The Return of the Magic Bullet

Two new JFK books clash over conspiracy theory.

The bullet I was holding in my hand—the so-called “magic bullet” or “pristine bullet”—went through President John F. Kennedy’s neck and then, depending on whom you believe about its subsequent controversial trajectory, passed through Texas Gov. John Connally’s back and out of his chest, hit his wrist, and ricocheted into his thigh.

It was not the bullet that ripped through JFK’s skull, killing him almost instantly on that day in Dallas, but it was the bullet whose allegedly “pristine” condition (I noticed only a minor deformation at the base) and allegedly “magic” trajectory has made it the center of JFK conspiracy theorists’ attention.

It’s hard to believe now that there was a time when you could, as I did, go to the National Archives and order up the magic bullet—a 3-inch-long, dull, brassy cylinder with faint striated beveling—for unmonitored inspection. But this was before Oliver Stone brought the magic bullet out of the shadows of conspiracy-theory lore and made it a virtual movie star.

Indeed, this Memorial Day weekend, when Chris Matthews’ Hardball panel turned to the recently revived question of the JFK assassination, his youngest panelist, the Politico’s Josephine Hearn, said her most vivid “memory” of the assassination was the “magic bullet demonstration” (by Kevin Costner playing New Orleans DA Jim Garrison) in Stone’s film JFK.

If you recall, that demo had all those pointers going in different directions, purportedly proving the unlikelihood of the Warren Commission’s theory of the bullet’s trajectory. (Basically, the theory held that only one bullet was required to create all the nonfatal wounds to Kennedy and Connolly, thus only two bullets hit the limo occupants—one missed entirely—thus a lone gunman could have fired the three shots the assassin got off in the 6-second period of the shooting. If more than one bullet was required to do what the magic bullet was supposed to have done alone, there had to be at least four shots, and thus—trust me, if you’re not following it precisely—a second gunman. And—by definition—a conspiracy. Thus the single “magic” bullet’s behavior is essential to the “lone gunman,” no-conspiracy, Oswald-acted-alone theory.)

That magic bullet: Whenever I find myself drawn back into the morass of the JFK case, I think of my moments alone communing with the magic bullet. The trajectory of my own thinking on the JFK case has been as replete with shifting directions as that of Garrison’s hotly disputed portrayal—with all those pointers going every which way—of the magic bullet’s twists and turns.

Why now? Why a new controversy over something that happened 45 years ago? What got Chris Matthews so het up (not that it takes much) that he’s done two recent segments on the assassination? You’ve got to be kidding, right? After all this time?

But suddenly certain developments have converged to thrust the magic bullet and its attendant controversy back into our consciousness, where, in fact, it never lay far beneath the surface. Indeed, you could make the case that JFK conspiracy-theory culture has, in its own way, been responsible for changing the landscape of the American mind: Look at the “9/11 truth” movement, which in various versions holds that the government was behind the tragedy and helped demolish the buildings. Would such elaborate fantasies have thrived if not for the thicket of conspiracy-theory-receptive consciousness ready to feed the fire? Indeed, almost every poll shows that solid majorities of Americans believe JFK was killed by a conspiracy. And Holocaust denial: Does it not prey upon a credulous culture of paranoid suspicion in which conspiracy theories thrive? This culture, which has grown out of JFK conspiracy theories, often slips from a recognition that the truth is sometimes elusive to a belief that everything said to be true is false or the product of a secret cabal, designed to conceal sinister ends.

But must we condemn all conspiracy-theory thinking—the very notion of conspiracy—out of hand because of its abuses? One can rightly condemn a predetermined approach to investigating the truth—one that begins with the assumption of a conclusion rather than reaching a conclusion inductively through the accumulation of solid evidence. But the flaws in conspiracy-theory consciousness—the belief that every history-changing event has a sinister conspiracy, rather than a deranged individual, behind it—does not mean that some history-changing events aren’t the result of conspiracies. That conspiracies don’t exist at all.

Watergate was one. Iran-Contra was another. “Fixing” prewar intel on Iraqi WMD may have been a third. Further back in history: The assassination of Julius Caesar and the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas à Becket (“Will someone not rid me of this [troublesome] prelate”) resulted from conspiracies. And people can also conspire toward good ends: The deception operation behind the D-Day landings was a successful, perhaps war-winning conspiracy.

So, conspiracies exist, but Woodward and Bernstein didn’t solve the Watergate break-in by assuming there was a conspiracy without discovering evidentiary connections. If they had, they may never have proven there was a conspiracy. They painstakingly worked their way up the ladder of evidence and testimony from the lower rungs to the higher until the shape of the conspiracy became apparent.

Can the concept of conspiracy be rescued from the often shoddy work of conspiracy theorists?

I think it can if we’re talking about maintaining a skepticism about official truth—government pronouncements, corporate releases. If that skepticism then leads to scrupulous investigation rather than unfounded theorizing. Doubt is good and stops being good only when it becomes unearned certainty about unproven alternate conclusions that are not subjected to the same skeptical inquiry as the official story.

The three developments that have revived debate over the key contemporary crux of conspiracy theory, JFK’s murder, are the publication of Reclaiming History, Vincent Bugliosi’s massive, 1,500-page attempt to prove all JFK conspiracies are wrong (Bugliosi is the L.A. prosecutor who convicted Charles Manson), and (almost simultaneously) the appearance of Salon founder David Talbot’s Brothers, which reflects Talbot’s attempt—less massive but no less impassioned—to persuade us that at least one conspiracy did kill JFK (although he can’t say for sure which one).

These two books arrived at almost the same time as the third development: the release of a study by Texas A&M scientists who claimed to prove that previous studies of bullet fragments found in JFK’s limo were flawed. Not that they were wrong necessarily, not that there was a conspiracy necessarily, but that the methodology of studies previously conducted that supposedly proved all the bullet fragments found in the limo came from Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun were not adequate—needed to be done again, with no guarantee even then that they will offer definitive proof of anything.

So, we’re back to doubt again, to clashes between conspiracists and anti-conspiracists. We’re back to re-examining the magic of the magic bullet. At the time I had my hands on that bullet—before I abandoned JFK conspiracy-theory mindset—it had almost become a religious relic, with something of the aura of a nail from the True Cross. (In Talbot’s book, JFK is virtually a Christlike figure, if you don’t count all the illicit sex.)

The only other time I’ve felt that way about an inanimate object was in the underground command post of a Minuteman missile silo where one of the two missile crewmen in the capsule allowed me to handle one of the launch keys, one of the two keys that—turned simultaneously by each independent crewman—could launch a flight of several Minutemen carrying enough megatons of nuclear destructive power to kill tens of millions of people. (Actually, the crewmen showed me a way to rig up a spoon and a string so that a psychopathic Minutemen crewman could murder his crewmate and then twist both launch keys simultaneously.)

The launch key—brass-colored, like the magic bullet, as I remember it, the key to kingdom come—somehow made the Minuteman missiles’ mission of mass death less abstract, more real. Just as the cold metal of the magic bullet did for the death of JFK.

In a way, they were both—the bullet and the key—objective correlatives, shiny hard objects that embodied in a compressed way the shadowy subterranean mentalities of the late 20th century: nuclear terror and conspiracy theory.

Let me outline the convoluted trajectory of my thoughts on JFK conspiracy theory. I was reminded of its starting point by a tiny error in Vincent Bugliosi’s massive and largely convincing book. When I say largely convincing, I mean that he reinforces my belief that Oswald was the only one firing shots at Kennedy that day in Dallas. Where Bugliosi fails to completely convince me is in his claim that he has completely quashed the notion that Oswald might have had connections, confederates, non-gun firing co-conspirators.

My first reaction to the Bugliosi book (on my blog) was that he may have established who pulled the trigger that filed the fatal bullet, but he hasn’t completely established who or what pulled the trigger in Oswald’s head, so to speak. I believe the mind of Oswald may be the last locus of genuine mystery in the case. On further reflection, it seems to me Bugliosi is trying to point to a motive: He reminds us of all the evidence of Oswald’s pro-Castro passion and Oswald’s potential knowledge of U.S. attempts to target Fidel. He means to suggest that the JFK hit was not a Cuban job but a pro-Cuban job. Yes, I know there’s a counter-theory that Oswald’s pro-Cuban public stance was a front for an anti-Castro connection. In fact, in my view, nobody has come closer to a convincing portrait of Oswald’s muddled mentality than Don DeLillo did in his amazing novel Libra.

But to return to my own trajectory, it began with Mark Lane, now a half-forgotten fringe character but memorable as the first, most visible promoter of JFK conspiracy theory. Bugliosi begins his attempt to demolish all conspiracy theories with ur-conspiracy theorist Lane. Bugliosi’s small, inconsequential error comes on Page 1,001 (!) when he tells us Lane began giving lectures on his conspiracy theory at “Theater Four on West Fifth Street” in Manhattan.

Now, most Manhattanites will recognize the problem here: There is no “West Fifth Street” in Manhattan. Coincidence? I think so. It’s one of those Village anomalies (there is an East Fifth Street).

But for me the error was more resonant: I attended one of Lane’s lectures back then, when I was just out of high school, and I recall listening to Lane’s primitive PowerPoint-type presentation with a sense of sudden dislocation. I felt I was hearing about an alternate universe or at least an alternate America—some “West Fifth Street” of the mind, in some realm that I didn’t recognize or that hadn’t existed before. But wherever it took place (I think it might have been on West 15th Street), Lane’s lecture had a lasting effect on me, and made me a conspiracy-theory type on the spot.

It lasted about 10 years. In that period, I saw some of the best minds I knew swallowed up by conspiracy-theory mentality. If I had to pick a point where it began to come to an end for me, it might have been my phone conversation with New Orleans prosecutor Jim Garrison, whose effort to convict a local resident of masterminding the JFK kill became the basis for Oliver Stone’s JFK.

This was when Garrison was lying low, before the movie, after the spectacular fiasco of the trial in which he cobbled together pathetically inadequate evidence and grandiose theories about the vast shadowy forces behind it all in a manner so inept that he all but discredited further inquiry into the matter.

Talking with Garrison, I sensed from his tone of voice he had the thing that distinguishes conspiracy theorists from actual investigators and investigative reporters. He had that tell-tale, know-it-all, condescending tone. That if-you-only-knew-all-I knew, if-you-only-knew-the-big-picture, you-couldn’t-handle-the-truth tone.

But for all his bloviating about conspirators, Garrison never to my knowledge had named the actual person he believed fired the fatal head-shot from the grassy knoll.

So, I pressed him on it: Who fired the fatal shot? I remember him hemming and hawing and finally producing a name: Larry Crafard. As far as I know, it was the only time he gave the name of the man he thought was “the real Oswald.”

After hanging up with Garrison, I looked up Larry Crafard’s Warren Commission testimony. He was a handyman night-watchman type who slept in Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club after it closed for the night. One detail had a kind of black comic absurdity to it that stuck with me: Crafard worked in a carnival show on some cheesy attraction called “How Hollywood Makes Movies,” as I recall. After the assassination, he hitchhiked north to his hometown in Michigan, and that seemed to be Garrison’s only basis for naming him presidential assassin No. 1. He certainly didn’t cite me any convincing evidence.

I just had the feeling that Jim Garrison was pulling a name out of the air (or elsewhere). Garrison had already been discredited. But there was something about the way he picked out this poor dude to blame for the head-shot that killed JFK that made me wonder, long after I should have: Why am I taking these people seriously? Looking back on it, I recall it as the moment I felt the spell had broken. I wanted an answer to the most basic of questions, and when I got it, it only made me skeptical again.

But on the other hand, it’s paradoxical but true that false conspiracy theories can lead to the uncovering of true conspiracies. The investigative climate of suspicion that was engendered by the JFK conspiracy theories played its part in leading to the revelation of some shocking facts about the subterranean world of U.S. intelligence operations in the ‘60s. Lee Harvey Oswald may not have conspired with the mafia or anti-Castro Cubans to assassinate JFK, but, as David Talbot’s book reminds us, the Kennedys, the mafia, and anti-Castro Cubans collaborated in real assassination plots against Castro. At the time of the revelations, it seemed incredible: the Kennedys in bed with the Mob to foment assassination. But Bobby Kennedy was haunted by the possibility that Kennedy involvement in Castro-assassination plots backfired and led to his brother’s murder.

And my own trajectory of belief has changed direction a bit, magic-bullet style. When I think back on it, I attribute an overreaction on my part against conspiracy theory for one of my own great missed opportunities as a journalist. During the 1986 midterm elections, I was covering a campaign swing by then-veep George H.W. Bush, and I was in a room with some Bush aides when news of a plane downed over Nicaragua reached the traveling party. Something about a CIA pilot.

There was a lot of bustling back and forth between the inner sanctum, where Bush was closeted with his advisers, and the outer rooms, where the lower-level aides were responding to press inquiries.

I heard words to the effect of “we’re not saying anything about it,” or possibly something even more weasel-worded: low-level guy, no connection to us. I can’t remember exactly now. But it sounded suspicious to me. I had a sense that something was not being fully disclosed, that they knew more than they could say about a conspiratorial connection.

But by that time, my instincts had been blunted by overexposure to bad conspiracy theorizing. I had come to be perhaps too critical of the impulse.

So, I left it alone. And that’s how I missed my chance to get in on the beginning of Iran-Contra. I blame the magic bullet.