I am a student of Presidential assassinations (as you might guess by the posts on McKinley and Garfield), and have been most of my life, ever since I saw a TV special called “Web of Conspiracy” when I was 10, about the Lincoln murder. That led me to read the best-selling book the special was based on, an 800 page, sensational analysis of the mysteries behind Lincoln’s death, by mystery writer Theodore Roscoe, who dabbled in history. The book’s theories and insinuating style are more convincing to a ten-year-old than an adult (I read the book many years later, and it drove me crazy), but the book still has a lot of fascinating tales and theories in it. I was hooked.
Oddly, the one Presidential assassination that has interested me least in recent years is the one I lived through, the assassination of President Kennedy. Blame Oliver Stone, Kevin Costner and Jim Garrison: “JFK” was the most dishonest movie I had ever watched (still is) and I walked out of it when its lies and distortions got too much for me about a third of the way through. Even before Stone’s brilliantly directed piece of crap. I was sick of the conspiracy theories, though Stone manufacturing a link to Lyndon Johnson was the final straw. Yes, the bitter Vietnam veteran really got back at LBJ; I hope it made him feel better. I, however, was soured on the whole topic.
I should have been paying more attention. Netflix is showing a documentary with the generic conspiracy theory title of “JFK: The Smoking Gun,” which was shown on cable two years ago. I missed it; if I had been aware of the film, the title and the subject matter—Oh, who’s behind it now? The Mafia? Nixon? Woody Harrelson’s father?—would have kept me away. But while I was on the road for a couple days doing ethics seminars for VACLE, my wife watched the documentary, and when I returned, sleep deprived, weak and submissive, she made me watch it.
Fascinating. And troubling.
Colin McLaren, a retired and well-credentialed Australian detective, decided to review the evidence, testimony and forensics in the now cold case. He was drawn to the theories of the late ballistics and firearms expert Howard Donahue, who was one of the marksmen challenged by CBS news to fire three shots and hit a moving target like Kennedy in the motorcade from Oswald’s distance using Oswald’s archaic, bolt-action rifle. Donohue was the only one who could do it, and that after two unsuccessful tries. Ironically, while his shots proved that it was possible for Oswald to fire off three shots in 5.6 seconds, the difficulty of the challenge convinced him that Oswald couldn’t have done it. (In the revolting “JFK,” a test proves that nobody could fire off the shots. Yes, my hatred for this film, and its director, is deep.) That set Donohue on a quest to discover what the Warren Report and subsequent theories have missed. From the documentary’s website:
“The late American ballistics and firearms expert Howard Donahue believed that while Lee Harvey Oswald was the assassin and he did indeed fire at President John F. Kennedy, the shot that mortally wounded Kennedy was accidentally fired by one of the Secret Service agents riding in the follow-up car behind the presidential limousine. Donahue also maintained that there was no conspiracy to kill the president. Donahue’s theory and his supporting arguments are the subject of a book by Bonar Menninger, MORTAL ERROR (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992). According to Donahue, Oswald only got off two shots. Oswald’s first shot, from a WWII Carcano rifle, hit the road near the limousine and showered the car with fragments, a ricochet hit Kennedy lightly in the head. Oswald’s second shot (the “Neck Shot”) struck the President in the back of the neck and passed right through him striking Texas Governor John Connally’s back, ribs, wrist and thigh and was found virtually intact on a stretcher at Parkland Hospital. Seconds later, Secret Service agent George Hickey accidentally discharged his AR 15 assault rifle in the follow-up car. This bullet hit Kennedy in the back of the head.”
What followed this horrible accident, as pieced together by Donahue and supported by McClaren (and lots of interviews, depositions and testimony), was an epic cover-up by the Secret Service and perhaps others (such as Senator Arlen Spector, not an Ethics Alarms favorite) to keep the facts of this massive botch from the American public. I don’t think the public was ready to accept how incompetent the Secret Service could be in 2013: now, this theory seems almost too plausible. Hickey, we learn, was an inexperienced agent whose main assignment was the motor pool. The President’s main detail, already exhausted, had decided to drink and party the night of November 21st, 1963 rather than sleep. Hungover agents recruited Hickey , for the first time, to be in the car behind the President, and made him responsible for the loaded and cocked semi-automatic weapon on the floor of the vehicle. When the first two shots came (Donahue’s work proved that the Warren Commission got the so-called “magic bullet” theory right, incidentally), a green, panicked agent reached for the gun, took off the safety, stood, and when the car lurched forward, fell back, firing off the fatal shot by mistake.
Witnesses interviewed in Dallas but never called by the Warren Commission described seeing a scene consistent with this scenario. Hickey’s description to the Commission of what he did with the gun didn’t match other testimony. Only some of the agents in the car with Hickey ever testified (this makes no sense at all). The Secret Service interfered with the autopsy, and Kennedy’s brain was even taken and “lost.” An X-ray technician involved with the autopsy told Donohue that he was told to fabricate evidence, and did. The most suspicious revelation in the documentary is that when President Clinton, in part because of the doubts planted by “JFK,” formed a commission to review the files, take new testimony, and analyze newly declassified documents and evidence, all the agencies involved turned over their materials, except one. The Secret Service had destroyed its files relating to Kennedy’s assassination and the aftermath, just a week before the new inquiry was to commence.
Or just a coincidence.
Do I believe the McLaren-Donahue theory? There are problems with it. I don’t think this is the explanation people want to be true, and that accounts in part for the failure of Donohue’s book and the 2013 documentary to spark public interest. Conspiracy theories are fun: government incompetence and cover-ups are just unsettling. It would be a useful lesson, however, if we learned that the most history-altering crime of the 20th Century was an epic example of Hanlon’s Razor, that incompetence, not malice, explains more wrongdoing than we tend to believe.
What the Kennedy assassination inquiry already shows, however, is how the confluence of conflicts of interest, ineptitude, exploitation, incompetence, and dishonesty can so poison public trust that the truth can be obscured forever. So many shady, venal people, like Stone, have lied and tried to cash in on this tragedy with false theories and personal agendas that it is now impossible to believe any theory, even sincere and thoughtful ones. If they happened upon the truth, both Donahue and McClaren got to it too late. The press and the public had lost interest, and now have entrenched biases that cannot be dislodged. If you believed that Oswald was the lone gunman, you don’t want to hear that a young, vital Chief Executive was killed because Secret Service agents got drunk and handed a AR 15 assault rifle to a novice. (The Secret Service director at the time told the Warren Commission that a “new weapon” was in the car that day, but was no longer being used. As Theodore Roscoe would put it, “Was the AR-47 pulled to avoid a repeat of the tragedy that haunts the Secret Service? This possibility…or is it probable?… cannot be ruled out). If you are determined to find a conspiracy by the Mafia or the Cubans, or the Russians, this resolution is similarly unwelcome. For everyone else, it is now, “Yeah, yeah, another crackpot theory about JFK. I’m sick of hearing them.”)
That one was me.
George Hickey, we learn, was alive when “Mortal Error” was published, and never responded to the author’s letters and invitations to discuss what happened that November day. He waited two years, after the book had failed and the statute of limitations had run, to sue, then sued again when the book was released in paperback. The publisher, reluctant to lose any more money, settled out of court. Nobody noticed, and Hickey left this earth without ever talking to a journalist, or explaining why his Warren Commission testimony had him reaching for the gun after the fatal shot was fired, while photos and eye-witness testimony show him raising it seconds before that shot.
I don’t know if he was the real shooter. I do know, thanks to what I have learned from recent fence jumpers, drunk agents and wild parties, that Donahue’s theory seems plausible to me now, and once would not have.