On the very day John F. Kennedy died, a cottage industry was born. Fifty years and hundreds of millions of dollars later, it’s still thriving.
Its product? The “truth” about the president’s assassination.
“By the evening of November 22, 1963, I found myself being drawn into the case,” Los Angeles businessman Ray Marcus wrote in “Addendum B,” one of several self-published monographs he produced on the assassination. For him, authorities were just too quick and too pat with their conclusion.
“The government was saying there was only one assassin; that there was no conspiracy. It was obvious that even if this subsequently turned out to be true, it could not have been known to be true at that time.”
Most skeptics, including Marcus, didn’t get rich by publishing their doubts and theories – and some have even bankrupted themselves chasing theirs. But for a select few, there’s been good money in keeping the controversy alive.
Best-selling books and blockbuster movies have raked in massive profits since 1963. And now, with the 50th anniversary of that horrible day in Dallas looming, a new generation is set to cash in.
Of course, the Warren Commission officially concluded in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone – and issued 26 volumes of documents to support that determination. But rather than closing the book on JFK’s death, the report merely served as fuel for an already kindled fire of doubt and suspicion.
Since then, even government investigators have stepped away from the lone assassin theory. In 1978, the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations ended its own lengthy inquiry by finding that JFK “was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.”
Among the leading suspects: Cuban exiles angry about the Bay of Pigs fiasco; Mafiosi enraged by Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s attacks on organized crime; the “military-industrial complex,” worried about JFK’s review of war policy in Vietnam.
One theorist even floated the notion that Kennedy’s limousine driver shot the president – as part of an effort to cover up proof of an alien invasion.
Anything but that Oswald, a hapless former Marine, was in the right place at the right time, with motive and opportunity to pull off one of the most audacious crimes in American history.
“As they say, nature abhors a vacuum, and the mind abhors chance,” said Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society and author of “The Believing Brain,” a book on how humans seem hardwired to find patterns in disparate facts and unconnected, often innocent coincidences.
Polls underscore the point.
About 6 in 10 Americans say they believe multiple people were involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy, while only one-fourth think Oswald acted alone, according to an AP-GfK survey done in mid-April. Belief in a conspiracy, though strong, has declined since a 2003 Gallup poll found 75 percent said they thought Oswald was part of a wider plot.
The case has riveted the public from the start. When the Warren Commission report was released in book form, it debuted at No. 7 on The New York Times Best Sellers List.
Two years later, attorney Mark Lane’s “Rush to Judgment” dominated the list. The Warren Commission, he argued, “frequently chose to rely on evidence that was no stronger and sometimes demonstrably weaker than contrary evidence which it rejected.”
The book has since sold millions of copies in hardcover and paperback, said Lane.
Since then, dozens of books with titles like “Best Evidence,” “Reasonable Doubt,” “High Treason” and “Coup D’Etat in America: The CIA and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy” have sought to lay responsibility for JFK’s death at the highest levels of the U.S. government – and beyond.
British journalist Anthony Summers, whose BBC documentary became the 1980 book “Conspiracy,” says many conspiracy buffs “are fine scholars and students, and some are mad as hatters who think it was done by men from Mars using catapults.”
Unlike the later coverage of Watergate, there were no reporters like The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who were told by their editors, “Get on this and don’t get off it,” said Summers, whose works focused on people and events largely ignored or treated cursorily by the official investigations. “Nobody went down there and really did the shoe leather work and the phone calls that we’re all supposed to do,” he said.
For many, the Kennedy assassination has become “a board game: ‘Who killed JFK?’ So you feel free to sit around and say, ‘Oh! It’s the mob. Oh! It’s the KGB’ ... and have no shame,” scoffs Gerald Posner, whose 1993 book “Case Closed” declared that the Warren Commission essentially got it right.
The Oswald-as-patsy community has vilified Posner.
But the lawyer says he didn’t set out to write a defense of the Warren Commission. Instead, he planned to go back through the critical evidence to see what more could be determined through hindsight and more modern investigative techniques – “and then put out a book that says, ‘Read THIS book. Here are the four unresolved issues of the Kennedy assassination, with the evidence on both sides.”’
Halfway through the allotted research time, Posner went to the editorial staff with a new idea: A book that says flat-out who killed Kennedy.
“Who?” one of the editors asked, as Posner retells it.
“Oswald,” he answered.
“Oswald,” Posner said he repeated. “And they literally looked at me as though I had just come in from Mars. And you could tell there was this feeling of, ‘Oh my God. He’s read the Warren Commission and that’s all he’s done.”’
“Case Closed” went on to sell 100,000 copies in hardcover. “I would have never thunk it,” Posner said.
Unlike Posner, Vincent Bugliosi, author of 2007’s “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” embarked on his book expecting to vindicate the Warren Commission.
What he didn’t expect was for it to balloon into a 1,650-page behemoth – with a CD-ROM containing an additional 960 pages of endnotes – that cost $57.
“STOP writing,” he recalls his wife telling him. “You’re killing the sales of the book.”
The 78-year-old lawyer blames the conspiracy theorists. “We’re talking about people,” he explains, “who’ve invested the last 15, 20, 25 years of their life in this. They’ve lost jobs. They’ve gotten divorces. Nothing stops them.”
“Like a pea brain,” he says, he responded to all of their allegations. “It’s a bottomless pit. It never, ever ends. And if my publisher ... didn’t finally step in and say, ‘Vince, we’re going to print,’ I’d still be writing the book.”
Despite its girth and hefty price tag, “Reclaiming History” had a respectable first printing of 40,000, said Bugliosi, best known as the former deputy Los Angeles district attorney who prosecuted Charles Manson.
But in a 9,400-word review, Gary L. Aguilar, a director of the Washington-based Assassination Archives and Research Center, wrote that the only thing Bugliosi’s book proved was “that it may not be possible for one person to fully master, or give a fair accounting of, this impossibly tangled mess of a case.”
Bugliosi omitted or distorted evidence and failed to disprove “the case for conspiracy,” Aguilar wrote.
Lamar Waldron is not surprised at the success of people like Bugliosi and Posner.
“The biggest money has been generated for the authors ... who kind of pretend it all was right back in 1964 and nothing really has happened since,” says Waldron, who has co-written two books on the assassination. “The large six-figure advances and everything like that don’t go to the people who dig through all those millions of pages of files and research for years.”
In “Ultimate Sacrifice” and “Legacy of Secrecy,” Waldron and co-author Thom Hartmann used declassified CIA documents to make the case that JFK (and later his brother Robert) were killed because of plans to overthrow Cuban dictator Fidel Castro – and the Mafia’s infiltration of that operation. Waldron says the books have sold a combined 85,000 copies since 2005.
And now, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro are set to star in a feature film version of “Legacy of Secrecy” – with a reported price tag of up to $90 million.
That’s one of a pair of major movies – landing on opposite sides of the Oswald-as-lone-gunman debate – due out this year.
Oscar winners Marcia Gay Harden and Billy Bob Thornton have signed on for the Tom Hanks-produced “Parkland,” named for the Dallas hospital where Kennedy was pronounced dead. That project, which Hanks’ website describes as “part thriller, part real-time drama,” is based on a small portion of Bugliosi’s magnum opus.
A TV movie is to be made from another new book, “Killing Kennedy,” co-written by Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, which had sold 1 million copies within four months of its release in October. In a note to readers, O’Reilly wrote: “In our narrative, Martin Dugard and I go only as far as the evidence takes us. We are not conspiracy guys, although we do raise some questions about what is unknown and inconsistent.”
Academy Award winner Errol Morris is working on a documentary about the assassination. He did not respond to an interview request.
One film, critics say, has done more than anything to shape the public’s perception of the assassination: That’s Oliver Stone’s 1991 drama, “JFK.”
“He made this kind of paranoid conspiracy theory respectable,” says New York writer Arthur Goldwag, author of “Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies.”
The movie tells the story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, played by Kevin Costner. Garrison remains the only prosecutor to bring someone to trial for an alleged conspiracy to kill Kennedy.
The film is “a remarkable litany of falsehoods and misrepresentations and exaggerations and omissions,” Posner says. “The reason that I’m so hard on Stone is because he’s such a good filmmaker. If he was a schlocky filmmaker, it wouldn’t matter.”
Shermer, of the Skeptics Society, agrees that Stone’s role in stirring the conspiracy pot is “huge.”
“You tell somebody a good story, that’s more powerful than tons of data, charts and graphs and statistics,” he says. “And Oliver Stone’s a good storyteller. He’s biased and he’s very deceptive, and I don’t trust him at all. But the movie’s great.”
Stone’s publicist said the director had “chosen to pass on this opportunity” to comment.
“JFK” took in more than $205 million at the box office, nearly two-thirds of that overseas, and has since raked in untold millions more in television royalties, pay-per-view, and videocassette and DVD rentals.
In the recent AP-GfK poll, respondents were asked how much of what they knew about the JFK case came from various sources. Only 9 percent cited movies or fictional TV shows, while the greatest portion, 37 percent, said history texts and nonfiction books.
About two dozen JFK-related titles are due on bookstore shelves in coming months, says Patricia Bostelman, vice president of marketing for Barnes & Noble booksellers. Among them is “They Killed Our President: The Conspiracy to Kill JFK and the Cover-Up That Followed,” by former pro wrestler and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura.
Other authors are taking advantage of the anniversary to reissue or expand on previous works.
Waldron is working on a book focusing on mob figures who confessed to being part of a conspiracy to kill the president. Summers is publishing a sequel to “Conspiracy,” incorporating material released since 1980, while Bugliosi has a “Parkland” paperback to accompany the movie release.
And “Case Closed” will soon appear for the first time as an e-book. Despite the mountains of documents released since its publication, and a mountain of criticism of his conclusions, Posner says there is no plan to update it, other than perhaps including a new foreword.
“I moved on to other subjects,” he says.
On Nov. 22, 1963, John Kelin was a 7-year-old second-grader in Peoria, Ill. He says the Kennedy assassination is “my earliest clear memory in life.”
But he didn’t really give the case much thought until 13 years later, when as a sophomore at Eastern Michigan University he attended a lecture by Mark Lane. It was the first time he saw the Abraham Zapruder film that captured the moment when Kennedy was fatally wounded.
“Using slow motion and freeze frame, Lane made sure that all of us sitting in that hot, poorly ventilated auditorium understood that Kennedy’s head and shoulders were slammed backward and to the left, and that Lee Harvey Oswald’s alleged shooting position was behind the presidential limousine,” Kelin wrote in a book, “Praise from a Future Generation,” about early critics of the Warren Report. “In a way, that lecture was the genesis of this book.”
Kelin bristles at references to a conspiracy theory “industry,” preferring to think of himself as part of a grass roots response to the government’s “severely flawed, unsatisfactory explanations for what really happened in 1963.”
His publisher, Wings Press, has “made intimations” about releasing a digital edition of “Praise” for the 50th anniversary. Meanwhile, Kelin has written another JFK book -- a fictional account of how he came to write the first one.
“It’s kind of a satire of the present-day research community,” he says, “with a love story thrown in to try to broaden the interest level.”
The title: “Conspiracy Nut.”