YOU JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND ME, YOU NEVER DID, I HATE YOU
(When is a Critic a Critic?)
During the noon hour on Friday, November 22, 1963, in
Dallas, Texas, Malcolm Perry, an assistant professor of surgery and attending
surgeon, left the Southwestern Medical School for its teaching facility,
Parkland Hospital, and his usual one o'clock rounds with the residents. (3H
366). He was eating lunch in the second-floor cafeteria with Dr. Ronald Coy
Jones, the chief surgical resident (3H 367), when the hospital's operator
sounded an emergency page for Dr. Tom Shires, chief of the emergency surgical
service. Perry knew that Shires was delivering a paper at a meeting in Galveston
(ibid.), so after the second emergency call he asked Jones to pick up the phone.
The operator told Jones that President Kennedy had been shot and was being brought to the emergency room. We don't know what thoughts passed through their minds at that moment, only that Perry and Jones immediately dashed down one flight of stairs from the cafeteria to the emergency room area, and into a little cubicle known as Trauma Room 1.
When he entered TR 1 and saw John F. Kennedy lying before him on a stretcher carriage, dying, Perry's first thought was that the President was a larger man than he had imagined (New York Times, November 28, 1963). He saw the gaping wound in the President's skull, and he knew that it was mortal. (ibid.) But there was no time for further reflection.
Dr. Charles Carrico had already arrived at the President's side. (6H 2, 3H 359, 3H 367) Because of Kennedy's inadequate respiration and an injury to his throat, Carrico inserted a breathing tube into the mouth and down the trachea past the injury. He then attached the tube to a mechanical respirator. (6H 3) It became obvious, however, that this procedure would not secure an airway. The President's breathing was still spasmodic, and there was a leakage of air around the tracheal wound. (ibid.)
Dr. Perry, who was the senior attending physician at the time, decided to perform a tracheostomy, the insertion of a breathing tube directly into the windpipe through an incision in the throat. Since the throat wound's location coincided with the spot normally used for a tracheostomy, Perry made his incision directly through the wound as an expedient. (3H 369)
Other emergency procedures were attempted, but the battle had been lost from the beginning. The chief of neurosurgery at Parkland, Dr. Kemp Clark, pronounced President Kennedy dead at 1:00 p.m.
A little more than an hour later, in a second-floor nurses' classroom which had been hastily converted into a makeshift press center, Drs. Perry and Clark were confronted with a battery of klieg lights, a bewildering array of cables, whirring cameras and spinning tape decks, and a horde of newsmen hungry for a story. The world already knew that President Kennedy was dead. It needed to know how he died.
Clark, who had arrived in TR 1 as Perry was performing the tracheostomy, had not seen the throat wound in its undeformed state. (6H 20) As a neurosurgeon, he spoke mostly about the President's head injury. Perry spoke about the emergency procedures, and about the wound in Kennedy's throat. The reporters were unfamiliar with medical terms, such as "moribund" (near death), "endotracheal tube" (oral breathing tube), and "tracheostomy," and they frequently interrupted to get the correct spellings.
Following the press conference, the news media widely quoted Perry as having identified the throat wound as one of entrance. A UPI report published in The New York World Telegram & Sun on the afternoon of the assassination said, "There was an entrance wound below his Adam's apple. There was another wound in the back of his head." (NYWT&S, November 22, 1963). Tom Wicker of The New York Times: "Mr. Kennedy was hit by a bullet in the throat, just below the Adam's apple, they said. This wound had the appearance of a bullet's entry." (New York Times, November 23, 1963) Other newspapers and the television networks concurred. (See, e.g., Dallas Times Herald, November 24, 1963; NBC, Seventy Hours and Thirty Minutes, Random House. New York: 1966, p. 11; CBS News, The Assassination of President Kennedy as Broadcast over the CBS Television Network, unpublished transcript of coverage on November 22, 1963, pp. 51, 97).
The question whether Perry's observation was correct or mistaken belies two basic points: First, Perry was reported to have made this statement by several highly respected members of the White House press corps and local reporters. Second, Perry's identification of the throat wound as an entry was conjecture—unknowing and unintentional, to be sure, but conjecture nonetheless in the strict sense of the word. As he later told the Warren Commission, Perry did not examine the President so thoroughly as to ascertain the trajectory of the missile(s) that struck the President, or the pathway of the bullet through the body. (6H 15, 3H 373, 3H 374) He did not know the position in which the President had been sitting when he was shot. His conjecture, however, was based upon his professional medical experience in dealing with gunshot victims and his personal experience as a hunter. (3H 366, 6H 18) From the undisturbed appearance of the wound, Perry had concluded that afternoon that, in the words of one reporter in Dallas, "A bullet struck him in the front as he faced the assailant." (NBC, op. cit., p. 11) The reporters at the news conference did not know this, and they had no alternative but to report what Perry said and what they heard.
Of course, Perry's observation conflicted with the official theory of the assassination, that President Kennedy was shot only from the rear as his limousine passed the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository Building in which the lone assassin lurked. Perry's comments therefore immediately led to the question that attorney Mark Lane and others have been asking for nearly thirty years: How could accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald have shot the President in the throat from behind?
The Warren Commission labored to cast doubt that the reporters at the press conference had quoted Perry accurately, an effort in which Perry himself acquiesced. For years after the assassination independent researchers searched in vain for proof of his original statement. Lane, in particular, was eager to include film footage of the Parkland news conference in his documentary on the Warren Report. In his book of the same title, Rush to Judgment, Lane reported that the three major networks and local Dallas stations no longer had television and radio tapes of the briefing. (Lane, Mark. Rush to Judgment. Dell Publishing Co., New York: 1975, p. 53) Elaborating on that claim in an interview with Playboy Magazine, Lane said that the local Dallas stations were visited after the assassination by FBI and Secret Service agents and asked to surrender all of their tapes. (Playboy, February 1967, p. 50).
Then, on June 26, 1967, in the second of four nightly CBS News programs on the Warren Report, anchorman Walter Cronkite referred to "the transcript of that news conference" without giving his audience any additional identification or indication of its source. Since that night, there has been no further word from CBS about the document.
The transcript of the Parkland Hospital news conference to which CBS referred was not of the network's own making: it was a non-classified government document unseen by the Warren Commission.
Arlen Specter, the Warren Commission staff lawyer who developed the medical evidence in the assassination, made a feeble and somewhat transparent attempt to obtain for that investigation a recording or transcript of the statements made by Dr. Perry on November 22, 1963. Although Specter told the Commission that, "[W]e have been trying diligently to get the tape records of the television interview, and we were unsuccessful," (3H 378) there is no evidence that the Commission considered using its subpoena power at any time. Instead of inquiring on its own, the panel asked the Secret Service to undertake a search. The performance of the Secret Service was equally lackluster, for a reason I shall presently discuss. On March 25, 1964, Secret Service Director James J. Rowley wrote the Commission that no videotape recording or transcript could be found at the television networks or the Dallas stations. (CD 678)
Specter understandably did not press the issue. Perry's statement about an entrance wound in President Kennedy's throat was directly at odds with the official report issued by three military pathologists who conducted the Kennedy autopsy at Bethesda Naval Medical Center on the night of the assassination. They concluded that the President was shot twice from the rear.
One of the peculiarities of this case is that, on the weekend of the assassination, neither the Parkland group nor the Bethesda group of doctors had seen all the President's wounds. The autopsy surgeons found a wound on the upper right-hand side of his back. The Parkland doctors were unaware of this wound at the time they treated the President, since they did not turn him over on his stomach. (6H 3, 6H 5, 3H 382) On the other hand, the Parkland doctors were the only ones who had observed the throat wound in its original state. Due to the tracheostomy that had been performed through this site, the Bethesda doctors said they did not regard it as a bullet wound while the President's body was in their hands. Only later did they infer, rather than actually trace, a path from the back wound to the throat wound. (2H 368)
Specter, as middleman, played one group against the other to coax support for his single-bullet theory that one shot, fired from the rear, hit both President Kennedy and Governor John Connally, who sat in front of Kennedy in the presidential limousine during the ill-fated motorcade through Dallas. It was a theory that both the Commission's critics and supporters agreed was the cornerstone of the case for a lone gunman. Verification of Perry's statement about an entrance wound in the throat through the production of a transcript would only have gotten in the way of Specter's strategy.
In Dr. Perry's case, the strategy was two-pronged:
First, without ever asking Perry to deny that he had formed an initial opinion at Parkland Hospital on November 22, to establish that the doctor's earlier comments on the throat wound had been misquoted and misinterpreted by the press; and
Second, to elicit Perry's opinion of the possibility of the throat wound being one of exit by asking him to assume as true the autopsy findings and other information that Specter provided.
Both tactics lured Perry into embracing the autopsy findings without recanting his original statements, while still maintaining his professional pride. The second also led Perry, in his testimony before the Warren Commission, into the very sort of speculation that the press had solicited.
Perry offered little resistance. He did not stand up to the authorities as Robert Redford and Warren Beatty do in the movies. Perry knew that his "entrance wound" statement at Parkland had thrown a wrench into the works. The morning after the assassination (i.e., the morning following the autopsy), Perry told Clark that "he had been asked by Bethesda to confine his remarks to that which he knew from having examined the President.” (6H 23)
Even if Perry, four months after the assassination, felt sure of what he saw in TR 1, he would have been stepping out on a fragile and lonely limb to say so. Having a transcript of his Parkland remarks before him as he testified would have been of as little help to him as it would to Specter. Specter, the middleman, held the cards—and the autopsy report.
Specter asked Perry, not did he form an opinion at Parkland whether the throat wound was an entry or exit, not did he have a basis, but did he have a sufficient basis to form such an opinion?
"No, sir. I was unable to determine that since I did not ascertain the exact trajectory of the missile." (3H 373).
Were sufficient facts available then to form an opinion as to the source or direction of the cause of the wound?
No, Perry replied, "although several leading questions were directed toward me at the several conferences." (6H 15)
"Often questions were directed as to—in such a manner as this: 'Doctor, is it possible that if he were in such and such a position and the bullet entered here, could it have done that?' And my reply, 'Of course, if it were possible, yes, that is possible, but similarly, it did not have to be so, necessarily.'" (ibid.)
"...I could not categorically state about the nature of the neck wound…"(6H 12)
He could not come to a conclusive opinion from the physical characteristics of the wound in and of themselves. (6H 15) In general, Perry testified that he spoke only in terms of possibilities (3H 375, 376).
So, too, in his appearance before the Warren Commission: Would Perry please assume that the President was struck by a copper-jacketed bullet? Now, would he also assume that it was fired at muzzle velocity of approximately 2000 feet per second? Add that the bullet entered the President's back (a wound Perry had never seen), that it went through the muscle tissue as described by the official autopsy report (a path that neither Perry nor the autopsy surgeons themselves traced), and that it exited the throat (a fact that the autopsy pathologists merely assumed). Would the wound he observed in the throat be consistent with an exit wound?
"Certainly would be consistent with an exit wound." (3H 373)
By the appearance of the neck wound alone, could it have been either an entrance or an exit wound?
"It could have been either." (ibid.)
If, that is, the hypothesis posed to Perry by Specter were true?
"That is correct, sir. I have no way to authenticate either by own knowledge." (6H 15)
In this manner, Specter sought to dispel the confusion and to reconcile the Parkland doctors' testimony to the autopsy report. Having thus neutralized Perry, the Commission was not above overkill. The Warren Report's section on the wounds said:
“At the news conference, Dr. Perry answered a series of hypothetical questions and stated to the press that a variety of possibilities could account for the President's wounds. He stated that a single bullet could have caused the President's wounds by entering through the throat, striking the spine, and being deflected upward with the point of exit being through the head.” (WR 90)
The Report presented this information as factual, without attributing these statements to Perry's testimony. Perry issued no such reconstruction at the news conference, although at least one press account alleged that he did (UPI dispatch published in Dallas Times Herald, November 24, 1963). In his testimony, Perry simply thought he remembered (perhaps under the influence of what he had read in the press since the assassination) positing the course of a bullet. (3H 375, 376, 6H 13) The Report continued:
“Dr. Perry said his answers at the press conference were intended to convey his theory about what could have happened, based on his limited knowledge at the time, rather than his professional opinion about what did happen…” (WR 90)
Perry, however, had denied holding any theory of the wounds, either at the time of the assassination or at the time he testified. (6H 12, 15) Neither did he advance any theory during the press conference.
The transcript of that press conference gives the game away. It reveals that both Drs. Perry and Clark repeatedly and emphatically declined to speculate on the trajectory of the shots or their course through the President's body. They confined themselves to what they had observed and done. They spoke of a head wound and a neck wound, without saying whether the wounds were made by one, two or more bullets.
Dr. Perry described the neck wound as an entrance wound. His opinion was definite. It left no room for doubt. He had arrived at that judgment independent of the factors that Arlen Specter would later ask him to assume, and before the best evidence, President Kennedy's body, had been transported behind military lines.
Dr. Perry had an opinion on November 22. On the basis of the hypothesis later given to him by Specter, Perry decided that his was not "the correct opinion." Unlike testimony, however, the Perry transcript could not be shaded through the use of hypothetical questions. Unlike the Zapruder film with its unmistakable depiction of the violent backward thrust of Kennedy's body, it could not be ignored. Unlike scientific tests, it could not be misinterpreted. Therefore, the Perry transcript had to be buried.
The Parkland news conference was actually a White House news conference, because it was conducted by Wayne Hawks, a member of the White House transportation staff. Hawks was acting in place of Malcolm Kilduff, the assistant White House Press Secretary who accompanied President Kennedy to Dallas, and who left Parkland Hospital with President Johnson a few minutes before the press conference began. The transcript of the news conference was on file in the White House Press office, under the nose of the White House Detail of the Secret Service, which had purportedly sought it for the Warren Commission.
Arlen Specter knew about Hawks' role in the press conference, because Malcolm Perry told him about it on the first day of his testimony. (6H 7) That was March 25, 1964, the same day that Secret Service Chief Rowley wrote the Commission to say he had been unsuccessful in locating a videotape recording. (CD 678) Since Perry did not testify again until five days later (March 30, 1964), Specter could have obtained the transcript for that session. He did not.
Several authors have devoted lengthy books to cataloging the Warren Commission's penchant for willfully disregarding eyewitness accounts of the shooting, ignoring physical evidence that was inconvenient to its predetermined conclusions, as well as its misrepresentation, obfuscation and prevarication relating to evidence that it did receive. I have recounted the tale of Malcolm Perry and the transcript of his news conference only because it is one with which David Lifton, the author of Best Evidence is all too familiar. He tells us in his book that he cashed a tax refund check to buy a set of the Commission's 26 volumes of hearings and exhibits. He read all the newspaper and magazine accounts that he could find. He read many books about the assassination that were published before his. Still, there is substantial cause for restless doubt that he pursued his readings and investigations with the same purpose, intent and understandings that the overwhelming majority of other writers, researchers and critics shared.
For the benefit of those few who may never have heard about Best Evidence, let alone undertaken the wearying task of reading the book through to its end, Lifton theorizes that while Jacqueline Kennedy went to the front of Air Force One for the swearing-in of Lyndon Johnson, shortly before the plane took off from Love Field in Dallas to return to Washington, somebody transferred JFK's remains from a coffin to a body bag, which was secreted away—somewhere. He further theorizes that, when the plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, the body bag was secretly off loaded from the right side of the plane as some 3000 spectators and millions of television viewers watched an empty bronze ceremonial casket being unloaded and placed in an ambulance on the left side, the area being illuminated by klieg lights. While the ambulance drove to Bethesda, the body was flown by helicopter to Walter Reed Army Hospital for alteration (e.g., the addition or modification of wounds, and the removal of bullets), then taken to Bethesda in a gray metal shipping casket before the arrival of the empty "original" coffin. Somehow, someone managed to re-casket the body in its original coffin without anyone else noticing. According to Lifton, the body in the gray metal casket was sheathed in a body bag, with the head wrapped in a sheet. The President's throat wound was sutured and his skull had no brain.
The autopsy pathologists at Bethesda, according to Lifton, were deceived by the "medical forgery" into believing that the President had been shot from behind, rather than from in front of the limousine in which he rode through downtown Dallas. Specifically, Lifton alleges a plot that enlarged JFK's head wound and added two rear wounds, one in the head and one in the upper back. He alleges that neither of those rear wounds were seen by the nurses and doctors who handled the President's body at Parkland.
Lifton pretends to posit only a small, high-level plot involving a clique of officials. ("America's Unsolved Mystery," Palm Beach Post, November 22, 1991, p. 1D) With the briefest reflection, however, the Best Evidence thesis clearly requires not only a group of assassins, but legions who could plant a phony bullet at Parkland Hospital, plant phony bullet fragments in the President's limousine, steal and then alter the President's corpse, alter the Zapruder film, and alter the autopsy X-rays and photographs. It would have required utilization of the type of sophisticated project management computer software that did not even exist in 1963 to coordinate and move the President's body, hordes of unidentified conspirators, coffins, coffin guard teams, doctors, Secret Service Agents, F.B.I. agents, and Kennedy staffers, as well as to conduct the complex array of operations that he envisions. Still, he insists that it was a small plot.
People are entitled to their sincerely held beliefs on the subject of President Kennedy's assassination. Nevertheless, when a prominent writer about the assassination dares to suggest, as David Lifton did in passing in a footnote to his book ("The critics' conclusion that the Commission ‘covered up’ had created blind spots in their research effort. My friendship with Liebeler caused me to put aside my suspicions and realize that a person could, in good faith, hold the Commission's position." [Hard cover, p. 299 fn]), and now does again in essays published both privately and on the on-line Compuserve Information Service, that the Warren Commission and its various counsel were as honest and objective in their account of the evidence as newspaper reporters attempting to simply report news, it seems not only fair but urgent that those who are familiar with the record question that writer's bona fides as a critic, as well as the true nature of the role that he appears to perform in this controversy. Indeed, Mr. Lifton does not stop at exonerating the Warren Commission; he insists that neither the doctors who treated Kennedy at Parkland Hospital, nor the surgeons who performed the autopsy at Bethesda lied about the events of November 22. While his book implies that the latter's military superiors (or other unidentified attendees at the autopsy) were involved in a body swipe that appears to resemble a game of musical caskets, Mr. Lifton nevertheless takes great pains in exonerating the White House physician, Navy Admiral George G. Burkley, of any culpable knowledge or involvement.
In Mr. Lifton's view, the Warren Commission stands on equal footing with the rest of the world vis-a-vis the Kennedy assassination: all of us were merely deceived by invisible plotters who phonied up the evidence. He writes:
"I was taken with the idea that the Commission had been the victim of a monstrous deception, and was decidedly uncomfortable with the notion that because the Warren Report was written in a one-sided fashion, that meant the investigation was a fraud." (BE, Chapter 15)
These are, however, decidedly different views than those that were ostensibly held by "the old Lifton," the one whose myriad conspiracy theories merrily skipped along the farthest fringe of assassination research and criticism of the Warren Commission during the Sixties. So different, in fact, that one might be tempted to argue in his manner that David Lifton is really dead, and that an imposter has taken his place. Were the difference clearly based upon principle, exemplified by a frank confession of error corrected through maturation and scholarly re-evaluation, one might lament his defection from the critics' ranks without faulting this aspect of either his book or his current dogma. Unfortunately, Mr. Lifton carefully conceals his former beliefs about the Commission, as well as his gestalt view of the assassination, and invents a completely false legend for himself which throws the entire autobiographical aspect of Best Evidence, as well as the marrow of his forensic argument, into serious question.
Sadly, the "disguise and deception" of Best Evidence are by no one except David Lifton.
It was Lifton who once wrote of the early Warren Commission critic, Edward Jay Epstein, some seven months before the latter's Inquest was published, "[H]e seems to want the recognition of being an important critic of [the Warren Commission's] work, yet somehow say it wasn't their fault. I think he is deceiving himself about the character of some of those men and his work will be the less hard hitting because of this." (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, November 21, 1965)
Indeed, Lifton criticized Epstein for overlooking what he termed the Commission's "moral guilt." And he also accused the Warren Commission of "sanctioning" a cover-up, excoriating Epstein for "refusing to condemn" them. (ibid.)
Later, Lifton offered that some Warren Commission attorneys "deceived themselves to the point that they actually believe their own 'big lie'," and he referred to "constraints ... that prevented a completely free and impartial inquiry." (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, December 5, 1965)
But who are the deceivers and who are the deceived?
At the beginning of his Chapter Two of Best Evidence, Lifton gives us an account of his public confrontation with former CIA Director and Warren Commissioner Allen Dulles over the backward snap of JFK's head in the Z-film. One searches his narrative in vain for any thought or feeling in reaction to this encounter. In fact, however, Lifton could scarcely conceal his disgust with Dulles. Contemporaneously, he would write: "What I was surprised at was the rather disgusting ease with which he lied through his teeth when necessary." And Lifton conceded that such a man would lie "for reasons of state." (Lifton, David. Notes and Comments on an Interview with Allen Dulles, December 7, 1965)
The New Lifton castigates pioneering critic Mark Lane's style of public speaking in Best Evidence, yet after hearing the very debate between Lane and Liebeler that serves as his vehicle for such denigration, the old, private Lifton explicitly agreed with Lane's characterization of the Warren Report as "a moral crime, a hoax, and a fraud." (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, October 13, 1966)
And he continued:
"I also believe the Report was authored by people who, at least at some level knew that what they were authoring was a complete cock and bull story....The Report itself, as you put it, deliberately uses the English language in the service of obfuscation and guile." (ibid.)
Should the merciful rationalize Mr. Lifton's conversion from critic to apologist for the Warren Commission in terms of a transition from the nascent, hastily formed judgments of a novice researcher to the deeper, more intellectually mature insights of a scholar, they ought first to consider that he expressed virtually the same sentiments again in 1969, and as late as mid-March 1970 in correspondence with Sylvia Meagher, author of Accessories After The Fact and two indices to the official investigations of the assassination.
In Best Evidence, Lifton appraises Meagher and, with seemingly pinpoint precision, describes his own state of mind as of November 4, 1966:
"Sylvia Meagher represented the view that the Commission and its staff were conscious concealers of the truth—deliberate, criminally culpable liars.
"I could no longer subscribe to that view, for it failed to take into account falsified evidence. Many critics didn't allow for that possibility."
In reality, long after he professes to have arrived at this conclusion, Lifton wrote to Meagher:
"There are instances where I think the WC staff was deliberately dishonest, and I will not hesitate to say so (or, perhaps better, demonstrate this as fact.) I don't think its [sic] all oversight, overwork or deception by others." (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, October 13, 1969) (Emphasis supplied)
(The "deception by others" reference puzzles this writer, since it seems to contradict Mr. Lifton's claim in Best Evidence that he was developing its central theory of a deceived autopsy at the time.)
Mr. Lifton was then coordinating the ordering, reproduction and distribution of major portions of the Warren Commission's unpublished files to her and other critics, a subject that I shall later revisit. In a transmittal memorandum covering approximately 2200 pages of documents known as "the Gemberling reports" (after FBI Agent Robert Gemberling of the Dallas Field Office), Mr. Lifton advised he had selected them with a bias toward revealing that the Warren Commission's attorneys "were trying not to tell us something," and that they would "sweep disagreeable information (disagreeable in the sense that it was in conflict with the conclusions of the particular area of the investigation that came under the aegis of the staff attorney involved)" under the rug. (Lifton, David. Memorandum, March 13, 1970)
Chapter One of Best Evidence describes a November 2, 1965 meeting between David Lifton and Wesley Liebeler concerning letters that Liebeler had received from various former Warren Commission staff attorneys in response to his queries on behalf of Lifton about a splice in the Zapruder film. As the two of them walked to a photocopy machine, Lifton wrote circa 1978, "I kept up a running stream of comment that it was only a matter of time now until the entire Warren Report came apart at the seams." But in his contemporary record of this same conversation, Lifton follows the word "seams" with a comma instead of a period, and continues his self-quotation: "and that I feel sorry for the staff attorney's [sic] who were 'used' and who still have their whole careers ahead of them." (Lifton, David. "Interview with W.J.L.", November 30, 1965) (Lifton, David. "Interview with W.J.L." [unpublished memorandum])
Lifton, who wrote in his book that, during the mid-Sixties he thought Liebeler stood separate and apart from the other Warren Commission staff attorneys, omitted his insight about their being "used" from his book, but clearly entertained the belief in 1965 that certain staff attorneys would be damaged were the Warren Report proved false. Today he argues that they were honest men who were deceived by the evidence.
What happened to David Lifton between the time he left work and school, co-wrote an article for Ramparts, also wrote those letters to Sylvia Meagher and memoranda to his files, and the time when he found his literary agent and publisher? Did an honest change come about in him? Did he formulate his present-day hypocrisy on the basis of some changed analysis of the 26-volumes, or was it a pitiable effort to make his body swipe and alteration scheme seem less demonist to his benefactors and the public? How was he transformed from a young man who courted the approval of the major critics of an earlier day to one who now lunges to disparage, defame and discredit them? Who turned David Lifton? Or, was there any need to turn him, i.e., did he actually feign at being a critic in his correspondence and dealings with Meagher (and/or others) from the start?
In what must seem another lifetime, Mr. Lifton graduated from the Cornell University School of Engineering and Physics in 1962 (New York Times, January 12, 1981, Section C, p. 17). With his background in math, physics, and engineering, he had planned to become a scientist. ("'JFK': Lone-Assassin Debate; Four Doubters Have Pursued Truth For Decades," Sacramento Bee, January 7, 1992, p. F1) At the time of President Kennedy's assassination, he was 24 years old and pursuing an advanced degree in engineering at UCLA while working nights as a computer engineer at North American Aviation, then a prime contractor for the Apollo space program. ("His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End", Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Magazine, p. 20)
In 1966, he was drummed out of UCLA for neglecting his studies. (Ibid.) He allegedly quit his job with North American and asked his parents for financial support to pursue his assassination research. (Ibid.) He had no plans to write a book about the assassination, he claims that he just wanted to devote maybe half a year to studying the matter (Ibid.)
Lifton's study of the assassination only began with his purchase of a set of the Warren Commission volumes. He also obtained photocopies of the Commission's working papers, i.e., interoffice memos and letters to investigative agencies. ("His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End", Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Id.).
In a memoir of his experiences during the Sixties, Warren Hinckle, former editor of Ramparts magazine, remembers Lifton as "a pushy UCLA engineering student who was known as 'Blowup,' since his specialty was enlarging photographs of Dealey Plaza taken the morning of the assassination and finding figures lurking in the background. Lifton did not like to hear no for an answer and was persistent in insisting that one pick out the figure of a man among a forest of black and white dots in a twenty times enlargement of a Polaroid snapshot of Dealey Plaza he toted around like a billboard paster going to work." (Hinckle, Warren. If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade, G.P. Putnam's Sons; New York: 1974, p. 214)
Besides the expense he incurred in the reproduction of official documents and photographs, during the 1960's and 70's Mr. Lifton seems to have engaged in an extensive travel itinerary while pursuing his studies of the assassination. He went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., at least three times, spending six weeks there the first trip, one month the second. He also visited Dallas, the scene of the assassination, and made additional trips to Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Bethesda to interview witnesses. ("His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End", Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Id.; Lifton's own accounts of his travels in Best Evidence.)
He spent as much as $800 a month in long-distance phone tolls over the fifteen years preceding the publication of his book. ("David Lifton's Startling Study of JFK's Murder", The Washington Post, September 5, 1980, Style Section, p. C1) That comes to $9600 a year in long-distance bills alone, figure a rounded $10,000 a year to include local charges, or $150,000 in total for use of the telephone. Since man does not live by the telephone alone, one must assume that, during his fifteen year sojourn, Mr. Lifton somehow managed to absorb the same customary and usual expenses of most single people living in a major urban center—such as Los Angeles—for rent, utilities, food, clothing, his automobile, and a modicum of leisure activities. Add to these the incidental, but nonetheless sizable, expenses of his research, such as audio tape recorders; audio tapes; maintenance and repair; books, both local and out-of-town newspapers, magazines; reproduction costs associated with photographs, films, and microfilms, as well as thousands of pages of documents; more than several file cabinets, file folders, etc., and one can only puzzle over how he managed to make his own way during those years. His correspondence with Sylvia Meagher discloses that, at various times, he also had one or two girls transcribing audio tapes.
In retrospect, it seems ironic that Mr. Lifton would call it "a miracle that so much evidence in the case has been turned up by a group of freelancers working on a shoestring." ("For Conspiracists, Vindication Day; Government is Beginning to Acknowledge What Really Happened", The Washington Post, December 30, 1978, p. A4)
During the fifteen years preceding the publication of Best Evidence, Mr. Lifton wrote two articles for magazine publications, one for Ramparts in 1967, and one for New Times in 1978. In between these assignments, he served briefly as a consultant to the producers of the motion picture, Executive Action. Also in 1978, he appeared as a critic/commentator on WETA-TV's broadcasts of the House Select Committee on Assassinations hearings. Then, Macmillan gave him a $10,000 advance for the book. (The New York Times, January 12, 1981, Section C, p. 17) Before the publication of Best Evidence in late 1980, Mr. Lifton is not known to have held any job—regular or otherwise—following his departure from North American Aviation. His correspondence with Sylvia Meagher tells of long days and nights allegedly spent at the UCLA library, burning the candles at both ends in working on the case. Therefore, it appears that during the twelve years between the time he left North American and the time in 1978 when things began to pick up for him, he had only one published magazine article, one brief consultancy to a motion picture company, and no other ostensible source of income. It has been suggested that his parents subsidized him during all this time as he investigated the assassination of President Kennedy. If that is so, then Mr. Lifton is most fortunate to have had parents possessed of a generosity, indulgence and patience very rare in the middle-class milieu from which he sprang.
On a shoestring, Harold Weisberg mounted more than a dozen difficult FOIA lawsuits. Mr. Lifton offered no help, he merely gleaned the field that Weisberg sowed.
By the summer of 1975, nearly ten years after he began his study of the Warren Commission volumes, Mr. Lifton reportedly had not written a word of his manuscript. He is quoted as saying, "It was still in the form of file material, conclusions, memos, but not a manuscript." ("His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End", Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Magazine, p. 20) His longtime research assistant, Patricia Lambert would tell him, "David, you have to create a manuscript. You can't just have these thoughts, your files, your research and your concepts. You have to tackle the process of writing every day." (Ibid.) Mr. Lifton alleges in his Compuserve essays that he took "a major gamble" in writing his book without a publishing contract, although what he was risking by that time is unclear, as he appears not to have had another gainful pursuit.
Lifton states that he completed a manuscript by August 1976. When he did try to produce a book, however, it turned out that he could not find anyone interested in publishing it. (Ibid.) Indeed, twenty-three (23) publishers, apparently not realizing the quality of his investigative skills, rejected his first manuscript before he received a contract from Macmillan Company in 1978. (Ibid.) About that time, Mr. Lifton, while keeping his Los Angeles apartment, moved into his parents' house in Rockaway Beach, Queens, to rewrite his manuscript under the tutelage of his New York literary agent, Peter Shepherd.
It was Shepherd who, according to Lifton's "Acknowledgments," encouraged him to revise "an abstract evidentiary analysis" into "a personal narrative." He implies that they expected this revision to take no more than "several months." Lifton alludes to the availability of his files at his West Coast abode. Presumably, by working assiduously to recast what he had already written, Mr. Lifton might have fulfilled his original expectations if, that is, his evidentiary analysis was substantively complete and the only remaining issue was the form of his narrative. Instead, the project stretched out over four years. Lifton and Shepherd had "hundreds of meetings." Lifton credits Shepherd not only with conceiving the organizing principle of the book, but also with "guiding" him and editing his manuscript.
Living in the same room he grew up in, Lifton may well have recalled all the Erle Stanley Gardner mysteries he read as a child (ibid.), possibly harboring dreams of becoming a great lawyer in the manner of the protagonist, Perry Mason. We know that, as he slept in his childhood bedroom, he gave some thought to his contemporaries raising families and pursuing careers. (ibid.)
According to Mr. Lifton's "Compuserve essays" the first ten chapters of his book were submitted to his publisher in August 1978. A contract was consummated around that Christmas.
Even as he reworked his manuscript into a semi-autobiographical account of his research, he continued researching for the book despite the exhortations of his agent to finish the project. As Lifton admits at the beginning of his Chapter 25, though, "there were certain loose ends in my theory that I needed to investigate." Those "loose ends" turned out to provide the core of the theory that Mr. Lifton popularized.
The House Select Committee on Assassinations conducted its investigation during the time Lifton began to work toward finishing the new manuscript. During the summer of 1979, Mr. Lifton located one of the House Committee's witnesses, Paul O'Connor. It was O'Connor whom Lifton claims provided much of the most sensational revelations upon which the Best Evidence theory turns: (1) JFK's body allegedly arrived at Bethesda Naval Hospital in a military- issue pinkish-gray shipping casket, not the ceremonial bronze casket in which it had left Parkland Hospital in Dallas; (2) The President's body was in a body bag; (3) The President's cranium was empty, i.e., the brain had been removed.
Mr. Lifton also informs us that, in July 1979, he also found Dennis David, upon whose recollections Mr. Lifton based his "Air Force One Insight," which holds that the President's body had been intercepted.
By August 1979, according to Mr. Lifton, he had completed and submitted to Macmillan Chapter 23 of his book. The book has 32 chapters. Mr. Lifton probably means to signify by omission that the last eleven chapters were completed after August 1979.
Today, at 54 years old, living in the same West Los Angeles apartment from which he conducted his research for Best Evidence, Mr. Lifton has spent his entire adult life on the Kennedy assassination to the exclusion of other experiences and accomplishments. His passion for this subject would seem unusual in view of the odd behavior he displayed on the very night of President Kennedy's murder: While most of us who are able to recall that weekend sat at home with our families or friends in a state of shock and dumb anguish, Mr. Lifton is reported to have gone out dancing, hardly an indication that the assassination struck him in the deep, personal way that his long association with the subject might suggest. ("His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End", Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Id.)
In conversation with this writer, Harold Weisberg, the dean of assassination authors and researchers, has expressed curiosity about the possibility of a familial relationship between the late founder of Harold Ober & Associates, the venerable New York City literary agency that housed Mr. Lifton's agent, Peter Shepherd, and one Harold Ober who, Mr. Weisberg alleges, formerly worked for the Central Intelligence Agency's covert domestic intelligence operation. It bears mention that Messrs. Weisberg and Lifton had a severe falling out during the era of the Garrison investigation, and there is no love lost between them. I have not made any effort to investigate Mr. Weisberg's hypothesis because, even if it proved correct, the connection with Mr. Lifton and his book would seem tenuous at best, and probably completely inconsequential. I record these musings merely as an example of the direction toward which some critics' thinking about Mr. Lifton's work has leaned. Furthermore, I see no need to spin my wheels in attempting to prove that Mr. Lifton's is a "black book," for I have already satisfied myself that it is a ridiculous book arguing for a ridiculous theory.
Ahead To Chapter Two
Back to Preface
Back to Feinman