ON A SUNDAY morning in February, 1971, David Lifton sat quietly on a stainless-steel autopsy table in the morgue at Bethesda Naval Hospital near Washington. Could this be the table on which John F. Kennedy had lain just six hours after he had been shot in Dallas? Lifton wondered about that as he glanced around the antiseptic, windowless room and tried to envision the grim proceedings that occurred there the night of Nov. 22, 1963.
His interest was far beyond ghoulish curiosity. For almost six years, he had painstakingly pursued a personal inquiry into the Dallas tragedy and its chaotic aftermath, and now the inquiry had led him to Bethesda. It had also led him to a startling conclusion. Lifton had decided that the Kennedy autopsy report, a document crucial to the Warren Commission ruling that the President had been murdered by a lone gunman firing a high-powered rifle from behind and above the motorcade, was a work of fiction. History was skewed here, Lifton thought as he sat on the perforated table top. "I had the feeling I was sitting atop a chessboard on which, seven years earlier, a crucial game had been played," he later wrote.
Kennedy's death had changed his life. Lifton's research became, eventually, the 1981 best seller, "Best Evidence," a personal account of his investigation into the J.F.K. assassination. And to this day, the assassination is the centerpiece of his existence. This month he presented his iconoclastic views to college audiences in New York, Alabama, Ohio, Texas and Oklahoma. On Tuesday, the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, he will speak in California at Cal Poly Pomona. Of course, Lifton is not alone in espousing a conspiracy theory. Americans have recently been exposed to a spate of television assassination specials, from Jack Anderson's "American Expose: Who Killed J.F.K.?" to a "Nova" probe titled "Who Shot President Kennedy?" The Assassination Archives and Research Center in Washington lists more than 100 books whose theses are at odds with Warren Commission conclusions. But Lifton's findings speak to him in a way that they have spoken to no one else. Lifton, now 49 and never married, living in a small West Los Angeles apartment, has invested virtually his entire adult life in a postulation that fairly begs to be rejected if not ridiculed. For instance, Andrew Purdy, an attorney for the House Select Committee on Assassinations that investigated the J.F.K. and Martin Luther King Jr. slayings in the '70s, listened to an explanation of Lifton's theory at a party several years ago and exclaimed, "Now that's what I call a conspiracy!"
There is no accounting for the vicissitudes of life that send us on tangents unforeseen. In 1963, Lifton was a 24-year-old UCLA student working on an advance degree in engineering. He wanted to be part of Kennedy's plan to put a man on the moon, and he worked nights as a computer engineer at North American Aviation, then the prime contractor for the Apollo space program. Politics did not interest him; on the night the Kennedy autopsy was performed behind those closed doors at Bethesda, Lifton went dancing.
Then, on Lifton's 25th birthday, almost a year after the assassination, purely on a whim, he attended a lecture by Mark Lane, an outspoken lawyer who argued forcefully against the government's version of how Kennedy met his fate. The lecture piqued Lifton's interest. Casual interest grew into preoccupation, then metamorphosed into obsession. And for the better part of the past 23 years, Lifton has devoted himself to figuring out exactly what happened during those six shattering seconds in Dallas.
IN 1966, IN his budding zeal for investigating the assassination, Lifton neglected his studies at UCLA and was dismissed. He quit his aerospace job and asked his parents for financial support, a request that he would renew several times. Thus began Lifton's immersion into the assassination. Making ends meet with some free-lance technical writing, a few magazine articles and odd jobs, Lifton embarked on a mission that would necessarily crowd out life's other options: He never got his Ph.D., and America went to the moon without him.
His longtime friend Patricia Lambert, a writer and editor, acted as Lifton's conscience. In the summer of 1975, nearly 10 years into his odyssey, he still hadn't written a word. "It was still in the form of file material, conclusions, memos, but not a manuscript," he recalls. He says that Lambert, who was later hired by Macmillan Publishing to help edit "Best Evidence," 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."