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!"