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Bad News: Your Mother Killed JFK : CASE CLOSED: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK, By Gerald Posner (Random House: $25; 585 pp.) : THE LAST INVESTIGATION, By Gaeton Fonzi (Thunder's Mouth Press: $24.95; 438 pp.)

November 07, 1993|Jonathan Kwitny | Jonathan Kwitny's latest book is "Acceptable Risks" (Simon and Schuster)

Case Closed. Fat chance, one is tempted to respond. One is tempted to joke that we have come so far round the circle that an author can now attain pop success by espousing the looniest J.F.K. assassination theory of all--that the Warren Commission was right. (The commission, of course, found that Lee Oswald, a lone nut, killed Kennedy and that Jack Ruby, another lone nut, killed Oswald.)

Gerald Posner--who left a Wall Street law practice to become an author, so he can't be all bad--does not sink as low as his slimiest predecessors on the case like Jim Garrison, Oliver Stone and Mark Lane; he doesn't knowingly present concoctions as fact. But he does lie down with such predecessor assassination-book writers as Anthony Summers, Jim Marrs and Edward Jay Epstein, in that he presents only the evidence that supports the case he's trying to build, framing this evidence in a way that misleads readers who aren't aware that there's more to the story. Whether Posner and the others willfully omitted the contrary evidence or just got carried away by forming conviction ahead of fact, I don't know.

"Case Closed," however, is being taken much more seriously by serious people than any of the others. So it needs serious review. Its success, I suspect, owes to three things. First, the book is extremely well-written and therefore apt to be persuasive to those without the contrary evidence. (The same talent helped popularize Stone's movie J.F.K.; deceitfulness aside, it was brilliant filmmaking.) The second thing "Case Closed" has going for it is that all the good young reporters and public officials who mistakenly swallowed the official FBI-CIA line on the assassination 30 years ago, and whose careers have brought them to influential positions, have been waiting all this time for someone to relieve them from the self-doubt they are too smart not to have suffered under; Posner has offered them this comfort, and Tom Wicker has even responded with a supportive blurb on the jacket.

The third factor in this book's success is that so much, pardon the expression, crap has been published about this case over the years by so many publicity-seekers and nitwits that Posner can easily look like a sage dispelling it. He goes on at length knocking softballs out of the park--such as four pages of text spent refuting a book that claimed that J.F.K.'s body had been switched with some other corpse so that conspirators could monkey with the real body before the autopsy. This is "Elvis Seen in UFO" stuff. Posner shows that some of the more widely followed Warren Commission critics, like those mentioned above, are scarcely better. To be sure, he contributes a public service by cataloguing this garbage.

But when Posner faces hardballs--the serious problems with the Warren Commission--he often ducks them by passing them off in footnotes. For example, there is a very strong case that Jack Ruby was stalking Lee Oswald hours before shooting him, contrary to the Warren Commission-Posner contention that Ruby happened by and shot Oswald on impulse. The impulse nature of the shooting, for Posner particularly, is a main pillar under his "lone nut" thesis. But the evidence against him is so strong he evidently doesn't want the reader to see it. So the whole matter is reduced to a footnote. In it, Posner ducks a persuasive witness that Ruby's act was carefully premeditated (Elnora Pitts) by quoting one line of her testimony in contrast to the gist of the rest of it; he brushes off four other witnesses (an NBC-TV crew and editor) simply saying they were mistaken, ignores a fifth (a preacher) completely and hears only what he wants to from a sixth (Ruby's stripper Karen Carlin, the key to Ruby's alibi). Maybe there's a satisfactory explanation for all this evidence, but Posner doesn't provide it any more than the Warren Commission did, which leaves me thinking Ruby was indeed stalking his target.

Like other authors in the genre, Posner constantly quotes selectively. Posner considers Secret Service Agent Paul Landis a reliable witness when quoting him to prove that Oswald's first shot came earlier than Warren Commission critics claim; this shows Oswald had plenty of time to fire off two more shots from his window perch behind the President. (I think Posner is right about this.) But nowhere does Posner tell you that his trusted witness Landis then testified that he heard the second shot come "from somewhere toward the front, right-hand side of the road." That would be the famous grassy knoll, where, according to Posner, there absolutely wasn't a second gunman--and so he can't say Landis (like many others) thought there was.

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