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JFK, RFK and the brother of all conspiracy theories

May 30, 2007|Robin Abcarian | Times Staff Writer

It's not quite the career trajectory you'd expect from a guy like David Talbot. Back in 1995, after years as a newspaper features editor in San Francisco, he caught a whiff of the possibilities of the Internet well ahead of his peers, created the online magazine Salon and spent the next decade watching the enterprise ping between journalistic success and financial near death.

Then, two years ago, just as Salon turned a profit for the first time, Talbot stepped down from day-to-day operations, announcing he would engage in that most mainstream of media pursuits: writing a book. But this would not be a memoir -- no pithy retelling of his hair-raising adventures as a not-so-ink-stained Internet pioneer. Instead, earlier this month he published a sober, 400-page re-examination of the Kennedy assassination, "Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years."

In "Brothers," Talbot uses Bobby Kennedy's conflicted response to his brother's murder as a lens to examine the crime and various theories about how it happened. Though Bobby Kennedy, who was his brother's attorney general, often seemed to publicly agree with the Warren Commission's lone-gunman conclusion, privately, Talbot writes, he didn't believe it. Talbot concludes that Bobby was in fact the country's first Kennedy conspiracy theorist, and that had he been elected president in 1968, he might have been able to solve the crime once and for all. "Bobby felt this plot came out of the CIA's secret war on Castro," says Talbot during a recent interview in Los Angeles.

This is not Talbot's first public foray into big-splash political writing. He made national waves in 1998, when, during the Clinton impeachment, Salon published a story about a 30-year-old extramarital affair by Rep. Henry Hyde, then the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Defending his much-vilified decision, Talbot memorably wrote: "Aren't we fighting fire with fire, descending to the gutter tactics of those we deplore? Frankly, yes. But ugly times call for ugly tactics."

There may not always be a Kennedy in public office, but it seems there will always be someone, somewhere, working on a Kennedy book. Talbot, who lives in San Francisco with his wife, writer Camille Peri, and their two teenage sons, says he was always curious about what Bobby Kennedy really thought had happened in Dallas, and was nudged toward the book by a friend who reminded him that for the remaining Kennedy contemporaries, time was running out.

"I can't paw through documents," Talbot says. "I am a journalist, I needed to sit down and talk to Kennedy administration people who had a living link to the story." Some people he interviewed -- presidential advisor Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and the investigative journalist Jack Newfield -- died before the book came out.

He also spent time with JFK's legendary speechwriter Ted Sorensen; his defense secretary, Robert McNamara; and journalist Ben Bradlee (with whom he had a pointed conversation about why Bradlee, one of JFK's closest friends, and who would take the reins at the Washington Post in 1965, did not pursue the assassination story with more vigor. Bradlee admitted that while it "would have been fantastic" to have solved the crime, he didn't unleash the Post's considerable investigative muscle on the story because he was afraid he'd be discrediting for taking the Post "down that path").

Talbot, 55, dates his interest in the Kennedys to his teenage years. When John Kennedy died, Talbot, then 12, was a student at the Harvard School for Boys, the private Los Angeles military school that would later merge with Westlake School for Girls. Home was a conflicted political environment. His father, actor Lyle Talbot, was a Republican, a friend of Ronald Reagan's and a co-founder of the Screen Actors Guild. His mother, Paula, a former showgirl, was an ardent Democrat. His father took him to a Nixon rally at the Van Nuys Airport, where kids yelled, "Click, click, click with Dick!" (His mother was appalled.)

"Harvard was a pretty Republican school," Talbot says. "I was in Latin class when it was announced that JFK was assassinated. There were cheers in the classroom. It was eerie. But you have to remember -- Southern California was a hotbed of John Bircher-, anti-Kennedy feeling."

Turbulent times

Later, as an anti-Vietnam and anti-ROTC agitator on campus, his politics did not go down well with his school's headmaster, the Rev. William S. Chalmers, who kicked him out his senior year. "Father Chalmers wrote to every college I applied to and said, 'Don't let this kid in, he's a risk.' " Talbot ended up on the doorstep of the progressive Oakwood School in North Hollywood, where he found his old Harvard School English teacher, Paul Cummins, and begged for help. Cummins, who founded Crossroads school a few years later, "saved my life," says Talbot. (He ended up at that hippie school, UC Santa Cruz, and later went to work for the San Francisco Examiner.)

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