Forget the Soviets, the CIA or the Mafia. Of all the extraordinary theories that have swirled around the 1963 assassination of President John F Kennedy, surely the most outrageous – and intriguing – is that he was killed on the orders of his own Vice President, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
As recently as 2003, a Gallup poll found that nearly 20 per cent of Americans believed that ‘LBJ’ had some hand in the assassination of the man he went on to succeed in the White House.
It is an astonishing claim to make of any U.S. President, but all the more startling given the peculiarly tragic circumstances of Kennedy’s murder.
The snapshot of Johnson being sworn in as President hours later on board Air Force One, with a stony-faced Jackie Kennedy by his side, must be one of the most emotive images in U.S. political history.
The possibility that the poignancy of the occasion concealed a terrible deception seems too awful to contemplate.
Texas-born LBJ was a great political reformer. But he was also one of the most amoral statesmen of the 20th century, a man with an all-consuming political ambition who stole votes, tampered with ballot boxes, traduced and betrayed friends, trampled over enemies, bribed the electorate and was determined to be President almost at any cost.
But could he really have engineered the death of JFK so that he could take his place?
Perhaps we will never now know the truth. For the one associate of LBJ who has for decades insisted he was indeed involved in the assassination died this week, taking to his grave a story of a White House conspiracy of unimaginable ruthlessness.
Billie Sol Estes, a fast-talking Texas conman and former business partner of LBJ, died in his sleep aged 88, while taking it easy in a reclining chair at his home in Granbury, Texas.
He had biscuit crumbs, rather than any last-minute confession or disclosure, on his lips – which will disappoint those who believe that the biggest lie in U.S. history is that the assassin Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone when he killed President Kennedy.
It was a strangely peaceful passing for a man whose nefarious career left a trail of dead bodies and who made so many enemies that his daughter, Pamela, admitted last week she had always thought he would ‘meet a very violent end … we worried about him being killed for years’.
On the one hand, he was a fire-breathing lay preacher who considered profanity, drinking and even dancing immoral, and railed against them every Sabbath in sermons for the Church of Christ, a denomination which took an almost literal interpretation of the Bible.
On the other, he made exceptions for himself when it came to these strictures – and unashamedly devoted his life to increasing his wealth by whatever means, fair or foul.
Raised on a Texan farm, Estes was 13 when his parents gave him a lamb. Starting by selling its wool, he quickly amassed an entire flock and later swapped it for surplus grain.
Within five years, he had made $38,000 and by the age of 30, he was a millionaire and owned every business in his home town of Pecos, West Texas.
He spent lavishly on buying political influence, but his generosity hid a ruthless businessman who practised fraud and deception on a vast scale, pounded his competitors into dust and even defrauded Church of Christ schools which he was supposedly helping with financial advice.
By the late 1950s he had made some $150 million from an agricultural business empire that relied on sham mortgages, secret bribes to farmers and officials – and on milking the system.
He made millions from leasing grain silos to the government, an enterprise in which Johnson, a fellow Texan and then a powerful U.S. senator, became a partner.
He branched out into anhydrous ammonia used in fertiliser, cornering the Texas market. In one of his most shameless deceptions, he devised a scheme whereby he mortgaged fertiliser storage tanks to farmers then leased them back – the trick being that the tanks didn’t actually exist.