Bush And The JFK Hit, Part 4: Barbara’s Hair-Raising Day

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What possible connection could there have been between George H.W. Bush and the assassination of John F. Kennedy? Or between the C.I.A. and the assassination? Or between Bush and the C.I.A.? For some people, apparently, making such connections was as dangerous as letting one live wire touch another.   Here, in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination in November, is the fourth part of a ten-part series of excerpts from WhoWhatWhy editor Russ Baker’s bestseller, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, America’s Invisible Government and the Hidden History of the Last Fifty Years.  The story is a real-life thriller.

Note:  Although these excerpts do not contain footnotes, the book itself is heavily footnoted and exhaustively sourced. (The excerpts in Part 4 come from Chapter 4 of the book, and the titles and subtitles have been changed for this publication.)

For Part 1, please go here; Part 2, here; Part 3, here;

Block, Bridge, and Beautify

In the art of propaganda, and in the daily business of public relations, a cardinal rule is that if a problem emerges, it must be managed immediately. The trick is to quickly acknowledge and gain control of the new material, mitigating the damage by redirecting it in a beneficial way. This is known in tradecraft as “block and bridge.”

Thus it was that the first and only Bush family acknowledgment of where Poppy Bush was on that red-letter day came in classic form – from the wife, in the most innocuous swathing. The venue was in her 1994 book, Barbara Bush: A Memoir, which was published ten months after the document’s declassification. Deep in that book, mostly a compendium of narrow-gauge, self-serving recollections, there it was: not just a recollection of the assassination, but the reproduction of an actual letter written by Barbara on the very day, at the very moment, that Kennedy was shot. The letter has plenty of details, but it omits one important personal item from that day: Poppy’s call to the FBI; perhaps Poppy did not mention it to her?

Barbara begins to describe that fateful day on page 59 of her memoirs:

On November 22, 1963, George and I were in the middle of a several-city swing. I was getting my hair done in Tyler, Texas, working on a letter home.

Here are some excerpts:

The following is how the excerpts appear in the book, ellipses and all.

Dearest Family,Wednesday I took Doris Ulmer out for lunch. They [Al and Doris Ulmer] were here from England and they had been so nice to George in Greece. That night we went to . . .I am writing this at the Beauty Parlor and the radio says that the President has been shot. Oh Texas – my Texas – my God – let’s hope it’s not true. I am sick at heart as we all are. Yes, the story is true and the Governor also. How hateful some people are.

. . . Since the Beauty Parlor the President has died. We are once again on a plane. This time a commercial plane. Poppy picked me up at the beauty parlor – we went right to the airport, flew to Ft. Worth and dropped Mr. Zeppo off (we were on his plane) and flew back to Dallas. We had to circle the field while the second presidential plane took off. Immediately Pop got tickets back to Houston and here we are flying home. We are sick at heart. The tales the radio reporters tell of Jackie Kennedy are the bravest I’ve ever heard. The rumors are flying about that horrid assassin. We are hoping that it is not some far right nut, but a “commie” nut. You understand that we know they are both nuts,  but just hope that it is not a Texan and not an American at all.

I am amazed at the rapid-fire thinking and planning that has already been done. L.B.J. has been the president for some time now – 2 hours at least and it is only 4.30.

                                                                                                                                                 My dearest love to you all,

                                                                                                                                                 Bar

A Tap on the Shoulder

The Tyler story is borne out by the personal recollections of Aubrey Irby, then vice president of the local Kiwanis Club (and later president of Kiwanis International during Bush’s vice presidency). As Irby explained to the author Kitty Kelley, Bush had been waiting to deliver a luncheon speech to his organization – to one hundred men gathered at Tyler’s Blackstone Hotel.

“I remember it was a beautiful fall day,” recalled Aubrey Irby, the former Kiwanis vice president. “George had just started to give his speech when Smitty, head bellhop, tapped me on the shoulder to say that President Kennedy had  been shot. I gave the news to the president of the club, Wendell Cherry, and he leaned over to tell George that wires from Dallas confirmed President Kennedy had been assassinated.“George stopped his speech and told the audience what had happened. ‘In view of the President’s death,’ he said, ‘I consider it inappropriate to continue with a political speech at this time. Thank you very much for your attention.’ Then he sat down. I thought that was rather magnanimous of him to say and then to sit down, but I’m a Republican of course, and I was all for George Bush. Kennedy, who was bigger than life then, represented extremely opposite views from Bush on everything.”

In a 2007 interview with me, Irby described George H. W. Bush at the time of the news as matter-of-fact and supremely well composed. It was not unlike his own son’s composure in another moment of crisis, when, after being told about the 9/11 attacks, he calmly returned to reading “The Pet Goat” to a class of Florida second graders. As for Barbara, she miraculously found herself in the unique position of actually writing a very long letter that began while Kennedy was alive, captured the first news of the assassination, and then concluded with confirmation of his death. She, like Poppy, showed impressive composure and focus.  

A Lunch with Doris – But where were Al Ulmer and Poppy?

Barbara’s curious role as recording secretary to history-in-the-making was interesting enough that one would expect the letter to have surfaced well before 1994. Yet, until it appeared in Barbara’s memoirs, it was not even known to exist. Meanwhile, the original letter itself has not turned up. Thus, many questions remain – questions that I hoped to pose to Poppy and Barbara, who declined to be interviewed for this book.

The excerpted letter warrants careful scrutiny, especially because of all the perplexing particulars. The note begins with a dull thud – a bland mention of a lunch with a “Doris Ulmer.” No Ulmer appears in any of the Bushes’ other books, which list hundreds of family friends, well-known and completely obscure. Therefore, presumably only very close Bush relatives, such as her children, would know who Doris Ulmer was or would even conceivably wish to learn of Barbara lunching with her. No one else would understand that George had even been in Greece on the occasion Barbara mentions when the Ulmers were said to be so nice to him – nor would anyone else know in what way they were so nice to him.

And yet, the style and comments in the assassination portion of the letter – “we are hoping that it is not some far right nut but a ‘commie’ nut” – are odd things to write to children.

It’s not clear from Barbara’s memoirs who the recipients of the letter were. She says “Dearest Family” and that it was “a letter home.” But those of her children who were at home were all ten years old or younger. The eldest, George W., was away at prep school in New England. Also, it would seem odd to write “a letter home” if you were only gone from home for several days of an in-state campaign swing – you would likely be back home before the letter arrived. And she signed it “Bar,” not the typical identifier in a letter to young children.

So the “letter home” more logically would have been to her other home, that is, to her parents living in the house she had left nearly two decades before. But that scenario really doesn’t make much sense either. Her mother had died in a 1949 auto accident, and her father had remarried. Barbara was known not to be especially close to her family during a period of many years and had not attended her mother’s funeral. Was “love to you all” intended for her father and stepmother? Her siblings had also long since left the nest, but perhaps she circulated correspondence among them. Besides, how did Barbara happen upon such a letter that she had purportedly written thirty years earlier? Had she kept a copy and recently discovered it? Had relatives unearthed it?Whether or not the letter was an authentic contemporaneous document, one can assume that many of the particulars of that day were in the letter because they were true and verifiable. Hence, they are of interest here.

Poppy’s call to the FBI about Parrott being the potential assassin obviously did nothing to assist the FBI in any meaningful way. But it clearly did something else: It established in government investigative files that, at the time of the assassination in Dallas, Poppy and Barbara were in Tyler, Texas. (These were things that Poppy had good reason to want established, as we’ll see later.)So the “letter home” more logically would have been to her other home, that is, to her parents living in the house she had left nearly two decades before. But that scenario really doesn’t make much sense either. Her mother had died in a 1949 auto accident, and her father had remarried. Barbara was known not to be especially close to her family during a period of many years and had not attended her mother’s funeral. Was “love to you all” intended for her father and stepmother? Her siblings had also long since left the nest, but perhaps she circulated correspondence among them. Besides, how did Barbara happen upon such a letter that she had purportedly written thirty years earlier? Had she kept a copy and recently discovered it? Had relatives unearthed it?Whether or not the letter was an authentic contemporaneous document, one can assume that many of the particulars of that day were in the letter because they were true and verifiable. Hence, they are of interest here.

The notion that there was more to the phone call than simple altruism and patriotism can be found in an examination of the most seemingly insipid of matters – such as Barbara Bush’s lunch with Doris Ulmer.

Although there were numerous Doris Ulmers in the United States at the time, only one matches the description of an old friend who had helped Poppy when Poppy visited Greece, and who was in 1963 a resident of London: Mrs. Alfred C. Ulmer Jr.

“God, we had fun.”Al Ulmer is sometimes described as having filled the positions of “attaché” and “first secretary” at the U.S. embassy in Athens from the late forties through the mid-fifties. Yet a memorial tribute to him in the alumni publication of his alma mater, Princeton, scores higher on the candor meter, describing his life in the wartime OSS and the CIA. Ulmer was a good friend and confidant of CIA director Allen Dulles. He embodied the attitude that nobody could tell the CIA what to do – nobody. “We went all over the world and we did what we wanted,” Ulmer later recalled. “God, we had fun.” He also managed coups.

When JFK forced Dulles out of the CIA following the Bay of Pigs debacle, Ulmer left as well. He went to work for the Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos. That Ulmer had not fully left the espionage racket is suggested in part by Niarchos’s own long history with the CIA, which he assisted with many covert operations. In fact, the company Ulmer ran, Niarchos London Ltd., was itself a CIA proprietary according to author Peter Evans, who knew Niarchos personally. Niarchos would in turn be introduced into Poppy Bush’s immediate circle, buying Oak Tree Farm, a prime Kentucky horse-breeding property, and leasing it to the manager of Poppy Bush’s financial affairs, William Stamps Farish III.

By 1963, Poppy Bush seems to have known Ulmer for at least a decade. The reference in Barbara’s letter to the Ulmers being “so nice” to Poppy when Poppy visited Greece likely referred to the early 1950s, when Al Ulmer was station chief in Athens and Poppy Bush was beginning his frenetic world travels, ostensibly on behalf of his modestly sized Midland oil company.

Apparently, the relationship had continued, because records at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in College Station, Texas, show Bush stopping off to see Ulmer in London in the summer of 1963 – as part of Bush’s self-described “world tour.” (Poppy would make another in 1965, and again visit with Ulmer.)

Ulmer also had another connection to Bush – via Robert Maheu. The Zapata Offshore drilling rig that Poppy Bush had positioned near Cuba in 1958 was located off Cay Sal island, which was leased by Howard Hughes. At the time, Hughes employed Maheu as his private spook. A former FBI man whose private security firm sometimes fronted for the CIA on unauthorized operations, Maheu was, in turn, an old friend of Ulmer’s. The two had worked together on cooking up the military revolt against Indonesian president Sukarno in 1958 . . .   Maheu was later involved in a series of failed plots, commencing in 1960, that involved recruiting the Mafia for a hit on Fidel Castro. In all such things, one finds a certain circularity.

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