Every year, without fail, the president dies all over again. For a few days every autumn, the entire media is overwhelmed by those haunting photos from Dallas. Those cruelly happy and innocent pictures of a young president smiling and waving at bystanders, the first lady clutching a bouquet of roses. With their soft, prelapsarian colors, they seem to hail from another universe—one that has been stolen from us.
Perhaps it is that feeling of loss that explains the lingering sense of grief over John F. Kennedy’s assassination year after year, when the anniversaries of other, equally shocking events—from Pearl Harbor to 9/11—are generally quieter affairs. But there is also something unfinished about Kennedy’s death, a lingering suspicion that no one has ever been able to banish.
The Man Who Killed Ken... Best Price: $4.24 Buy New $5.41 (as of 07:15 EST - Details) For the public has never embraced the official verdict, handed down by the Warren Commission in September 1964. After less than a year of hearings and deliberations, the team—led by Chief Justice Earl Warren—concluded that President Kennedy had been shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald, a 24-year-old ex-Marine portrayed by the Commission as a shiftless loner with communist sympathies. But they could not explain why.
The most obvious question about the murder was also the one that could not be answered. Not only had Oswald been murdered in police custody two days after the assassination, but the Commission had been unable to find a single person who remembered Oswald criticizing Kennedy. On the contrary, Oswald had frequently expressed his admiration for the president. The Commission interviewed at least six witnesses who remembered Oswald praising Kennedy.
Faced with a substantial hole in their case, the Commission tried to plug it by filling the report with airy speculation about Oswald’s tormented psyche. Oswald, they insisted, was someone who had been driven by “resentment Blood, Money, & Power:... Best Price: $3.73 Buy New $10.90 (as of 06:10 EST - Details) of all authority,” “antagonism toward the United States” and an “urge to try to find a place in history.” Perhaps he had shot the president, the Report blandly suggested, because of his “inability to enter into meaningful relationships with people.”
But this conclusion was not reached in a vacuum. From the moment it was established, the Warren Commission was under tremendous pressure to calm a hysterical public and quash the widespread rumors of a conspiracy that exploded across the country in the days following the public killing of the president’s accused assassin. As Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach put it in a memo written hours after Oswald’s death, “We need something to head off public speculation or Congressional hearings of the wrong sort.”
That “speculation” never went away. In 1966, the first national poll taken on the subject found that 46 percent of Americans believed that JFK had been struck down by a plot. Last year, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 62 percent of the public rejected the idea that a single man had killed the president.
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