Here is a prediction made with certainty. November will be 30 days of running commentary about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It's not even Halloween and bloggers, columnists, authors of 500-page tomes, videographers and filmmakers have begun bombarding Americans with Kennedy assassination fact, fiction and folklore.
If you have not allowed your mind to wander to the grassy knoll in years, be warned. That modest green space near the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas is about to make a comeback in the debate over who killed Kennedy. Was there a second gunman allied with Lee Harvey Oswald who participated in the shooting from the knoll? Self-proclaimed eyewitnesses and "earwitnesses" (who heard but did not see the shots) think so and have supporting evidence ranging from grainy photographs taken soon after Kennedy was shot to the discoveries of psychics decades later.
John Kennedy was the fourth American president to die at an assassin's hands but he is the only president whose killer is the subject of dispute. John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in front of a theater audience in Washington. Charles Guiteau shot James A. Garfield while he was standing next to Secretary of State James J. Blaine, among others, in a Washington train station. Leon Czolgosz shot William McKinley as he shook hands with a crowd of well-wishers in Buffalo. The assassins of 1865, 1881 and 1901, all of whom used handguns at close range, were seen in the moment and never denied their actions.
In the two days of incarceration before nightclub owner Jack Ruby killed him, Lee Harvey Oswald never admitted anything -- and he had several opportunities if he had been willing to talk. Not only was he interviewed by law enforcement officers, he was brought before the press in a perp walk and took several questions about the assassination from the assembled reporters without revealing anything about the president's death.
Oswald was in the Texas School Book Depository the day of the assassination -- he was a low-level employee -- and his rifle (and expended shells) were found in the building. He shot Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit while attempting to make his escape. There is sufficient evidence for a rational person to conclude the former Marine killed the president. But was Oswald part of a criminal conspiracy involving pro-Castro Cubans, anti-Castro Cubans, the CIA, the FBI, the mob, the Russians? For 50 years, there have been enough tantalizing facts and unanswered questions about the assassination to keep doubt about the lone gunman theory alive. The government's behavior has contributed to the doubt: The FBI destroyed evidence germane to the shooting; the CIA suppressed information about groups and individuals hostile to the United States.
I have never been to the Texas School Book Depository or the grassy knoll but I have been to places where major historical events occurred. The Custer battlefield in Montana is one. A first-time visitor to the battlefield can get a good sense of how events unfolded -- how George Armstrong Custer attacked the assembled Indians, where the Seventh Cavalry made its last stand June 25,1876. But what really stays with a visitor who has informed himself or herself about the battle before walking the banks of the Little Big Horn River is the contingency surrounding events. The conflict could have turned out differently if Gen. Custer had altered his assumptions the day of the battle and acted with greater prudence to protect his men.
The Kennedy assassination is replete with even more contingency -- the bizarre end to Oswald's life being the most spectacular example: Strip club operator assassinates accused assassin. Moreover, evaluating the evidence to establish what happened in Texas in November 1963 is complicated by the hundreds of people who were -- or claim to have been -- witnesses to a piece of the assassination story. As Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia says, the only thing we know for certain about the witnesses is they so often contradict each other they all can't be right.
When did the assassination end? From a mechanistic perspective, the assassination ended when President Kennedy was pronounced dead in Parkland Hospital. But the echoes of the assassination have never ceased and for some people the assassination has never ended.
During my career as a newspaper editor, I received occasional calls similar to this one.
Caller -- Is this Michael Carey?
MC -- Yes, it is.
Caller -- Are you from Fairbanks?
MC -- Yes.
Caller -- Was your dad Fabian Carey?
MC -- Yes.
Caller -- Did he work at Eielson in 1963?
MC -- He worked construction on the base in the Sixties, so probably.
Caller -- I worked with your Dad.
MC -- OK.
Caller -- Mr. Carey, I have something really important to tell you.
MC -- Go ahead.
Caller -- I know who killed John Kennedy.
MC -- Really.
Caller -- Yes, I was in New Orleans in 1964 and overheard a conversation in a telephone booth next to my booth that proves who killed JFK.
MC -- No kidding. In that case, why don't you call the FBI? Why are you calling me?
Caller -- I have called the FBI. They think I am nuts. That's why I am calling you.
This anecdote gets a laugh -- but you stop laughing when you pause to consider the impact President Kennedy's death has had on American political life, American culture and the American imagination for half a century.
Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.