The History Channel recently observed the fortieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination with a series of films, "The Men who Killed Kennedy." The most widely-viewed hour, "The Guilty Men," cast Lyndon Baines Johnson in a starring role for ordering the assassination. The film was offered without fear, and without evidence.
LBJ's family and friends heatedly protested the program. Finally, after former President Gerald Ford weighed in with his objections, the History Channel engaged several of us to evaluate the program, and provided air time to discuss our findings and conclusions. Let us hope that is not the end of the matter.
The Kennedy assassination has been fertile, enduring territory for conspiracy theories. But if such elaborate notions are your cup of tea, put no hope in the scurrilous book by Barr McClellan, a onetime associate who worked in Johnson's personal attorney's office, and British film maker Nigel Turner's farcical film rendering of McClellan's musings, which the History Channel broadcast. Their work is a parody of assassination theories and beliefs; surely, this is history as a joke the living play on the dead. Such programs reflect our desperate desire to embrace a conspiracy rather than the crucial question of truth.
McClellan's wild charges involve characters across the political spectrum, from disgruntled Texas oilmen, to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the CIA, the military, Johnson's crooked Texas cronies, and Texas Governor John Connally -- forget he almost was killed himself. The Right has to be pleased with the mugging of LBJ, while the Left can pin more evil-doing on Hoover. A perfect storm. Such are our faded memories that McClellan can afford to omit a Communist plot.
McClellan's background is worth a mention. He is a convicted forger, who then resigned from the bar before disbarment proceedings ran their course. His certitude knows no bounds: "LBJ murdered John F.
Kennedy"; Johnson "knew of the assassination"; and he was involved "beyond a reasonable doubt." His "evidence" rests entirely on the alleged utterances of dead people, with the sole exception of that poster child for a con artist, Billie Sol Estes. A McClellan supporter wrote to me, urging that I call Estes to "get the truth." He said "Billie Sol Estes was there when LBJ ordered the killings, 18 of them in all. This includes JFK. Don't take my word for it, get it from the man who was there at the time the killings were ordered. Call Billie Sol Estes, . . ." The FBI has investigated Estes's accusations, and they found his credibility "non-existent." A further cover-up? Then consider how this pitiful figure admitted to his sentencing judge in 1979: "I have a problem. I live in a dream world." In a rare sensible moment, the film maker wisely did without his services -- but not without his fabrications.
Assassination conspiracy theories and books expounding them proliferate. But film is special. A conjurer's sleight-of-hand and verbal misdirection are ready ingredients for manipulating a mass audience. Richard Condon, who wrote The Manchurian Candidate, and who managed to spoof every recent American president, gave his own comic twist in Winter Kills, a novel (later a film) naming the perp as Patriarch Joseph Kennedy, distressed because his son had become too liberal. A comic genius, Condon never labeled his work as anything other than fiction. But Oliver Stone, in the new tradition of "docu-dramas,"gave us JFK, which lent an aura of authenticity to Jim Garrison's outlandish, gothic tale. Sadly, many of those under 25 believed him.
The History Channel film takes historical revisionism to unimagined depths. It seems everyone wanted Kennedy dead: he was going to withdraw from Vietnam in December 1963, so the CIA and the military wanted him out of the way; Texans wanted to preserve their oil-depletion allowance; J. Edgar Hoover believed Kennedy was about to replace him; and driving it all, of course, was Lyndon Johnson's insatiable appetite for power. Increasing the improbability of the thesis, it seems, heightens its appeal.
History is essential to our understanding of ourselves. Interpretations inevitably will vary. We will tinker with its meaning, but there are bounds to the truth of essential facts. Our profit-driven world drives such blatant exploitation of the past. Several years ago, a journalist, using John Mitchell and Gordon Liddy as his principal sources, peddled a "new, different" explanation for Watergate: John Dean organized the break-in, allegedly to protect his wife's reputation. Dean successfully sued for libel, but the truly appalling event was the media's uncritical reception and praise for the work. After all, we already had tapes in which Nixon acknowledged his criminal action. The damage to the Deans was calculable; for history, that may be another matter.
The History Channel is a brand name. The network has a responsibility to produce history, not fiction, or what McClellan brazenly labels, "faction." Did anyone at the company watch this film and invoke the elementary rules for historical writing: is it true, and what is the evidence? McClellan's forgery conviction is not a very useful credential for writing history.
History is our treasure, under assault from plagiarists and trivializers. Hearsay, gossip, and innuendo are not the stuff of history. History should be informative, entertaining, and above all, it must rest on a foundation of credible and verifiable evidence. We must not deliberately falsify it. We have Hollywood for that.
What is at stake here is the public rendering of our history. The commercial exploitation of the past predictably raises the bottom line. For the History Channel, as with any other such venture, ratings and the broadest possible appeal are the surest way to swelling profits. Inevitably, truth is the first casualty. Imagine, we speak of an entertainment or arts "industry." Our homogenized culture is reduced to as simple formula: does it entertain and will it sell?
But we are talking history now. Certainly, we can strive to make it as broadly appealing and interesting as possible. But does that mean we cloak it with unsubstantiated rumors and imagining, or invented sources? History is not created and rendered with the props of falsehood, innuendo, or manipulation. History is bordered by the wall of facts; without them, we are in the realm of fiction.
The History Channel has made a start in the right direction as it has totally disavowed the program and publicly promised it never will be shown again. It always is free to sell it as a hitherto-unknown episode of"The Twilight Zone."