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Critic's Notebook

Kennedy assassination books fed an appetite for conspiracy

How I searched for meaning in a library of books about the John F. Kennedy assassination.

By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic

4:20 PM EDT, October 24, 2013

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As a teenager in the 1970s, I learned about the paranoid style of American politics from the Kennedy assassination. Between seventh grade, when I discovered the Warren Commission report, and my junior year in high school, when I wrote a term paper "proving" that there had been three gunmen in Dealey Plaza, I was a kid obsessed.

I read every book about the assassination I could get my hands on; I bought a bootleg Super 8 copy of the Zapruder film from the classifieds in Argosy magazine. I even spent part of one spring vacation at the National Archives in Washington, although I never did know exactly what I was looking for.

That was OK, though — in fact, it was the point. What compelled me was less the solution (although I painstakingly pieced together my version of the conspiracy) than the mystery, in both a criminal and metaphysical sense.

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The assassination was never, for me, about history as much as it was about a way to see the world. It was impossible to imagine a lone gunman not because the evidence didn't match up (magic bullet theory, anyone?) but because I needed a bigger explanation for the killing to make sense.

As it turns out, I was not alone; even before the Warren report was released in September 1964, critics had started lining up. They claimed the commission had moved too fast and drew conclusions without sufficient cause.

In his 1965 book "The Unanswered Questions About President Kennedy's Assassination," New York World-Telegram & Sun city editor Sylvan Fox lays out the case for conspiracy. For one thing, he writes, "[t]here is considerable doubt about the number of shots fired and the direction of at least one of the shots"; for another, "[Jack] Ruby managed to enter tightly guarded Dallas Police Headquarters building unseen and to shoot [Lee Harvey] Oswald in the presence of more than 70 policemen."

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Such discrepancies were central to early critiques of the commission, the most famous of which, Mark Lane's "Rush to Judgment" (which took on both the second gunman and the Ruby questions) and Sylvia Meagher's "Accessories After the Fact" (which argued for a conspiracy involving anti-Castro Cubans), were instrumental in establishing conspiracy theory as mainstream pursuit.

All this was in keeping with the times: It was the 1960s, after all. By the time I came across these books a decade later, the turmoil of that era had hardened into a pervasive political cynicism, kiln-fired by the heat of Watergate. In a country where the president was not above obstructing justice, how could we trust anyone?

I vividly remember running and rerunning the Zapruder film, watching Kennedy slam backward as he was struck by the fatal bullet, his head exploding in a corona of misty red. How could that shot have come from anywhere but in front of his limousine?

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Oswald, however, had been firing from the rear — that is, if he were firing at all. In his 1966 book "The Second Oswald," UC San Diego philosophy department chair Richard H. Popkin suggested that Oswald had been impersonated in the months leading to the shooting to make it appear as if he had been planning something. That he had been set up ("I'm just a patsy," he exclaimed the night of the assassination) was implicit in Popkin's argument.

There was more: Josiah Thompson's 1967 study "Six Seconds in Dallas" (I paid a friend to steal it from his father's library) re-created many frames of the Zapruder film that Life magazine, which owned the rights, refused to release. In his "Whitewash" series, Harold Weisberg reproduced government documents accessed via the Freedom of Information Act. Then, of course, there's Jim Garrison, onetime New Orleans district attorney who, inspired by Weisberg, spearheaded the only criminal prosecution (indicting New Orleans businessman Clay Shaw, who was ultimately acquitted) ever brought in the case.

Pretty heady stuff, especially to a teenager for whom conspiracy theory was a search for meaning. It implied an order to the chaos, that history was more than random, a story with a larger point. And yet, like Norman Mailer, whose 1995 nonfiction book "Oswald's Tale" repudiates the politics of conspiracy, I no longer believe that.

For Mailer, Oswald was both man and metaphor, the key to his own conspiratorial longings, since it was his apparent insignificance, his status as a loner and a loser, that led the author to imagine the assassination as the outcome of a cabal. His book, then, traces a shift in his thinking, from the tragic (let's say) to the absurd.

What does it mean if Oswald did kill Kennedy, if there were no broader implications, if it was just a case of disorder asserting itself? It's an idea much more in keeping with my adult world view, in which I've had to come to terms with the fact that things often happen for no reason, that they have no implications beyond themselves.

Mailer wasn't the first writer to identify Oswald as protagonist of the assassination; in "Libra" (1988), Don DeLillo imagines him as a cipher for our collective disassociation, while Edward Jay Epstein's "Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald" (1978) investigates his intelligence ties here and abroad.

DeLillo is a novelist and Epstein a historian, but both highlight the elusive boundary between guilt and innocence. I may not be willing to go as far as Mailer, who in an interview shortly before his death announced that he was 65% certain that Oswald had acted alone. But I have come to be, in a way I could not have imagined when I was younger, comfortable with the idea that I don't know.

david.ulin@latimes.com