SHORTLY after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson persuaded Chief Justice Earl Warren of the U.S. Supreme Court to head a blue-ribbon investigation of the event. Everyone would calm down, Johnson thought, if "unimpeachable" authorities concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald, a deranged ne'er-do-well, had acted alone.
Jim Garrison, the investigator-protagonist of director Oliver Stone's new movie, "JFK," is as impeachable as the next fellow. Thirty years ago, I shared the widespread suspicions about his character and methods, and I still do.
Yet the basic question is not, "was there a conspiracy?," but rather, "whose conspiracy was it?" The Warren Commission's report ended up having more glaring weaknesses than the conspiracy theories it was intended to squelch. Oswald, the "lone assassin," was rubbed out by Jack Ruby, another "lone assassin," whose Mafia connections made ludicrous the idea that he burst into a Dallas police station and killed Oswald so that Jacqueline Kennedy would not have to endure further suffering.
In the Warren Commission version of the assassination, bullets performed incredible gyrations. Discrepancies in the Dallas and Bethesda medical observations of the president's body are not fully or convincingly explained.
And no one knows why then Surgeon General Edward Kenney put a gag on everyone present at the autopsy: "You are warned," the notice read, "that infraction of these orders makes you liable to court martial proceedings under the appropriate articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice."
Fourteen years later, the House Select Committee on Assassinations managed to get the gag order lifted. But portions of the Warren Commission files will remain under wraps until well into the 21st century.
Now, in the wake of "JFK," there is renewed controversy. Former President Gerald Ford, who served on the Warren Commission, now is among those attacking Stone. Stone responds by citing Ford's "questionable" actions involving leaks to the FBI, as evidenced by a Dec. 12, 1963 internal FBI memo from J. Edgar Hoover aide Cartha DeLoach:
"Ford indicated he would keep me thoroughly advised as to the activities of the commission. He stated this would have to be done on a confidential basis, however, he thought it had to be done. He also asked if he could call me from time to time and straighten out questions in his mind concerning our investigation."
Such behind-the-scenes maneuvering by a commission member certainly suggests the possibility of cover-up. Stone also cites Ford's "open mike" stumbling during a break in a House Assassinations Committee hearing. Ford, obviously thinking the microphones were turned off, leaned over to David Belin, his attorney, and asked: "Have I compromised anything yet?" Stone calls this "a rather curious statement under the circumstances."
Relatively few people are in a position to assess the "hogwash" content of the scenario advanced by Garrison and Stone. But undoubtedly there was "hogwash" in the Warren Commission's investigation and report. Its search for truth was neither impartial nor thorough, and over the decades there has been much stonewalling against those who would investigate the investigators. The controversy can hardly be expected to cease while files, documents, X-rays or other potential evidence remain sealed.
It may well be that we will never know the full story. But to abandon the search is inexcusable. If it takes a filmmaker of semi-documentary thrillers to spur us on, then so be it.
Stan Lichtenstein writes from Bethesda.