JFK Conspiracy Activist Looks Back

From 1974, when I first gave a public lecture on the subject, illustrated with a grainy, bootleg 8 mm. copy of the Zapruder film, until 1979, when the official investigation of the House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded with its stunning finding that there may have been "at least two gunmen," I was deeply involved in efforts to "solve" the JFK assassination.

I realize now, decades hence, that I am supposed to attribute that entire stretch of time to youthful folly. After all, what could be more naive than to believe there'd been a nefarious conspiracy behind the killing of the U.S. President and what could be more impetuous than believing I could do anything about it?

I was a young journalist at the time. Over the years I have met many professional reporters who smugly roll their eyes at the very notion of taking time away from their dogged career advancement for so clearly a wild goose chase.

My pet theory as to why some 70 percent of the American public believes there was a conspiracy in Dallas while a large portion of the professional news media scoff at the very suggestion is that, for the latter, only denial can mask the private embarrassment at showing such little curiosity in a murder case that, whatever else one might think about it, was: a) fascinating; b) quite possibly unsolved; and c) ripe with investigative leads.

The general public was never so conflicted. For them, the lone gunman theory always seemed unproven, and the failure to investigate fully was a national dereliction of duty. The Warren Commission's decidedly lackluster "We think we got the right guy" summation somehow did not cut it.

I linger on this tangent only to emphasize that the self-assured talking heads you'll hear mocking people like me are mostly commentators who are essentially defending their opinion that investigating the mysteries of Dallas was not worth their precious time, or that of their colleagues.

The fact that cutesy analogies to the JFK case have become the knee jerk means of ridiculing any wacko theory on anything is, I suppose, what happens when the people doing the ridiculing are ignorant of the original subject matter yet are only too happy to repeat what another party, often equally ignorant, has stated. Mindless re-tweeting does pre-date the Internet age.

Every time a demonstrably nutcase theory arises to purportedly explain a major catastrophe - Whitewater, Waco, 9/11, Boston Marathon Bombing - it's fairly certain that the theory's proponents will be likened to those deluded souls who argue that Oswald did not act alone. "Benghazi, as seen from the grassy knoll" was the headline on a recent Washington Post column. Get it?

No need here to restate the old arguments. I want only to point out, particularly for the edification of those whose only familiarity with the controversy is its specious comparison to the aforementioned cases, that there was excellent reason to believe more shots were fired than Oswald could have fired, and scant reason to believe that the Warren Commission's investigation was thorough.

When I did plunge in, it was as an activist, not a journalist. I gave lectures, appeared on talk shows, circulated petitions, lobbied members of Congress, and banded with similarly motivated associates (we called ourselves, glibly yet immodestly, the Assassination Information Bureau) to rally public support for a government-funded reinvestigation. Improbably, this effort succeeded.

The House Select Committee on Assassinations, authorized in Congress by a vote of 280-65 and headed by Robert Blakey, a former Justice Department prosecutor, was a two-year probe that included hundreds of interviews, the discovery of new evidence, scientific tests on old and new evidence, including an audio recording of the shooting, plus an extensive review of the available FBI, CIA, Secret Service, Marine Corps and Warren Commission files. The HSCA report concluded that President Kennedy "probably was assassinated as a result of a conspiracy."

Didn't know that, huh? Not mentioned in your American History textbook? Well, why would that be?

At the time I became so absorbed -- okay, I'll say it: obsessed -- with this case, I held two motivating convictions: it could be solved, and it mattered.

Today? Even an on-camera confession from a plausible culprit would be highly suspect at this late date. The Crime of the (last) Century has effectively passed into the realm of myth. For a brief while in the aftermath of Dallas, Oswald as alienated, trigger-happy loner was the reigning myth. Now that's been replaced by various conspiracy theories, including most prominently -- gasp! -- Oliver Stone's.

Public opinion, I understand, is not an evidentiary process. It's show biz. So be it. History as defined by box office returns may be a regrettable development, but we have been heading in that direction a long, long time. What's fascinating, even heartening, about the current glut of anniversary coverage is that for all the prime time lone assassin-themed specials (ABC, Fox, PBS, CBS, NBC, to name a few), the public remains staunchly resistant to further brow-beating.

Does the case still matter? Only, I'm afraid, as a cautionary tale about our willingness to accept simplistic explanations for wrenching events (Iraq War? 2008 financial collapse?) that we desperately need to get to the bottom of.

And on this, the 50th anniversary of JFK's death, nobody wants to talk about that.

Bob Katz was director of the Assassination Information Bureau, which monitored the HSCA investigation, and is the author, most recently, of the novel, Third and Long.