Anthony Summers, biographer and former BBC correspondent, has been writing about JFK’s assassination for three decades for publications ranging from The Times of London to Vanity Fair. In my possibly biased opinion, I think his book, “Not In Your Lifetime,” is the best single volume on the JFK assassination and its confusing investigatory aftermath.
I sent him some questions by email and he responded as follows:
JFKFacts: You started reporting on the JFK story in the late 1970s. You were one of the first professional journalists to look deeply into the JFK assassination story. What did you discover?
Anthony Summers: At the time of the assassination occurred, I’d been a student at Oxford. I had reporting ambitions, and Dallas was almost the first real story I covered. I’d been working for a TV program during the vacations, and the program’s editor phoned within an hour of the assassination – it was early evening in the UK – to say he was gathering a team and chartering a plane to Texas. Could I drop everything and come?
I said “yes” of course – only for the editor’s secretary to call back later to say my trip was off, they’d “found someone with more experience.”
So much for me. Then, as time passed and as I watched the story unroll from afar, I cooled on the notion of ever working the story. First there was the unedifying sight of Mark Lane posturing on a BBC program, making a scene by walking out of the studio for no good reason. I’d been underwhelmed, moreover, by his book “Rush to Judgement.” The Jim Garrison caper in New Orleans, in the late 1960s, seemed more circus than serious investigation. (When I met the man years later – he asked, all cloak and dagger, that I should meet with him in a sauna. The disquieting experience did nothing to improve my opinion of Garrison.) Like many other journalists, I came to think that the Kennedy case was a quagmire in which reputations sunk without trace.
Only in the late 1970s, when word reached me that the House Assassinations Committee was heading towards a conspiracy finding, did I get drawn in. The BBC commissioned a television documentary, and I did most of the interviews. The first impression that left was not about evidence. It was the realization of how poorly the case had been covered by the media back in 1963 and 1964. Most media had covered the hell out of the “tragedy,” the assassination saga itself, then trusted the Warren Commission, which in turn appeared to have trusted the FBI and the CIA and other agencies on most things. The media had not hammered away at the story as they would years later, say, after Watergate. There had been no Woodward, no Bernstein.
JFKFacts: Can you explain the reticence of American journalists to report on events leading to JFK’s assassination?
Summers: The absence of decent reporting on the facts of the case – not only in your country, but by and large worldwide – shocked me. Two factors, I think, explain why they flunked it. The first was the apparent certainty from the outset that things were cut and dried. Oswald had a gun. He had worked in a building from which shots appeared to have come, where a rifle and spent shells were found. Sufficient means and opportunity, then. Inconveniently, he had no known motive. He seemed, however, to be that catch-all Bad Person – a Leftist. Oswald’s death in his turn at the hands of Ruby jolted millions. Ruby came over, though, as a mere oddball. By the time the Warren Commission delivered its finding that Ruby had no real organized crime connection – a finding that was entirely false – most minds had closed.
The other factor in the media’s failure was generational. The assassination occurred in an America that was emerging from the Eisenhower era, an America sure of itself, comfortable with Authority. People tended to trust the government, had for generations been brainwashed into the notion that the FBI was super-reliable, not subject to influence from outside sources. The CIA, to the average man in the street, was pretty much a blank – an agency that dealt with foreign stuff. And with none other than the Chief Justice himself heading the Warren Commission, what cause was there for concern?
The best part of two decades later, then, I made my BBC documentary. Because I had gathered far more information than could be included in a TV program – and because I was ashamed of my profession’s failure back in 1963/4 – I decided to go on and do a book. By the time I was done with it, I had learned enough to think sane citizens had reason to doubt the Oswald-dunnit-alone-without-a-motive thesis.
JFKFacts: Why should our kids care who killed Kennedy?
Summers: It’s hard to answer without sounding like a schoolmaster. The hoary old Henry Ford quote “History is bunk” is inaccurate – if it’s truthful history. History matters. The assassination is now as far from us in time as was Lincoln’s murder to people alive in World War I, but the killing in Dallas still haunts America and the wider world. Even for young people, as I write in the Preface to this reworked edition of “Not in Your Lifetime,” it seems still to have “a spectral presence” in our lives.
No other death of a single individual – one so young, embodying the hopes of a new generation – so traumatized an era. It stays with us, too, because Kennedy was killed at the height of the Cold War, at a time when nuclear war seemed a real and constant threat. Finally, it matters still because of a perception by millions – 70% of Americans, according to a poll this year – that the full truth as to what happened on 11/22/63 remains unknown. If that perception is correct, and if what remains unknown should turn out to indicate a person or persons other than Oswald – or in addition to Oswald – killed the President, justice was not done.
JFKFacts: Do you think being Irish (or not being American) had any influence on your thinking about JFK’s assassination?
Summers: It’s certainly true that the Kennedy family is held to be special here in Ireland. His portrait still hung on the living room wall of many homes, next to that of the Pope, long after his death. Years ago, while sheltering from a torrential downpour in a boggy field on our Atlantic coast, I encountered an old farmer – dirt was engrained in his pores – who, one might have thought, had never mastered reading in his life. As the sideways rain continued, however, I gathered that this was a well-read man who received the Boston Globe on a regular basis, who knew a vast amount about the Kennedy presidency, and was a fount of knowledge on what – to him – had been the “world catastrophe” of the assassination. He had detailed knowledge that surpassed, I dare say, that of most ordinary Americans. This year, because it is the 50th anniversary, a large platoon of Kennedys have made the pilgrimage to the Kennedy home place near New Ross – not far from my home – and been welcomed on a national scale.
That said, to answer your question, the Irishness of John F. has not affected my thinking about the assassination. It is worth reflecting, though, given our national addiction to music, poetry, and theatre, that this was a man who had a instinctive feeling for Alan Seeger’s poem about having “a rendezvous with Death.” This was, too, a man who – hours before his death occurred – crouched down in his hotel suite and mimed how an assassin with a rifle might take aim at him. (That incident is evidence of a sort – Kennedy was apparently aware, as was his Secret Service detail, that his life was more than usually under threat at that time.)
JFKFacts: In Not in your Lifetime, you track down the FBI men who oversaw the surveillance of New Orleans crime boss Carlos Marcello in the 1980s when he allegedly spoke about his role in JFK’s assassination. What’s your bottom line about the involvement of organized crime figures in the assassination?
Summers: My bottom line on the Mafia is what any sensible bottom line has to be on the whole damn thing. This is, as the lawyers say – or used to say – a case where the verdict is – non liquet – “not clear”. More simply put, there’s smoke but no fire – nothing that’s provable guilt.
Marcello, whom you mention, was the Sicilian mafioso who at the time controlled organized crime in New Orleans and the U.S. Southeast. The other principal Mafia name often linked to the case is that of Santo Trafficante, who ran Florida. Each man had ample motive to kill Kennedy – the Kennedy administration was pursuing the Mafia as never before, hounding some of them out of the country. JFK’s brother, the Attorney General, had at one point had Marcello deported – though he managed to return. Snippets of information suggest both men spoke in advance of JFK’s coming death – in ways that indicated they had foreknowledge.
There’s more. Oswald was born in New Orleans, and his mother and her family had links to organized crime. In the summer of 1963, when Oswald was arrested following a fracas involving anti-Castro exiles – bail was arranged by an associate of one of Marcello’s henchmen. As or more important, for me, is the fact that – time and again – figures who featured in the case had links to Trafficante.
I don’t have much time, however, for claims that either mob boss admitted to a role in the assassination before they died. I explain why carefully in the book. As to allegations that Marcello may have made an admission in prison, the burden of information – including what former FBI employees say today (in this matter they all come over as stand-up, credible guys) – does not confirm it. Marcello may, moreover, have been senile by the time he allegedly made such comments. The supposed Trafficante admission, virtually on the eve of his death, doesn’t have legs either. At the time and place he is supposed to have made the admission, he was somewhere else.
JFKFacts: In the new edition of “Not in Your Lifetime,” you report that a prisoner in a Cuban jail in 1966 told a fellow prisoner that a man they both knew named Herminio Díaz, had been involved in the assassination. Are you saying that Díaz was shooting from behind the stockade fence on the grassy knoll?
Summers: No, I’m not, and that is not what I have written in “Not in Your Lifetime.” On this as on other matters – and especially because in this instance the possible implications are sensational – I have tried to record the development exactly as it occurred.
In 2007, former Assassinations Committee chief counsel Robert Blakey told me of a call he had received from a Cuban exile in his eighties living in Florida – a man who said he wanted to get something off his chest before he died. Having talked with the man on a lengthy conference call, Blakey and I thought he sounded potentially credible. We flew to Florida and interviewed him over two days.
What the witness said, in essence, was about the closest friend of his youth, Herminio Díaz. While working in a Castro prison infirmary in 1966, he told us, he had given treatments to a much celebrated anti-Castro fighter named Tony Cuesta. Cuesta, terribly injured and traumatized, mentioned that Díaz had spoken with him of his “participation” in the JFK assassination. That’s the kernel of the account, which has its strengths and weaknesses. The suggestion that Díaz was involved has been made before. Now, however, it is evident that he ticks several boxes. He had, the record shows, previously committed one political assassination and attempted others. He was a marksman, expert in the use of both rifle and pistol. He had worked for Mafia boss Trafficante. He was deep into the Cuban exile fight against Castro – and many in that movement saw JFK as a traitor. He was in the U.S. in 1963.
Former chief counsel Blakey and I agree that this is a persuasive lead that points more firmly to the possibility that Herminio Díaz had a role in the Kennedy assassination. None of the handful of people previously named as allegedly having taken part have had the “qualifications” Díaz had. I did a videotape interview with the witness and – should the TV networks wake up between now and the anniversary – the tape will be aired in the coming weeks. Whether today’s media is really interested in authentic reporting on the case, however, is another matter. Perhaps nothing has changed since 1963.
JFKFacts: When your JFK book first came out in 1980, its title was “Conspiracy.” In later editions, it has been “Not in Your Lifetime.” Why?
Summers: It was much against my will that the book was first issued as “Conspiracy.” My then publisher was addicted to one-word titles and thought that title timely, in tune with the House Assassinations Committee’s finding of probable conspiracy. I thought it would mean I’d be branded a “conspiracy theorist,” the last thing I needed. Mercifully, however, the book was treated as sensible and revelatory and praised across the board. Even by the New York Times, which infamously has rarely given a serious hearing to the very notion that Kennedy may have been killed as the result of a conspiracy.
Why did I pick “Not in Your Lifetime“ as the new title? Because Chief Justice Warren, asked whether his Commission’s documentation would be released, replied that some records – notably material that came under the rubric of national security – would not be released in the lifetime of his audience. Fifty years, however, have passed since the assassination. Why, if President Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman, are thousands of documents still withheld in 2013?
What is the government still hiding?
“5 Decades Later Some JFK FIles Still Sealed” (Associated Press, Aug.. 18. 2013)
“Justice Dept. denies CIA officer was honored for coverup” (JFK Facts,Dec. 17, 2012)
“Court uphold public benefit of disclsoure about CIA officer in JFK story” (JFK Facts, June 19, 2013)
“CIA Still Cagey About Oswald Mystery” (New York Times, October 17, 2009)
“Morley v. CIA: Why I sued the CIA for JFK assassination records” (JFK Facts, Feb. 23, 2013)