No, he did not.
The “Secret Service Man Did It” theory is comic in its macabre ludicrousness. It would not be worthy of discussion, except that Bill James and Malcolm Gladwell, and now the Huffington Post, have taken it seriously.
“JFK Second Shooter? New Documentary Makes Radical Claim,” the liberal site reported. The article quotes a couple of cable TV documentarians from the Reelz Channel insinuating, without evidence, that a Secret Service agent killed Kennedy. There is no comment from any historian or journalist who actually knows the record of JFK’s assassination. To date, more than 3,000 people have “liked” the HP story. I have submitted a correction without hope that it will ever be acknowledged.
I could blame Gladwell for this sorry display of public ignorance, but let’s stick to the facts:
It would have been more precise for Huffington Post to say “New Documentary Recycles Libelous Claim.”
Perhaps we could expect no more from the Reelz Channel, which will broadcast the film on November 3. The Reelz Channel is found In the warm and frothy depths of the cable universe, where the eye candy of bawdy reality shows and the mind candy of baroque conspiracy theories constantly tempt the sensorium of a bored America. The film follows veteran police detective Colin McLaren in his four-year investigation of the assassination.
Origins of the error
In a post for JFK Facts, I expressed hope for McLaren’s work, a misguided musing for which I now slavishly beg pardon. All this ace detective has managed to do is swipe the premise of a book called “Mortal Error” published in 1993 by St. Martin’s Press. His investigation revives the debunked claim that George Hickey, a Secret Service agent riding in the car behind Kennedy, accidentally shot the president on Nov. 22, 1963.
In legal terms, “Mortal Error” was libelous. Hickey was a bystander to the president’s murder, nothing more. In retirement he scarcely deserved such allegations. Washington attorney Jim Lesar (who ably represented me in the Morley v. CIA lawsuit), and national security defense attorney Mark Zaid, took up Hickey’s case after “Mortal Error” was published. They sued the author (who will not be named here), St. Martin’s Press, and Simon and Schuster, which published an audio version of the book.
And they won. As Mark Zaid just told me by email, “Settlements were reached in each case and the publisher apologized.”
The editors of the Huffington Post, it seems, are innocent of the legal history of this preposterous conspiracy theory. So, alas, is Gladwell.
In an online chat published in Grantland last year, Gladwell said that Bill James’s book on “Popular Crime; Reflections on the Celebration of Violence” had endorsed this theory of “Mortal Error.” In an email, Gladwell wrote, “James describes in brilliant detail just how convincing this particular explanation is.”
Taken at face value, this is a foolish statement. This theory has convinced no serious scholar of the JFK story. In fact, James didn’t actually bless the “Secret Service Did It” theory in his book. He merely argued that it was just a credible as some other stupid JFK theories. When I knew Gladwell a long time ago, we were both young journalists in Washington and he had an merry and facetious sense of humor, which I think he may be expressing here.
I don’t disparage his work. When I first met him he was writing for the right-wing Washington Times, specializing in stories that confounded conventional thinking. When I wrote an article for The New Republic called “The Tipping Point” about a liberal social engineering scheme to protect the racial composition of a New York housing project, we had a long conversation about how an urban neighborhood could change color within a few years. He went on to write a book about such rapid transformations called “The Tipping Point,” which was smarter and more entertaining than my article and became a best-seller.
So I can only wonder why would such an original writer would subscribe to the lame “Secret Service Did It” theory?
Self-defense is a factor, I think.
Gladwell has worked all his life in publications (Washington Times, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker) that have not done a particularly good job of presenting an explanation of the causes of Kennedy’s death that a majority of Americans find compelling. Inside such organizations the JFK assassination story evokes feelings of arrogance (“We know what happened”) and insecurity (“Why do so few people believe the government’s story?”). The easiest way to get rid of these feelings is to make a joke of the whole subject and the allegedly inferior types who care about it, which is what I think Gladwell was doing.
The JFK story does not fit well with Malcolm’s brand. It’s no knock on Gladwell to say he has become a household name by telling interesting tales that make people feel glad and well. The JFK story offers no such consolations. The story of how the liberal president died in a hail of gunfire and no one was ever charged with the crime (or even lost their job) can only make American citizens feel unglad and unwell.
Gladwell seems to have forgotten his 10,000 hour rule. Famous for popularizing the idea that people who are the master of their profession have spent 10,000 hours in training, he certainly hasn’t spent 10,000 hours on JFK’s assassination, which is probably wise on his part. I have and I often regret it. But such sustained study enables me to say, with complete confidence, that this new documentary is not worth viewing.
A Secret Service agent did not kill President Kennedy, accidentally or otherwise. The fact that this fact needs repeating 50 years later is testament to how American news organizations have succeeded in dumbing down the JFK assassination story and distorting a key moment in American history. The folly of Malcolm Gladwell is a symptom of journalistic failure.
More defunct JFK conspiracy theories:
“Didn’t do it: More the role of George H.W. Bush in the events of 1963” (JFK Facts, November 30, 2012)
“About that lame Bush conspiracy theory” (JFK Facts, March 29, 2013)
“Did the Fed kill JFK?” (JFK Facts, January. 25, 2013)
“Fact check: Did a Pepsi-Cola executive kill JFK?” (JFK Facts, June 15, 2013)