The custodians of legacy news organizations and certain historians will say that the late Arlen Specter was right beyond a reasonable doubt in his theorizing about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Unfortunately, the facts say otherwise. In the past decade, improvements in forensic science have undermined Specter’s most famous hypothesis, the venerable Single Bullet Theory.
This is not to criticize the dead.
The former Pennsylvania Senator, now rightly mourned for his almost-extinct brand of moderate Republican politics, should also be mourned for his dubious contribution to the investigation of JFK’s assassination. Many sane people find his famous “single bullet theory” (SBT) of JFK’s murder to be unpersuasive. I’m one of them. But Arlen Specter was indubitably a public servant, whatever you think of his forensic acumen.
Was Specter a passionate truth-seeker or a cynical opportunist? (Maybe he was both.)
A notorious theory
Specter certainly never shook the notoriety of his durable, if unpersuasive, theory of Kennedy’s assassination. His opportunistic political style later in life did not help, suggesting that intellectual flexibility had always been Specter’s forte, even when he was strength just an ambitious young staff attorney working for the Warren Commission a half century ago.
Specter’s hypothesis, adopted as historical truth by the distracted members of the Warren Commission, attracted skeptics in the American and international press right away. Specter’s theory was skewered memorably by District Attorney Jim Garrison in a 1969 trial in a New Orleans courtroom. As depicted by Kevin Costner in Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1992), Garrison charged that Specter’s theory required one of the bullets that wounded to President Kennedy to change directions in mid-air after piercing his body. Stone’s cinematic version caricatured Specter’s thesis–but not by much.
Specter never escaped populist ridicule for his convoluted theory. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in the 1990s, he grilled one right-wing militiaman about his claims that black helicopters of the United Nations were flying in Montana airspace.
Do you actually believe that? Specter asked incredulously. The grizzled militiaman looked up at Specter and drawled words to the effect of, “Senator, do you actually believe that bullet in Dallas went like ….”
And the old coot recited Garrison’s speech almost word for word from Stone’s movie. Specter was steaming but what could he do? People just didn’t believe his Single Bullet Theory.
James Tague’s wound
Specter’s problem wasn’t Oliver Stone or populist irrationality as much as it was Occam’s Razor, the precept which holds that the simplest explanation is often the best. As an explanation of the gunfire that wounded JFK and Texas Governor John Connally, Specter’s SBT was anything but simple. As the above postcard shows, Specter’s theory of the gunfire required jettisoning the previously accepted testimony of the closest witness to the gunfire, Texas Governor John Connally.
It is often forgotten but Specter’s intellectual acrobatics came relatively late in the investigation of JFK’s death. As an investigator, Specter accepted Gov. Connally’s testimony as unquestioned truth for several months until a bystander named James Tague came forward with a credible and corroborated story.
Tague had been standing near the president’s motorcade route with the gunfire erupted. He felt a burning sensation of his cheek and realized he had been hit by a piece of flying debris. He noticed that a bullet had struck the street curb and sent a chip of stone glancing off his face.
Once the Warren Commission staff realized that Tague’s story was credible, Specter had to account for the origins of four gunshots–the separate shots that hit Connally and JFK from behind, the shot that hit JFK in the head, and the shot that hit the curb.
Specter had to solve a complicated problem. He knew the rifle of accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald could not be reloaded and fired fast enough to get off four shots in the estimated 8 seconds of gunfire. So Specter came up with novel theory that no one–not a single witness or investigator--had ever proposed: that one bullet caused the back wounds to both JFK and Connally.
It wasn’t quite as preposterous as Oliver Stone suggested but it contradicted the best available witness testimony and strained common sense. It still does.
God bless Arlen Specter: he tried and failed to explain the gunfire that took JFK’s death. Let’s hope history gives his survivors a more favorable verdict.