President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was brutally and very publicly ambushed 49 years ago on November 22, 1963, though you wouldn’t know it from reading Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot, by Bill O’Reilly. Once closely read, however, it becomes apparent that the title is apt. The Fox Television host aims to assassinate JFK’s character today, and especially to obfuscate the truth of his murder.
Samuel Johnson once said, “You can abuse a tragedy, but you can’t write one.” O’Reilly, a self-described punk, has accomplished this abusive feat by writing what he calls “history that is fun to read.” That’s a perverse way of describing the murder of a president.
But salacious propaganda as history is eagerly devoured by too many Americans. Killing Kennedy is at or near the top of every best-seller list. Whether it will have any long-lasting effect on popular thinking about the subject remains to be seen. It would be tragic if anybody believes these spurious claims. That would be, in the popular parlance, getting punked.
Only about 20 percent of this book is actually devoted to the assassination of Kennedy, and that as an afterthought. The majority of its pages provide a histrionic rehashing of the years leading up to the president’s death in Dallas. Along the way, we learn many highly significant things:
that JFK was an “easily likable man’s man”; that he “is naked and on-schedule” in “the indoor pool”; that this nakedness “stems from his notion of manliness”; that “real men do the breaststroke au natural, and that’s that”; that “Kennedy’s fixation on movies rivals his other favorite recreational pursuit: sex”; that during the Bay of Pigs invasion he spends the day “wallowing in grief”; that Jackie Kennedy “goes through life … feigning ignorance”; that in Kennedy’s relationship with his wife “there was little attempt at foreplay”; that “the president made love to Jackie as if it were a duty”; that “he liked a cigar and a daiquiri or two”; that he “can be just as cold-blooded” as his brother, Robert; that JFK is “an adrenaline junkie, relishing the rush of competing for power.”
This truly is a way of attacking the historical figure who was JFK. O’Reilly’s manly profundities seem intended to kill off the reality of a uniquely courageous president who confronted the military-industrial- intelligence complex and paid the price.
In a note of reassurance to readers, O’Reilly writes, “please know that this is a fact-based book,” that it “is completely a work of non-fiction. It’s all true.”
Here are some of his true facts of the imaginary sort, the kinds of things only an omniscient author could know.
In Minsk, Russia, Oswald meets his future wife who “is reluctant to smile because of her bad teeth.” Later, Oswald “festers in a quiet rage” and “dreams of living in the palm tree fringed workers’ paradise of Cuba.”
“When Jackie thinks of Camelot,” he writes, “she focuses on the final act of the play.” He tells us that JFK’s “thoughts are never far from another ‘Churchill’.”
One can almost hear the television narrator working with this script sometime next year as the 50th anniversary of the assassination approaches and the media propaganda machine goes into high gear.
O’Reilly writes of Jackie: “Her future is gazing at her intently with those beautiful greenish-grey eyes of his”; of Marina Oswald: “Because Lee Harvey will not be around to watch Audrey Marina Rachel Oswald grow up”; of the accused assassin: “Oswald can see every strand [of hair] through his scope.”
O’Reilly does have his fun.
He writes of JFK: “The president stands less than three feet away, paying no attention whatsoever to his wife. He gazes at a dark-haired beauty half his age named Lisa Gherardini. She is blessed with lips that are full and red, contrasting seductively with her smooth olive skin. Her smile is coy. The plunging neckline of her dress hints at an ample bosom. She bears the faintest of resemblances to the First Lady…. Surely John Kennedy can be allowed the minor indiscretion of appreciating this lovely twentysomething.”
Turn on the laugh meter. The vixen in question is the Mona Lisa at an unveiling at the National Gallery of Art in January 1963.
As for the actual events that lead to JFK’s assassination, this book could have been written in the late 1960s when O’Reilly was in college. Its primary source is the Warren Commission Report. O’Reilly seems unfamiliar with the actual historical record and related JFK scholarship that prove his facile thesis absurd. He is unaware of the vast body of JFK records made public since the late 1990s by the findings of the JFK Assassination Record Review Board.
He has not read other authors on his subject. No Jim Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable, no Gaeton Fonzi, no Peter Dale Scott, no Jim Garrison, no Mark Lane, no Gerald McKnight, no Sylvia Meagher, no John Newman, no Russ Baker, no Jim DiEugenio, to name but a few of those who have contributed to the new JFK scholarship. Furthermore, there is nary a word about Sylvia Odio, David Atlee Philips, David Morales, and many others figures investigated by prominent researchers.
The superficiality of this book is astounding.
Is O’Reilly ignorant of contemporary JFK scholarship? Or is he complicit in avoiding the weight of the new findings? Take your pick.
O’Reilly’s method is proudly simplistic. As he told USA Today on October 2, 2012, this writing is “No pinheaded stuff, just roar through!” And roar he does. Through the first four-fifths of the book, he intersperses short snippets on Lee Harvey Oswald with background on Kennedy’s time in office.
So on page 15 we read that Oswald was a “crack shot in the military,” an assertion contradicted by abundant evidence, even the Warren Commission, yet a key to O’Reilly’s conclusion. We never learn from these snippets how an alleged traitor to the United States, a defector who told the Soviets he would disclose state secrets, was given his passport back by the U.S. State Department or why the State Department lent him money so he could return to the United States.
O’Reilly skims lightly over details. We do learn that after going to Fort Worth, Texas, with his Russian wife Marina and their child, Oswald is befriended by a Russian named George de Mohrenschildt, a man who “may have CIA connections.” He neglects to inform us that de Mohrenschildt, whose father was an official in czarist Russia, urges Oswald to move to Dallas where he helps him get at a job at Jaggers-Chiles-Stovall, a graphic arts company that does classified work relating to Cuba and U-2 spy flights for the U.S. Army Map Service. Thus we don’t learn that “defector” Oswald, with a little help from a serendipitously found new friend — who admitted his close collaboration with the CIA — has defied basic government security barriers (JFK And The Unspeakable, James W. Douglass, pp. 46-49).
O’Reilly fails to mention that Oswald, allegedly a sociopathic loner, had a crypto security clearance (higher than top secret) in the Marines. He had served at Atsugi Air Force Base in Japan, the CIA’s main operational base in the Far East for top-secret U-2 spy flights over the Soviet Union. But since O’Reilly’s main source is the Warren Commission that suppressed the fact of Oswald’s crypto clearance, he wouldn’t, presumedly, know that (Breach of Trust, Gerald D. McKnight, p. 300).
We do learn that by 1963 Oswald is getting angrier, and is having fights with his wife, and decides on April 10, 1963 that “it’s time to kill someone.” We learn once again that he “can shoot extremely well,” but that when he allegedly attempts to assassinate extreme right-wing Major General Edwin Walker he misses completely. O’Reilly tells us that Oswald “wanted to be a hero in the eyes of the Communist Party,” but now he feels like a failure and his wife is mad at him. We keep learning that he’s getting angrier by the day, that he feels like a failed man, and that he’s quite nifty with a rifle.
The combustible nature of these revelations is surely foreboding. From another snippet we learn that the Oswalds move to New Orleans where Oswald quickly gets a job at the Reily Coffee Company. We are not told that the owner, William B. Reily, worked for the CIA and was a wealthy supporter of CIA anti-Castro efforts and that the Reily Coffee Company was located at the center of the U.S. intelligence community in New Orleans.
We do learn that Oswald’s rage is increasing — from his reading. We do learn, that despite his employment, he is a “true Communist” and of course “an avowed atheist.” We don’t learn that he associates with Guy Bannister, a former FBI agent, whose office is nearby and who works with the CIA in all sorts of anti-Castro activities.
O’Reilly informs us that Marina moves back to the Dallas area to the home of her friend, Ruth Paine, but he fails to mention why Mrs. Paine is so solicitous of the Oswalds. Nor does he mention the insignificant fact that Ruth Paine’s sister worked for the CIA; that Ruth Paine had just been visiting her sister in Virginia when she drove to New Orleans to drive Marina and her child back to her home; and that Paine’s mother was connected to Allen Dulles, the former CIA Director whom Kennedy fired after the Bay of Pigs and who would later become a key member of the Warren Commission (Douglass, pp. 168-173).
But we learn that “thanks to a kindly reference from Ruth Paine,” Lee lands a job at the Texas School Book Depository where he starts work on October 16, 1963, just in the nick of time. Lucky Lee has such good friends.
And on and on we learn and don’t learn from these snippets. And then we learn where all this is leading, as if we didn’t know: the angry Commie atheist Lee Harvey Oswald, because his wife is frustrated with him and won’t take him back, despite his begging, “will be left with no choice,” he will have to kill President Kennedy by shooting him from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.
This is O’Reilly’s idea of “history that is fun to read.”
O’Reilly would call me a “pinhead,” an academic who cares about facts and sources; such a person must be jealous of his popularity and money. So be it. He is a best-selling author. But how is it possible to be jealous of someone who doesn’t know his facts from his fictions?
How are we to explain the popularity of O’Reilly’s fiction? The great cultural anthropologist, Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, The Denial of Death, explained it perfectly.
“People who are afraid of death and the loss of their cultural illusions that support their world views are particularly attracted to the supposed ‘unconflicted personality,’” the one who will tell them this is that — end of story, the one who shows no doubt. For those who fear the loss of their illusions when contemplating JFK’s death, O’Reilly is their man. As he told USA Today, “I know that Oswald killed Kennedy.”
There is a bit of an ocular problem with his conclusion, however. In an explanation of his sources, O’Reilly writes of the crucially famous Zapruder film, that “we watched it time after time to understand the sequence of events, and it never got less horrific — nor did the outcome ever change.” If this is true, then O’Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard might consider visiting an ophthalmologist. For anyone with eyes to see who watches that film knows instantly that JFK was shot from the front and that he was jolted back and to the left. Jackie jumps on the trunk to retrieve part of his brain and skull that blew out the back of his head from a shot from the front right.
But O’Reilly misses this “time after time.” He prefers fictions.
Edward Curtin is a writer and researcher who teaches sociology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Massachusetts.