While anticipating what the 50th anniversary of the MLK and RFK assassinations would bring in our schizoid culture, I thought, “Well, it will likely be a mixture”. The broader-based, more old-line sectors of the MSM would probably do what they could to uphold or, at least, pin down any attempt to clarify, or honestly examine, those two murders. I hoped that perhaps there would be some attempt by the newer, more independent media, to say something honest and fresh about those milestone events.
I was a bit right and a bit wrong. Netflix did put out a four-hour documentary on Robert Kennedy called Bobby Kennedy for President which, in its last hour, actually did present some of the questions about his murder. The three new documentaries on the King case—MSNBC’s Hope and Fury, Paramount Network’s I am MLK Jr, and HBO’s King in the Wilderness—avoided the circumstances surrounding his assassination in Memphis.
On the other hand, there was one magazine on the newsstands that did confront the circumstances of Bobby Kennedy’s murder. That was a long 90-page glossy journal edited by Dylan Howard, the man who has been handling Steve Jaffe’s stories about the JFK case in National Enquirer. And, unfortunately, that was about it for our side.
As Milicent Cranor writes in a story that we are running at Kennedys and King, there was an attempt by the MSM to somehow put the kibosh on those advocating a conspiracy in the JFK case. After all, the 55th anniversary of that case is this year. This consisted of an article by a previously unknown by the name of Nicholas Nalli. His article was published in an “open access journal” called Heliyon, and was noted by the MSM, most conspicuously in Newsweek. As Cranor notes in her well-reasoned essay, it should not have been noted at all. It is chock-full of holes and uses sources like John Lattimer, who has been discredited many times—most often by Cranor. Her critique shows how dubious the study is; and Nalli now appears on a long list of debunked pseudo-scientists on the JFK case like Lattimer, Hany Farid and Vincent Guinn. (We will have more to say on this spurious study in a future essay.)
To join this list of anniversary gifts was a six part series on CNN called American Dynasties: The Kennedys. This smashingly disappointing series did not deal at all with the questions about the murders of John and Robert Kennedy, but instead tried to chronicle the careers of certain members of the family. To put it mildly, it did not do a very good job in that area. (We will also be dealing with that effort in a future essay.)
But perhaps the most offensive and transparent attempt to keep the lid screwed shut on the Pandora’s box of the political murders of the 1960s was a particularly tawdry newsstand effort by Time-Life entitled Assassins: Killers Who Changed History.
This was a 96-page, slickly produced, pretentiously organized and deceptively written propaganda piece. It tried to place the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy into a large and sprawling historical and geographical backdrop, one that went back well over a hundred years and spread all over the globe, as far away as India. The magazine covers well over a dozen historical cases. But its analysis of those cases is, by necessity, very shallow. And the comparative analysis between those cases and the murders of King and the Kennedys is so diaphanous as to be risible.
For example, in their discussion of the murder of Abraham Lincoln, the authors clearly imply that assassin John Wilkes Booth worked alone, and they term it “his plot”. Even for Time-Life, this is pretty bad. At the end of the civil war, Booth was part of a conspiracy to kill three major figures of the Union government. The two other targets were Secretary of State William Seward and Vice-President Andrew Johnson. Booth had assigned co-conspirator Lewis Powell to kill Seward. In his attempt to do so Powell bludgeoned Seward’s son, almost killed Seward, and stabbed three others. In this desperate, failed attempt, he made so much noise that his accomplice—who was to guide his escape—fled the scene.
Booth made Johnson the target of George Atzerodt. Atzerodt checked into the hotel Johnson was staying at in Washington, and rented the room above him. But the next night, he got drunk at the bar, staggered into the street, discarded one of his weapons, and wandered into a different hotel. It took over a year to capture all of the conspirators, for one had escaped to Europe. Nine people went to trial, eight were convicted, and four were executed. Before his death, Powell said words to the effect, that they only got but half of us. If this is correct, then there were actually close to 20 people involved in this grand conspiracy. You will not read about any of the co-conspirators, or the other targets, in the four pages devoted to the subject in this periodical.
The above is only one of the asymmetrical comparisons made in the journal. The 1981 Anwar el-Sadat assassination is another. That conspiracy involved over twenty participants. It was sanctioned by a Moslem fundamentalist group. Members of that group were arrested two weeks before the murder by Egyptian security forces. But they would not talk. Four gunmen took part in the public machine gunning. Eleven people, including Sadat, were killed. A rebellion was planned in Upper Egypt to coincide with the assassination, but it was put down. Five members of the plot were executed. Nineteen others were arrested. Seventeen were convicted and imprisoned.
Further exposing the spin of this publication, let us deal with the listing of the1940 murder of Leon Trotsky. Josef Stalin had already sent a team of assassins to kill the exiled Trotsky at his fortified home in Mexico City. This attempt, sponsored by the foreign division of the NKVD, failed. So Stalin commissioned a smaller plot headed by former Cheka agent Nahum Eitingon. Through staunch Spanish communist Caridad del Rio Hernandez, they recruited her son Ramon Mercader. Mercader was schooled in Russia as a Soviet agent. Furnished by the Russians with false passports and false identities, he befriended a friend and follower of Trotsky. He followed her from Paris to New York and then asked her to join him in Mexico City, where Trotsky was living. He used the woman to gain entry to Trotsky’s home, befriend his guards, and win his confidence. Left alone with him, Mercader struck him with an ice pick. But Trotsky did not die immediately and struggled with his attacker. His bodyguards were alerted by the sounds of the struggle and apprehended Mercader. This caused his two getaway accomplices, Caridad, and the Russian intelligence officer Eitingon, to leave the scene and abandon the killer. They both hightailed it out of the country. Trotsky died a day later. Mercader served twenty years in a Mexican prison.
Therefore, the murder of Trotsky was a well-planned, long gestating conspiracy. It originated with the ruler of the USSR, and his order went down to Eitingon, then to Caridad, and finally to her son. Stalin’s political objective was to kill a former rival. It only broke down and was exposed because Trotsky did not die instantly.
Even some of the cases only mentioned in passing are spurious as comparisons. The assassination of Denver talk show host Alan Berg in 1984 was chronicled by author Stephen Singular in his book Talked to Death. Berg was a popular Denver radio host. He was an outspoken liberal and his program had a large reach throughout the country. He was provocative and pugnacious in espousing his disdain for anti-Semites and neo-Nazi groups, which flourished in the west. He engaged a member of one of these groups, The Order, on his show. He was murdered by an ambush in the driveway of his home on June 18, 1984. Five members of that group participated in the assassination. Four were rounded up and two were convicted at trial; two others were convicted on related charges. The leader of The Order was killed less than six months later during a firefight with federal agents at his home in the state of Washington.
The concept of this cheap and tawdry creation was apparently to show that the official stories about Oswald, Sirhan, and Ray have past parallels as socio-political crimes. Yet that aim is soundly defeated by the actual facts of these, and other, named cases, facts which are not fully delineated within the pages of the magazine. In the Trotsky case, for instance, the commissioning of the conspiracy by Stalin is not made clear. So what the publication actually shows is that, contrary to our schizoid culture’s declarations, political conspiracies are not at all uncommon.
This curtailed backdrop is complemented by an even worse censorship in dealing with the major targets of the journal. These are the discussions of the lives and purported crimes of Oswald, Ray and Sirhan. These reviews might have well have been written back in the sixties. They are so trite and obsolete that they seem mildewed. For instance, Ray is directly compared to the “killer” of Indira Gandhi as some kind of fanatic. Yet, Indira Gandhi was killed by two men, and they had another accomplice. One of the assassins was killed on the spot while the other two conspirators were later executed. Moreover, an investigating commission strongly suspected that Indira Gandhi’s secretary, R. K. Dhawan, was the inside operator who arranged the assassination.
The two gunmen were part of the religious sect called the Sikhs and this was the reason for the murder. Assassins tries to compare this with Ray, acting alone, somehow killing King because he was a racist. As several critics of the King case have noted, the concept that Ray was a racist does not hold water. The early authors who attempted to railroad Ray for the crime—William Bradford Huie, George McMillan—did use this as a motive. And later authors who argue for Ray’s guilt adapted this from these (false) precedents, e.g., Gerald Posner and Hampton Sides.
But as John Avery Emison wrote in The Martin Luther King Congressional Cover-Up, neither the FBI nor the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) could come up with any credible evidence to back up this presumed motive. For instance, the FBI interviewed dozens of inmates at the Missouri prison Ray had escaped from. The Bureau even talked to the warden. They still could not unearth any indication of Ray’s involvement with any race-related disturbances. (Emison, p. 73) During Ray’s three hour and forty-three minute hearing—done after his lawyer had sold him down the river—race was never mentioned as a motive. (Emison, p. 73)
When the HSCA tried to delve into the accusations made by Huie and McMillan, they were found lacking in substance. Emison deals with this issue at length in his worthy book. (See pp. 69-91) Assassins brings up the issue of Ray “working” for George Wallace’s candidacy in 1968 in California. In fact, as Martin Hay has pointed out, the extent of this work was to drive three people to the Wallace headquarters so they could register to vote. As the reader can see, the labeling of Ray as a fanatic, and his comparison with the killers of Indira Gandhi, is simply a fairy tale.
But beyond that, there is no doubt about the circumstances of the Indira Gandhi assassination. The killers were caught almost immediately and confessed to the crime. Ray was not caught for 65 days. And under his first lawyers, Arthur Hanes and son, he was ready to go to trial. He was even willing to refuse a plea bargain. It was not until the famous attorney Percy Foreman entered the case that this was changed. As Emison discusses at length in his book, Foreman—after first saying he would defend his client as not guilty—then changed his tune. He began applying all kinds of pressure to Ray in order to coerce him into pleading guilty. Emison details the unethical tactics that Foreman used in order to do this, which included bribery. (See Emison, pp. 131-64) Beyond that, during Ray’s hearing, the transcript had to be altered in order to conceal the facts of Foreman’s coercion. (Emison, pp. 175-77)
The day after the pleading, without Foreman as his attorney, Ray wrote a letter to the judge and told him he would like to change his plea. But Judge Preston Battle died before he could act on the letter, which was lying open on his desk when he had a fatal heart attack. Tennessee law clearly stated that in such situations, the defendant should be granted a new hearing automatically. (Emison, pp. 203-04) That provision of the law was systematically ignored until it was changed decades later when Judge Joe Brown took up the King case and threatened to break it wide open. Needless to say, in its haste to compare Ray with the Sikh killers of Gandhi, Assassins ignores virtually all of this.
The section on Ray, entitled “Fanatics”, also includes six pages on the Robert Kennedy assassination. There, the accused assassin of RFK is said to have killed the senator because of Kennedy’s support for Israel. First, as the facts of the RFK case dictate, there is almost no way on earth that Sirhan could have killed Senator Kennedy. Secondly, Sirhan bears next to no responsibility for the shooting he did because he was hypnoprogrammed. The key to this riddle is the presence of the famous Girl in the Polka Dot Dress. She approached Sirhan at the bar of the Ambassador Hotel, shared a coffee with him, asked him if he wanted some sugar and then led him into the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel. As Kennedy was walking through, she smiled at him and pinched him. This provoked him to start shooting. (Watch this video) The article states that Sirhan hid in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel before he started firing. (p. 43) But Sirhan was not in the kitchen; he was in the pantry. Furthermore, how one could hide oneself while standing next to a girl in a white dress with dark polka dots is a riddle that goes without mention. Also going unmentioned is the fact that all the bullets that struck Kennedy came in at very close range from behind, while Sirhan was always in front of the senator and at a distance of 2-5 feet away.
In Assassins, Lee Harvey Oswald gets his own chapter. In fact, it’s the opening chapter which is entitled “Changing History”. That is an odd and inappropriate title, because none of the changes in foreign policy which ensued after President Kennedy’s murder are listed in the chapter. Not the escalation in Vietnam, not the reversal of American policy in Congo, not the move towards the overthrow of Sukarno in Indonesia, not the end of attempts at détente with Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev, among others. Understanding the editorial approach of the publication, it is easy to understand these excisions.
Almost all of this opening chapter could have been lifted from the Warren Report. It amounts to a mini-biography of Oswald. Words like “failure” and “rootlessness” and phrases like “fantasy life” are sprinkled into the eight pages. None of the new discoveries made by the Assassination Records Review board are included. Whole books have been written largely based on these new documents. Not even the older discoveries that upset the Warren Commission cardboard portrait of Oswald are included. There is not a word about 544 Camp Street and Guy Banister in New Orleans. Nothing about the journey to the Clinton-Jackson area north of New Orleans with Clay Shaw and David Ferrie. There is not even a sentence about Oswald’s alleged visit to Mexico City, let alone any of the startling information in the declassified Lopez Report about that crucial subject. Below one picture of a police officer holding up the rifle the Warren Commission accepted as being Oswald’s, the caption does say “The Murder Weapon?”. Beneath that, it notes, “an officer held up the rifle Oswald allegedly used to assassinate President Kennedy” [italics added]. But this is neutralized by a series of four photos picturing Oswald through various stages of life, which are labeled, “Evolution of an Assassin.” Needless to add, there is not one sustained paragraph mentioning all the problems with the medical and ballistics evidence used to convict Oswald by the Warren Commission.
We would be remiss if we did not mention one truly surprising development in the press that took place around the 50th anniversary. These were a series of four lengthy articles about the Robert Kennedy assassination. Written by Tom Jackman, and linked to on our front page, they form a serious departure from the tripe written in Assassins. These articles have been the basis for various other stories that have appeared in the media about the RFK murder. The series began with a discussion of the visit by Robert Kennedy Jr. to the prison near San Diego where Sirhan is now housed. RFK’s son told Sirhan that, after months of reviewing the evidence, he had decided that he had not killed his father. This was a bold and courageous move by Bobby Kennedy Jr. And it clearly parallels the visit by the son of Martin Luther King to James Earl Ray in 1997, where Dexter told Ray he also thought he was innocent.
Let us hope that the Washington Post series continues to be picked up and that this causes a change in some of the MSM coverage of the RFK case.
Meanwhile, we will conclude that the Time-Life special issue of Assassins would serve well as a model for a Mad Magazine revival.