Rosenbaum and The Critics
For all intents and purposes, on April 10th , Ron Rosenbaum kicked off the 50th anniversary battle over the JFK case in the media. He did it from his friendly perch at Slate Magazine. In his article entitled "Philby and Oswald," he clearly connotes two things. First, he understands that the JFK community is coming very close to a unanimous vote about who Lee Harvey Oswald actually was. And second, a consensus is also gathering about who controlled Oswald, namely James Angleton. These developments – which owe much to the writing of John Newman and Lisa Pease – are very important in the JFK case. With them one can now discard the obsolete portrait of Oswald as painted by the deceitful Warren Commission. Secondly, one can now begin to indicate with authority who had control of Oswald's files at Langley and the dance that was done with them in October and November of 1963. A dance that now seems all too deliberate. Knowing how crucial this information would be in any coming public debate, Rosenbaum decided to try for a preemptive strike about both Angleton and Oswald.
To understand why he would do this one needs to know a bit about the history of journalist Ron Rosenbaum.
After graduating from Yale, Rosenbaum first secured a reporting job at The Village Voice. He left in 1975 and then began regularly contributing to Esquire, Harper's, High Times, and Vanity Fair. Most recently he has written for New York Times Magazine and Slate. He has also published several books. Some of these have been anthologies of his previously published work. His most celebrated book is probably 1998's Explaining Hitler. There the author interviewed several authorities trying to explain Hitler's bizarre psychology.
After he left The Village Voice, Rosenbaum first entered the JFK field. In July of 1976 he co-wrote an article about the death of Mary Meyer. Meyer was the divorced wife of CIA officer Cord Meyer who was murdered in 1964. This long article showed the hallmarks of what his later writing would be in the field. This included a trust for highly placed sources, a sneering cynicism about President Kennedy and those who thought there was something important about his presidency, and third, a strange, symbiotic relationship with and trust in James Angleton. Concerning the last, it is important to understand that this article appeared about two years after Angleton had been forced out of the CIA – in essence he was fired – by Director William Colby. Further, Angleton had been a person of interest in the Kennedy assassination to the Church Committee and, very soon, would be the same to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. But in spite of this, Rosenbaum and Nobile accepted just about all he said about the death of family friend Mary Meyer at face value. One does not have to abide by the wild schemes of Peter Janney to note that the authors should have been more circumspect about the canned counter-intelligence chief.
But the 1976 article was really just a dress rehearsal. In November of 1983 Rosenbaum had his opening night gala. And what a bash it was. Texas Monthly has always been out to denigrate the critics of the Warren Commission. Realizing their mutuality of interests, for the 20th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, Rosenbaum stepped up to the plate and smacked it out of the park for them. He penned a long article called "Still on the Case". Rosenbaum's essay was a slightly diluted, more concise version of the 1967 Lawrence Schiller/Richard Lewis volume, The Scavengers and Critics of the Warren Report. Except, in some ways, it was even more dishonest than that book. At the beginning of the piece, he appointed himself as the public's tour guide, nicknaming himself El Exigente: the Demanding One from coffee taster lore. In other words, since he was a "real journalist", he would be able to tell us what the critical community had actually developed in the 20 years since President Kennedy had been killed.
The problem with so pompously appointing himself was simple: this was a disguise. Rosenbaum was not out in any way to fairly judge what the developments in the critical community had been for 20 years. He was not really interested in presenting any new information to the public. This is made obvious from the very opening of the article. The first two words in the subhead after the title are "Conspiracy Buffs". Rosenbaum deliberately does not use the term "critics of the Warren Commission." Therefore, in a stroke, he elevates the status of the Commission and lowers the status of the critics. He repeats this technique throughout the article. Consider the following usages of the term:
the buff grapevine
And I may have missed a couple of other turns. Clearly, from the very start, Rosenbaum was out to belittle any effort to find out the truth about the Kennedy case; but he was also out to caricature those who thought the cause worth pursuing. He jams this message home by using this term, "other assassins", which he deliberately puts in quotes. Presumably meaning it's a thought too nebulous to consider. As to other suspects in the case, he refers to them as The People Behind it All. That's right, all in capital letters.
Rosenbaum opens the essay with a scene of him with Penn Jones in Dealey Plaza. Penn was demonstrating to Rosenbaum if a shot could be aimed at Kennedy from a manhole cover. This is how The Demanding One begins his search for truth and justice. It further reveals Rosenbaum's agenda. If one were to ask ten writers to outline the shooting scenario in Dealey Plaza, I would guess that, at the most, perhaps one would say a shot came from a sewer or storm drain. More likely, none would propose that idea. But this is how Rosenbaum achieved his goal for his editors. He took the most extreme ideas in the research community and implied they were representative of that community. Which they were not. Another example Rosenbaum used as being representative was Michael Eddowes' exhumation of Oswald's corpse and his attempt to show that somehow the KGB had substituted an agent for Oswald while he was in the USSR. Still another example: Ron Ranftel's published essay on the Psychedelic Oswald. This article was based on an FBI interview with a New Orleans lawyer who said a man named Oswald asked him about a book he had read by Aldous Huxley concerning the use of psychedelic drugs. If you can believe it, Rosenbaum goes on with this silly angle for two pages. (Rosenbaum, Travels with Dr. Death, pgs. 74-76) This article was so ephemeral that if you Google Ranftel's name today you will only find it in relation to Rosenbaum's book. But yet The Demanding One actually wrote that "The Psychedelic Oswald hypothesis offers an explanation, a way of reconciling some of the intractable contradictions he left behind." No Ron. No one ever believed that. It was a way for you to fulfill your agenda of Reducing It All to Trivia.
This is further exposed elsewhere by his equating of the critics with the term "deconstruction". (ibid, p. xv) For those outside the realm of literary criticism, deconstruction refers to the 1960's theory of criticism related to semiotics. It generally held that an author's meaning could be divined more from the differences between words than from their reference to things they actually stood for. And that different meanings could be discovered by taking apart the structure of the language used, thereby exposing the assumption that words have a fixed reference beyond themselves. Having dealt in criticism for decades, I have never found this concept very useful. Although I could see how someone could use it in the realm of say films or novels. But in a murder case? Balderdash. The first generation of critics attacked the Warren Commission on two major grounds:
- Its main conclusions were not upheld by its own evidence. In other words, the Commission did not prove Oswald was guilty of killing President Kennedy or that Ruby had no help in killing Oswald.
- The amount of exculpatory evidence the Warren Report ignored about Oswald was shocking.
In other words, the critics were not deconstructing text or film images. They were taking apart a criminal case piece by piece. Just as a defense lawyer for Oswald would have if the accused had not been killed by Jack Ruby. But to show just how biased Rosenbaum is, consider this passage from the essay. In describing a plaque outside the Texas School Book Depository set up by the Texas Historical Commission, he says it "still astonishes with its frank rejection of Warren Commission certainty." Why? Because it refers to Oswald as the alleged killer of President Kennedy. To Ron, this is "astonishing" (ibid. p. 67). To anyone else, it is simply natural since Oswald never had a lawyer, let alone a trial.
And then there are the howlers in the piece. In the acknowledgements to his anthology book, Travels with Dr. Death, Rosenbaum thanks the dozens of fact checkers at the magazines which published his essays. Including this one. (Which he retitled for its inclusion as "Oswald's Ghost".) Well, I don't know what on earth Rosenbaum is thanking them for, since they allowed him to get away with some incredible errors. Which reveal that the man was either a dilettante or a fabricator.
One of the methods Rosenbaum uses to ridicule the critics is to refer to certain recurring phenomena in the case with a rubric. The rather see-through intent behind this is to imply: "See that particular thing happened before, years ago, so why is it important now?" So when someone tells him about Carolyn Arnold, and her buried testimony about seeing Oswald downstairs during lunch after he was seen upstairs working, he writes "It isn't the greatest missing-witness story I've heard. Nothing like the classic Earlene Roberts rooming house story." (ibid, p. 63) Let us examine this passage to see just how gaseous Rosenbaum really is.
First of all, the main point about Carolyn Arnold's submerged story is not that it was apparently never given to the Warren Commission. Its not even that it tends to be exculpatory of Oswald. Rosenbaum notes those aspects. The key point about Arnold is this: The FBI changed her statement. In other words, they altered evidence in a murder case. When Anthony Summers interviewed Arnold in 1978, five years before Rosenbaum's article appeared, she was immediately taken aback by what the report said. The FBI had written that, from outside the depository, she "thought she caught a fleeting glimpse of Lee Harvey Oswald standing in the hallway". (Summers, Conspiracy, p. 77) Before Summers could even describe why her statement was important, the witness insisted this was not what she told the Bureau. First, she knew Oswald since he had come to her more than once for change. Secondly, she did not catch a glimpse of him from outside. At about 12:15 or later, she went into the lunchroom on the second floor and saw Oswald sitting in one of the booth seats on the right side of the room. Pretty nonchalant behavior for a murderer planning to be upstairs on the sixth floor in about five minutes setting up his boxes as a barricade, piecing together his rifle, loading a magazine, and lining up his target.
The FBI altered a witness's testimony in order to strengthen its case against Oswald. That is what is left out by Rosenbaum. And it is crucial. Because it suggests that the main investigative arm of the Warren Commission, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, was out to rig the case by making Carolyn Arnold's identification much less certain than it was. Rosenbaum, striving so hard to be part of the MSM choir, wasn't going to risk raising the ire of his editors by putting that key point in there. Even if the public needed to be made aware of it in order to understand the whole story behind the Warren Commission debacle.
But if that's not bad enough, Rosenbaum now screws up the Earlene Roberts aspect of his passage. Roberts, of course, was Oswald's landlady at the rooming house at 1026 Beckley in Dallas. Rosenbaum recounts her story about Oswald coming into his room at about 1:00 PM on the 22nd, a police car pulling up and honking, and Oswald then leaving. Rosenbaum says that J. D. Tippit was then shot. He then assumes it might have been Tippit honking at Beckley. (Rosenbaum, p. 65)
As we shall see, Ron didn't do his homework on this issue. Roberts said there were two men in the car. Tippit was alone, so it was unlikely to have been him. (Mark Lane, Rush to Judgment, p. 169) But Rosenbaum also leaves out another key point. Roberts said that the last time she saw Oswald he was waiting at a bus stop outside her house. Rosenbaum fails to tell his readers that. Or this: the bus that stopped at that corner was headed the opposite way of the Tippit shooting. (ibid, p. 171)
But here is Ron's real howler. Rosenbaum says that Roberts died mysteriously before she was able to give her testimony. (Rosenbaum, p. 66) This is what I mean about thanking his non-existent fact checkers. Because Roberts testified to the Warren Commission on April 8, 1964 at the post office building at Bryan and Ervay Streets before Commission attorneys Joe Ball and Sam Stern. (WC Vol. VI, pgs 434-44) That same year, she appeared on a nationally televised CBS special. Her testimony appears prominently in several early books on the case, including Mark Lane's best-selling Rush to Judgment. (See pgs. 168-71) Could Ron and his Thankful Fact Checkers really have missed all this? Some Demanding One.
But El Exigente is not done spilling coffee on himself. Because then there is Ron and his 544 Camp Street Claim. In 1983, the address of 544 Camp Street, and all it conveyed, had been circulated fairly far and wide. First by the Jim Garrison investigation in the sixties. Then by the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the seventies. And then by Anthony Summers in his popular book entitled Conspiracy. That book was first published in 1980, and reprinted in 1981. It was reviewed in the Philadelphia Daily News, New York Post, Cosmopolitan, New York Review of Books, The Village Voice and the LA Times, among others. Summers begins his chapter on New Orleans with the famous Corliss Lamont pamphlet, "The Crime Against Cuba." He describes it as an evidentiary "time bomb". Because Oswald had stupidly stamped the address on it as follows: FPCC, 544 Camp St., New Orleans, LA. (Summers, pgs. 286-87) Summers then dutifully describes the problem with this address stamped by Oswald. Namely that there was no Fair Play for Cuba Committee office at that address. But there was an office for Guy Banister there. And plenty of witnesses saw Oswald in that office that summer. (James DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, 2nd edition, pgs. 111-113) Therefore, to do an article in 1983 about the state of the research in the JFK case, it would have been difficult not to address this issue about Oswald and Banister.
Rosenbaum did address it. But in a truly weird way. A way that reveals how deep his commitment was to minimizing the Warren Commission's perfidy. He writes that the Commission was fully aware of this issue and what it represented. (Rosenbaum, p. 81) According to Ron, the commission staffers were actually writing memos about 544 Camp Street. And when they presented their memos about it "to the harried chief counsel of the Warren Commission, it came back with these words scrawled on it: "At this stage we are supposed to be closing doors, not opening them." (ibid)
If the above paragraph about the Warren Commission, Guy Banister, and 544 Camp Street sounds like a fairy tale to the reader, that's because it is. There is simply no evidence--even at this late date--after the declassification of 2 million pages of documents by the Assassination Records Review Board, that such an internal debate ever happened. And it is hard to think Rosenbaum didn't understand that in 1983. Why? Because of his usage of the infamous line, "At this stage we are supposed to be closing doors, not opening them." Everyone who knows anything about this case recognizes that this reply, by Chief Consul J. Lee Rankin to junior counsel Wesley Liebeler, was not made in relation to 544 Camp Street. It was made in reply to questions about the testimony of Sylvia Odio. (Edward Epstein, The Assassination Chronicles, p. 114) Again, where were Ron's Thankful Fact Checkers? How demanding was El Exigente? The answer in regards to the Warren Commission is: Not Very.
As we know today, the FBI was very conscious of Oswald being at 544 Camp Street. That's because some FBI agents, like Regis Kennedy, were actually at the place. (DiEugenio, p. 342) Hoover understood that to fully expose the paradox of a supposedly communist Oswald in the presence of rabid right-wingers in league with the CIA, this paradox would create a colossal problem for the Commission, the media, and the public. Therefore, as both John Newman and Anthony Summers have written, Hoover tried to cover up the fact that there was powerful evidence Oswald was indeed there. For instance, a message from New Orleans agent Harry Maynor to FBI HQ was lined out but still visible. It said, "Several Fair Play for Cuba pamphlets contained address 544 Camp Street." (DiEugenio, p. 102) Also, when the FBI forwarded its few reports to the Warren Commission on Banister, they used the alternative address of 531 Lafayette Street. (ibid) Again, by leaving this out, Rosenbaum deprives the reader of the important knowledge that the FBI was furnishing duplicitous reports to the Commission. And the reason for that was because Hoover was not at all interested in finding out who the real killers of Kennedy actually were. If Rosenbaum had admitted this, it would have shown what a parody of justice and law enforcement the Commission actually was. And The Demanding One did not want to do that. It would have made the people he was busy caricaturing into real critics. And his editors unhappy.
The ending section of the essay is in keeping with what has come before it. Rosenbaum makes a couple of contacts with people he esteems as the Wise Men of "buffdom". They are Paul Hoch and Josiah Thompson. Paul Hoch, as everyone knows, is about as conservative on this case as one can get. And at the time of this article, he really wasn't a researcher anymore. He was more or less an archivist who put out a rather undistinguished newsletter called Echoes of Conspiracy. Which was just that: a newsletter. It was not a research journal at all. In the sense that he didn't commission articles on certain subjects in the field. Well, realizing that, Ron gets exactly what he wants from Hoch. After looking over Echoes of Conspiracy, the author writes, "Clippings. There seemed to be no edge, no direction, no sense that any of this was leading to anything." (Rosenbaum, p. 85) Well, looking at that publication, yes you could say that. You could not say that about say, Probe Magazine in the nineties. That publication was geared to the ARRB and featured many cutting edge pieces based on the declassified materials that Rosenbaum never saw or even mentions.
He then calls Hoch and tells him, "I get the impression that you're shifting from being an assassination investigator to something more like a commentator." Hoch replies, "I think that's true." Rosenbaum asks, "But what about solving the case?" And the response is, "I just don't know. I just don't know if it's too late now."
If anyone can show me an instance when Paul Hoch was ever trying to crack open the Kennedy case, I would be interested in hearing about it. This is a man who once recommended that Lisa Pease read Carlos Bringuier's book Red Friday since it had some good information in it. He also once said that he felt that the HSCA was actually improved once Richard Sprague was ousted as Chief Counsel. After a speaking panel in Chicago, which featured Commission counsel Burt Griffin and HSCA Deputy Counsel Robert Tanenbaum, Hoch said he preferred Griffin. This is the man to whom El Exigente asks the question: "What about solving the case?"
The last interview Rosenbaum does is with Josiah Thompson. Rosenbaum writes that Thompson was a former philosophy professor of his at Yale. What results from this conversation is, again, more or less predictable. Thompson's book Six Seconds in Dallas had been published back in 1967, sixteen years previous. The only book he had worked on in the meantime was an unpublished anthology with Peter Dale Scott and Hoch called Beyond Conspiracy. Having seen the manuscript, thank God it was never published. It largely bought into the findings of the HSCA. Therefore, as with Hoch, if Thompson did not have any edge, or direction, it was because he was not still on the case. That is clear from one of the first things he tells The Not So Demanding One. Incredibly, Thompson says that the NAA testing done by Vincent Guinn for the HSCA is "very powerful evidence that the single-bullet theory is correct. It absolutely astonishes me, but you gotta look at what the evidence is." (ibid, p. 88. To be fair to Thompson, he does bring up a question about he provenance of CE 399)
Of course today we know what others had long suspected. Vincent Guinn's NAA as applied to bullet lead analysis was a sham. Or as some luminaries call it today, junk science. It has been so badly discredited by two academic teams that the FBI will not use it in court anymore. (Click here for a review.) Rosenbaum then closes the piece with this opinion: If there was any conspiracy, it was probably a Mafia hit. Which, if Rosenbaum was accurate, Thompson himself was leaning toward at the time. (ibid, pgs. 88-89) Rosenbaum confirms this in an update to his essay. Written in 1991, those four paragraphs praise the work of the late John Davis in Mafia Kingfish. He calls this the best conspiracy concept we are ever likely to get. But he finally adds that he is suspicious of conspiracy theories that make Oswald a pawn. He still feels that Oswald was more of a manipulator than a pawn, "if only of his own impersonations." (ibid, p.91) So for Ron, it was either a Mafia did it or Oswald did it scenario. Although I am a bit confused by the last quoted six words. Does this mean that Oswald had actually tricked Marcello and Trafficante into taking the blame for what he actually did himself?
By essentially leaving out authors like Tony Summers, George Michael Evica and their more current efforts, El Exigente had reduced the two decades of research into the JFK case into a morass of eccentricity and confusion. But even more, he had made it so unattractive, so bizarre, and so pointless, that his article would discourage anyone else from entering the field. Which, of course, is what the Texas Monthly has always wanted to do.
But there were another lacunae in The Demanding One's work. In his introduction to Travels with Dr. Death, the author writes about the JFK case as such: "And so investigation begets investigation begets re-investigation, and still the ghost of Oswald lurks in the static with that inscrutable smirk on his face..." What he is referring to is the sequence of first, the Warren Commission, then the Church Committee, and finally the HSCA. What he leaves out is what anyone who is familiar with those inquiries knows. The Warren Commission was not an investigation at all. It was controlled by the information given to it by the FBI and the CIA. And since the Commission had no independent investigators, it really had no choice but to go along with those two bodies. Even, as we have just noted, when they were being lied to. There is no better example of this than the Commission's non-investigation of Oswald's alleged journey to Mexico City. If El Exigente had interviewed either Eddie Lopez or Dan Hardway-the co-authors of the HSCA's classified report on that subject-he would have understood that. But there is no trace that he did, or even considered doing so.
The Church Committee was not an investigation of Kennedy's murder. It was an investigation of the performance of the intelligence agencies in service to the Warren Commission. And it was quite negative about that performance. Scoring both the Bureau and the Agency for not being fully candid or timely with important information. Like, for instance, keeping the CIA's Castro assassination plots secret from both the Kennedys and the Commission. In fact, the 1975 Church Committee was the first time that the plots were fully revealed. This was 11 years after the Warren Commission. But as far as the actual facts of the assassination, the Church Committee did not really investigate that aspect. But if El Exigente had talked to the co-chair of that committee, Sen. Richard Schweiker, he would have gotten an earful about 1.) How bad the Warren Commission really was 2.) Oswald's status as a U. S. intelligence agent, and 3.) A guy named Maurice Bishop who he learned was CIA officer David Phillips, and who had been seen with Oswald in late August of 1963 in Dallas by a prominent Cuban exile official. Again, there is no evidence in the article that The Demanding One interviewed Schweiker, or even considered doing so. And, if you can believe it, after Summers, Evica and the HSCA, there is no mention of Phillips in the entire essay.
Concerning what he refers to as the "re-investigation", Rosenbaum is actually referring to the House Select Committee on Assassinations. What's kind of startling, even for someone as undemanding as Rosenbaum, is that there is no notice in the essay about the split in leadership in that committee. That is, Rosenbaum does not at all describe how the first Chief Counsel, celebrated Philadelphia prosecutor Richard Sprague, was replaced by Cornell law professor Robert Blakey. Most commentators would agree that this was a very important part of the tale. Some would say it was the key part of what happened to the Committee. Or, as Bernard Fensterwald once said, "The House Select Committee sure went all to hell in a hand basket" after this. (The Assassinations, edited by James DiEugenio and Lisa Pease, p. 69) And most chroniclers would agree with that assessment.
Why? Because Sprague was going to conduct an all out, full court, homicide investigation. Using his own professional investigators, his own experts, with no agreements with the FBI or CIA about what could be withheld from the committee or what was considered out of bounds for investigation or publication. In other words, for the first time, the Kennedy case was really going to be investigated at a federal level. We all know what happened to Sprague. Much like Jim Garrison, he was vilified in the press and infiltrators were sent in to the committee to foul his relationship with Committee chairman Henry Gonzalez. (DiEugenio and Pease, pgs. 59-61)
What came from Blakey's leadership was something quite different. As Cyril Wecht has stated, it was a much more controlled operation. It was much more friendly and cooperative with the FBI and CIA. And it was also much more interested in upholding the main findings of the Warren Commission. As we have just seen, the main way Blakey did this was through the now discredited bullet lead testing of Vincent Guinn. Also, there was never any real examination of the three shells at the so-called "sniper's nest". Something that has been now brought into serious question. (DiEugenio, Destiny Betrayed, 2nd edition, pgs. 343-44) So when Rosenbaum calls the HSCA a "reinvestigation" he is using that word much more liberally than the facts allow. And, perhaps more importantly, Rosenbaum is not telling the reader why it turned out so poorly. Or that Blakey's "Mob did It" hypothesis was never accepted by most of the critical community. In fact, it was his fig leaf for disguising what the real findings of his committee were. Which he then tried to classify for fifty years. Until the creation of the ARRB. (For a fuller discussion of why this happened, see DiEugenio, pgs. 325-45, and DiEugenio and Pease, pgs. 51-89)
In other words, what El Exigente leaves out of his long essay is this rather important fact: There has never been a genuine investigation of the murder of President Kennedy by the federal government. And that is why so many questions abound and why private citizens spend so much time on it. But his editors at Texas Monthly wouldn't have liked that. Because it would have given away Ron's game and exposed his El Exigente posturing as a cheap and transparent Wizard of Oz facade.
But the above is only half the story about Ron Rosenbaum. And one has to understand the other half if one is to fully grasp his opening salvo on the coming November War for America's historical consciousness. The other half is this: Rosenbaum is one of a vanishing breed. In fact, it's almost an extinct breed. For he is one of the very few men in America who still admires former CIA Counter-Intelligence Chief James Angleton. In fact, way back in October of 1983, just one month before he wrote his hit piece for Texas Monthly, he penned an all too kind article about the defrocked officer for Harper's. Right before the 20th anniversary of President Kennedy's death. Was this just a coincidence? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
But as we shall see, El Exigente does the same thing with Angleton as he does with the critics. Except in reverse. He hides the worst aspects, softens the weak spots, and covers up the man's disasters. And, most necessary of all, he completely censors Angleton's associations with Oswald. In other words, he repeats today in 2013, what he started back in 1983.