Tuesday, 10 December 2013 22:30

Larry Sabato, the Kennedy Assassination, and the Rise of the Post-Modern Sound Bite Scholar

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Self-promotion by adopting the right talking points characterizes the work of people like Sabato, eager to become televised mouthpieces of establishment propaganda in an age of dying empire, writes Mike Swanson.


Dozens of new books have been published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Many of them are breaking new ground.

The JFK research community has come a long way in just the past twenty years. I first got interested in the assassination right before Oliver Stone's JFK movie was released and probably read thirty or so book around that time. They all pointed to one theory or another. It was easy for someone new to the topic to get lost in the deluge of counter theories.

But things have changed since then. I went to a conference of the leading JFK assassination researchers in Pittsburgh last month, organized by the famous forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht and his son. It was called "Passing the Torch."

I don't pretend to have all of the answers, but it became clear to me at this event that something of a consensus has emerged in the JFK research community pointing to elements of the government being involved. In particular men working with Cuban exiles associated with Operation Mongoose, the CIA operation to subvert Cuba and overthrow Castro after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, have come under increasing suspicion. Simply put more has become known thanks to the release of government files following the JFK movie. And people are still learning things and there are yet to be documents to be released.

Not only are new details of the suspicious characters around Oswald, and the mystery man himself, being discovered, but we now have a much better understanding of what was actually going during Kennedy's Presidency.

To name just one example a new work is being developed by a scholar at the UVA Miller Center based on Presidential tapes about Kennedy's policies in Vietnam and moves towards withdrawal he made in the last year of his life. The release of new tapes and records over the past fifteen years show that Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff had sharp disagreements over Cuba, Vietnam, and nuclear weapons policies. They had what can only be described as dismal relations with each other.

Even popular mainstream historians like Robert Dallek are touching upon this area – and it is hard not to find out some of these things and wonder about the assassination itself. As Douglas Horne, who worked for the Assassination Archives Review Board put it JFK "was at war" with the national security state. But some things have never changed. During this anniversary year if you have watched November's TV specials you would not know of any of this new information. National Geographic's testament to the Kennedy assassination was the retread boring Killing Kennedy movie. Almost all network news broadcasts managed to stick to the lone assassin line and promote only those books and authors that conform with the proper talking points.

One exception I saw shows you the straight jacket that is television. CNN's Piers Morgan had Jesse Ventura on to discuss the government shutdown that was going on at the time and Ventura's new book about the assassination called They Killed Our President. The book isn't designed to solve the murder, but to present some of the dozens upon dozens of facts pointing to a conspiracy.

Morgan looked at Ventura and his book and just repeated over and over again that he thought there was no conspiracy, because he said he talked to former Secret Service agent Clint Hill and he told him there wasn't one. Ventura countered by listing some of the things in his book and Morgan completely dismissed him, treating Ventura as if he was merely making it all up. At the end of the interview Morgan said this was spot, because it made for a great "talking point." You can see this discussion in this video at around the five minute mark:

The ugly truth is that many people have made fortunes off of the assassination by creating books that line up with exactly the talking points required of them to get praised by the TV media. Gerald Posner's work Case Closed did this following Oliver Stone's movie and he became a celebrated talking head for a few years until he fell into a nasty plagiarism scandal.

Vincent Bugliosi took his place for a few years with his doorstop sized book Reclaiming History, which has been demolished by James DiEugenio in a recent book. But it seems like the overwhelming size of the book made it so that it was difficult to catch on with the general public, even though it became a vehicle for Bugliosi to get on TV and be used as a counterpoint whenever a reasonable author who wrote a book about the darker aspects of the assassination got on TV, as when Chris Mathews used him as an attack dog against David Talbot when he did a segment on his Brothers Book.

But Bugliosi seems to have disappeared. The Tom Hanks Parkland movie, which was credited as having been based upon his work, totally bombed at the box office. It was just too banal and boring. But a few have come into the picture to try to use the Kennedy assassination to get on TV this 50th anniversary and promote themselves by delivering the right talking points.

There is probably no better example of this than University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato. Sabato's book The Kennedy Half Century was written by a team of people at the UVA Center for Politics, which Sabato runs. It is really three small books in one. The first part of it is a fast recap of Kennedy's political career, the second part deals with the assassination and the final part of the book is his "legacy" with examples of how the Presidents since President Kennedy claimed his mantel from time to time.

I found the first and last part of the book to actually be the weakest parts of it. The amount of research that went into them just seemed to be very thin. The first part in particular really added nothing new and seemed to have little understanding of Kennedy's real legacy and his foreign policy. For example he claimed that the Soviets put missiles in Cuba, because they perceived that Kennedy was a weak man after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion who wouldn't do anything in response. In reality Khrushchev put missiles in Cuba out of desperation – he had fallen behind the United States in the nuclear arms race and put missiles in Cuba as a hail marry pass to try to force Kennedy into making some sort of deal. It was something the Soviets did out of weakness – they perceived the United States as being the stronger and more aggressive party, which is exactly the opposite of what Sabato claims in his book.

We know all this because of the work of Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali and their book Khruschchev's Cold War, based in part on transcripts of Soviet Politburo records. This book is seven years old now and an important part of the scholarship. You would think Sabato would know of it, especially since Naftali used to work at the UVA Miller Center in the Presidential recordings program. Incredibly when I looked at the acknowledgements to his book it appeared that Sabato did not consult with hardly anyone there and barely any academic historians at all.

Sabato did manage to consult with Gary Mack of the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, John McAdams and TV media stars such as James Carville, Bill Moyers, and Chris Matthews. And he indeed has been able to use his book to get on the television set. You can get a feeling for what Gary Mack is about in this video:

He has been able to provide TV producers with the correct talking points. Sabato has made a career out of being a minor TV celebrity able to charge $10,000 a pop speaking fees so he knows the game.

In the initial promotion for the book he was on CBS News, which put a story on its website with the headline "JFK assassination conspiracy theory 'blown out of the water' in new book, author says", to describe an interview with Sabato.

Sabato said he commissioned a study of dictabelt recordings that the Congressional House Select Committee on Assassinations used that they said showed that more than three shots were fired, which would mean there was a conspiracy. Sabato said he had "new" evidence that he commissioned by a sound analysis company called Sonalysts, Inc. which proved that the HSCA study was flawed. But in reality other researchers who studied these tapes in the early 1980's came to the same conclusion, so there was nothing "new" in what Sabato said. The tapes aren't important in the big picture.

But his claim enabled him to make a big splash and get on TV, because it made for a great politically correct talking point. Nonetheless, there is much more evidence of a conspiracy than these tapes and Sabato knows this. He also knows that over 80% of the American people do not believe in the Warren Commission and so to be someone who simply mouths the Warren Commission line can damage one's image with today's public.

However, to talk of conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination means becoming toxic to American TV news producers. It could mean the end of being a talking head. When I was at UVA over fifteen years ago, in the graduate history program, I had one professor tell me that to write about the Kennedy assassination would make a career in academia impossible. That wasn't because of something about UVA in particular, but the reality of the way the topic is treated by the mainstream media and upper reaches of establishment research. It's simply not politically correct to talk about and you'll be blacked out by TV if you do. It would be like being against slavery in the pre-Civil War American South.

Despite what I've said so far, the strongest part of Sabato's book is actually his section on the assassination. Even though I do not agree with his conclusions, he does make some interesting comments, and you can tell from the footnotes that more research went into putting this part of the book together than the rest of it.

Sabato argues that the "establishment view, even today, in the halls of government and many media organizations" is "that it is irresponsible to question the 'carefully considered' conclusions of the Warren Commission report." Sabato warns that there are some who consider it close to being a threat to national security. "Further, say the lone gunman theory's advocates, the widespread accusations that senior political, governmental, and military figures participated in the planning, execution, or cover-up of the assassination of President Kennedy have damaged the image of the United States around the globe, fueling anti-American sentiments by undermining the very basis of our democratic system, " he explains. In such a siege atmosphere it is no surprise that TV news producers have stuck managed to keep themselves within the bounds of the proper "responsible" talking points. And so has Sabato.

Sabato declares to his reader that "given the lack of hard evidence, to accuse any arm or agency of the federal government of orchestrating Kennedy's assassination is both irresponsible and disingenuous." However, it is hard for anyone who studies the assassination by going beyond the Warren Commission's final report to escape the conclusion that there was more to the assassination than Oswald. On the day after the assassination at President Lyndon Johnson's first morning meeting as President CIA director John McCone told him that Lee Harvey Oswald went to the Cuban and Soviet embassies in Mexico City and had contact with a dangerous KGB agent. After this meeting Johnson had a phone conversation with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover who told him that the evidence as it stood was not enough to convict Oswald and that someone else was in Mexico City pretending to be him. Hoover told him that information that the CIA gave him, such as taped phone conversations, that was supposed to be Oswald wasn't him.

Sabato knows that the lone assassin story simply is not credible. So he writes, "at the same time, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that a small, secret cabal of CIA hard-liners, angry about Kennedy's handling of Cuba and sensing a leftward turn on negotiations with the Soviets and the prosecution of the war in Vietnam, took matters into their own hands lest the United States go soft on Communism."

Sabato dismisses just about all possible conspiracy theories in his book. He claims it simply is "irresponsible" to think that elements of the United States government could be involved. He won't do that so he comes up with one possible politically correct conspiracy theory of his own buried in a footnote – "in theory, the cabal could also have been the opposite: Communist inspired. In April, 1961 FBI J. Edgar Hoover sent Attorney General Robert Kennedy a memo admitting that the Office of Strategic Services (the CIA's parent organization) had been infiltrated by a "Communist element" that "created problems and situations which even to this day affect US intelligence operations."

In other words it's a thought crime to think that some people in the United States government could have been a party to President Kennedy's assassination so if there were people like that they must have been under the control of the KGB. If the CIA killed Kennedy so to speak it did so, because it was actually a cat's paw of the KGB.

Well, look there are a lot of crazy conspiracy theories that have been peddled over the years, from the driver did it, to some Secret Service agent accidently shot the President, and on and on. Most of the theories have no real proof, but what Sabato proposes is one of the craziest theories I've ever seen in print. In fact the idea that the CIA was under the control of the KGB is more of a nightmare than any of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories.

Sabato tries to appeal to all sides in his book. On one hand he says that there are plenty of reasons to believe in a conspiracy, because the Warren Commission was such a botched investigation, but in the end he comes down on the side of believing in the single assassin theory, but does little to convince the reader of that. It's a line though that he uses to get on TV.

You can watch Sabato essentially play for the TV in this interview making big talking point sound bites:

In this interview Sabato makes the big claim that Oswald is the only person who killed Kennedy, but "we'll never know" the truth. Of course that's a nonsensical statement, because if it's only Oswald than what is there not to know so to speak? But it's the proper politically correct talking point for TV news. Sabato doesn't provide a shred of evidence in this TV appearance explaining why he thinks Oswald is the only person involved.

Now In his book Sabato has a few paragraphs of evidence in support of the Oswald did it alone story in his giant book. The evidence Sabato marshals is that Oswald "is the only logical suspect from the Depository, the place where he worked from and from which he fled. The murder weapon was Oswald's, his palm print was on the gun, and (despite the dispute over the size of Oswald's 'curtain rods' package) he likely brought it to work with him the morning of the assassination." He also says Oswald shot the policeman J.D. Tippit and "four bullets were retrieved from Tippit's body, one of which matched Oswald's revolver."

However, Henry Hurt's book Reasonable Doubt demolished most of this more than twenty years ago. Hurt found that the crime scene investigator left marks on the bullets at the Tippit slaying that were not on the bullets used as evidence by the Warren Commission. The palm print was not on the gun when it was first examined by the authorities and only later magically appeared on it. I cite Hurt's book, because it an excellent account of the evidence and Sabato cites him in his acknowledgments, so surely he must know of these things. He may not know of John Armstrong's work Harvey and Lee which even puts Oswald purchase and ownership of the rifle in doubt, because it is newer. Who can read every single Kennedy assassination book?

Do we even need to talk, though, about the medical evidence and all of the doctors at Parkland who saw the back of Kennedy's head shot out by an exit wound? To make a long story short the evidence against Oswald is a joke and Sabato only spends a few paragraphs in his book using it in support of the lone assassin story.

To his credit though Sabato does talk about the contradictory evidence. I just think a reader will be left with more confusion than answers from it. In the end though what is most interesting about Sabato's book and media appearances is his talking line stance. He does not merely play the same card of a Posner or Bugliosi and try to merely uphold the Warren Commission one more time.

Instead he tries to recognize the disbelief of the public and still keep to the required talking points message to be acceptable to the Washington beltway media establishment. He is indeed "responsible" to the Washington power structure. We live in an era of economic malaise and an empire falling apart. The power elites are failing this nation and the assassination of President Kennedy will be seen decades from now as an event that took us to where we are.

The way the Kennedy assassination is being treated by the media 50 years after the event is an example of how disjointed the Washington elites and TV talking heads are from the rest of the nation, but they are where true power in the United States rests. So enter Sabato and his positioning. It's an interesting play he has made – and the right one when it comes to getting on TV and selling books as a result. He can now charge for more speaking appearances as a Kennedy assassination expert, because the TV proclaimed him to be one.

Sabato says that many inside the Washington beltway crowd and national TV producers fear that talk of a Kennedy assassination conspiracy is a potential danger to national security, because it can cause people to doubt the United States government and lash out at it.

But to take such a rigid position does one have to sacrifice the search for truth in order to hold onto a proper political line? That is not what scholarship is about.

Nor is that what journalism is about either, but there is a big difference between it and what passes as "reporting" on TV. TV news does very little real investigative work to what really is going on in the economy and the government.

A few weeks before the November anniversary of the JFK assassination CBS News "Face the Nation" aired a segment about a new book on the subject that contained evidence that the Warren Commission covered up facts.

When it was her turn to talk about the book popular talking head Peggy Noonan said that as a nation we were lucky that the truth didn't come out, because it could have been "destabilizing." She seemed to suggest that she agreed with covering things up.

The book being discussed doesn't say there was a conspiracy so it's safe enough to talk about on TV. It just says there were things being covered up, but they cause people to ask too many questions, so Noonan is thankful for the cover-up.

Then reporter Bob Woodward and Noonan spoke of a "deep state" that engages in covert operations and mass surveillance in the name of national security, saying the things being covered up in regards to the JFK assassination is a part of the "deep state" activities. I call it the war state. But they seem to have no problem with cover-ups.

This "Face the Nation" segment is in essence an argument in justification of the JFK assassination cover-up.

The phrase "deep state" was created by professor Peter Dale Scott to explain the Kennedy assassination.

Is the duty of a journalist to hide government secrets? That seems like a slippery slope that leads to becoming a sycophant or propagandist. That is not what journalism is about.

TV news acted as a cheerleader for the war in Iraq and asked no questions before it started. It wasn't until it turned into a total disaster that they asked a few questions and then they simply stopped reporting on it all together.

They never talk about the war in Afghanistan. They failed to recognize the problems that led into the 2008 financial crisis and fail to even talk about the problems of debt inflation caused by the Federal Reserve today.

If you think back to just the past few months and how TV news has reported on the NSA spying revelations you can see how it has done almost no real investigative work and acted simply as a mouthpiece for power.

Instead of really digging into what the NSA spy programs are doing to the American people and the legal issues surrounding them TV news made the story about Snowden and the real journalists that were doing research into the affair and demonized them as enemies.

The journalist Glen Greenwald has been at the forefront of breaking the story about NSA spying. When he appeared on MSNBC talking head reporter David Gregory attacked him and questioned him on whether he should be considered a criminal and virtual enemy of the state. You can see this in this video clip:

It isn't hard to imagine that if producers of shows such as this think that to investigate the JFK assassination could threaten national security than they could easily conclude that to investigate the NSA spy programs is too.

The problem is the press is supposed to investigate government and look for wrongdoings and crimes. It is supposed to act as a watchdog for the people – and if it doesn't something is seriously wrong.

It also means that to make oneself into a TV news talking head celebrity one has to make giant sacrifices of integrity. One has to be willing not to care about searching for the truth and to conform to the correct talking points and political lines. It means becoming a professional propagandist instead of a scholar.

It's sad to think that some people have to do this to become acceptable and important in the circles of power in the United States and you know they must suffer in one way or another. You know that if they have a conscience they have trouble sleeping at night and feel like in the end they are not leaving much of a legacy behind. They end up being either cowards or total opportunists.

I want to say one last thing. Sabato has claimed in at least one TV appearance "we will never know" the real truth when it comes to the assassination. He never asks if that is true, then why? The answer would be simple: lack of political will by the men in Washington. When I see Sabato on TV and read his book I feel like he really doesn't even care what the truth is. He is mostly interested in being credible and "responsible" for the TV producers. In reality much of the truth is sitting there and more is being discovered – it's just not politically correct for the TV to talk about it.

But Sabato seems to be an example of today's post-modern scholar. Right before the financial crash of 2008 there were economists doing "research" to "prove" that everything was great with the financial system and that mortgage backed securities and other such inventions were wonderful "innovations." Some were paid to go to countries with troubled debt situations and say everything was great. They were complicit in the crash that helped bring today's economic mess. The story of one was detailed in the movie Inside Job. It was a story NEVER revealed on CNBC – and never will be:

Men such as this were "post-modern" economists who catered to their paymasters. It is in small movies like this, books, internet sites, and newspaper articles that real journalism, scholarship, and investigative reporting takes place. The TV has failed to ever dig anything up about the Kennedy assassination in fifty years and has failed to inform the public about the reality of the economy, the recent wars associated with the "war on terror," and the depth of the NSA spy programs. Instead it simply repeats talking points and TV producers seem to always be able find people willing to say and do anything to get on TV and mouth the establishment propaganda lines in this age of dying empire and transition into a new age.

Last modified on Saturday, 15 October 2016 18:24

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