With his book Brothers David Talbot has improved as a commentator on both the Kennedy presidency and JFK's assassination. For those unfamiliar with Talbot's earlier foray into the field, let me provide some background.
On March 29,1992, on the eve of the Oscar presentations, Talbot wrote an article on the film JFK for a periodical he edited called Image Magazine, published by the San Francisco Examiner. In the first paragraph (p. 17) he ridiculed Stone's thesis -- that Kennedy was cut down by those in government who were opposed to his goals of peace and social justice-- as a "story" that "Stone and company" were peddling (he mentioned others in the "company" as Mark Lane and Jim Garrison). He then offered up an alternative view of the assassination that he wrote "has been quietly gaining credibility. According to this school of thought, Jack Kennedy met a violent end because he was as much a prince of darkness as he was of light." (Ibid) He then spent seven pages offering up what was basically the idea behind that ridiculous book Double Cross: that far from being an enemy of the Mob, " John Kennedy's links with the underworld are well-established." But this did not stop him from "unleashing his brother ... to hound the godfathers of organized crime ... The supremely confident Jack Kennedy thought he could have it both ways. He couldn't, and he paid the ultimate price for his hubris." (p. 18) Talbot knew a guy who was savvy about the case and would steer his readers straight. His name was Robert Blakey and his book Fatal Hour presented " a compelling case for a darker interpretation of Camelot." (Ibid) He also had another talismanic book in hand. It was on Marilyn Monroe and her death: Goddess by Anthony Summers. ( In deference to Summers, part of the article included a defense of the Warren Commission.) Talbot also praised Mafia Kingfish by John Davis and described the three mentioned books as "careful and thorough" and "of a far higher grade than that of the wild-eyed theorists who are grabbing the spotlight." Just when you thought the piece could not get any worse, it did. Talbot has "intriguing new evidence", the claims of Mafia lawyer Frank Ragano:
Blakey ... says flatly, "I believe Frank Ragano. He was in a position to know." Investigative journalist Dan Moldea, whose 1978 book on Hoffa was the first to draw a link between organized crime and the assassination, says, "The Ragano story is the most important breakthrough on the case since the House report." (p. 23)
About John Newman's then important new work on JFK's intent to withdraw from Vietnam and Stone's use of it, Talbot quotes Summers thusly: "There is as much evidence that JFK was shot because of his Vietnam policy as that he was done in by a jealous mistress with a bow and arrow."(p. 24) Blakey further contravenes Stone by saying that both the CIA and FBI "loved Jack Kennedy" since many were Irish Catholics.
I am not misrepresenting the piece in any way. Quite the contrary. Talbot even gave space to two of the very worst and dishonest Kennedy chroniclers, namely Ron Rosenbaum and Thomas Reeves. But the good news is that in Brothers Talbot has largely reversed field. Today he criticizes people who write like he formerly did about the Kennedys, e.g. Christopher Hitchens. But the bad news is that he can't quite go the last yard. He can't quite let go of some of the empty baggage above. And this mars the good work in the volume.
The book has a neat plan to it. It begins with Robert Kennedy's reaction to the news of his brother's death in Dallas. The structure then flashes back to a year-by-year review of the Kennedy presidency. It then picks up again with RFK after his brother's death, and then follows him forward through to 1968 and his own assassination. It concludes with a summary of the actions taken to try and resolve the issues surrounding both assassinations since 1968. The book takes in a lot of space without being verbose or pretentiously bulky. Which, after the likes of Ultimate Sacrifice, is a relief. Further in this regard, Talbot is a skillful writer. So the book is not at all difficult to read.
In many ways, the first chapter is the best in the book. It opens with J. Edgar Hoover telling RFK that his brother has been shot. In conversations with two assistants, Bobby immediately refers to the perpetrator of the crime as "they" and not "him". He instinctively believes that the crime centers around the CIA, the Mafia and Cuba and he begins to question people with access to each group, including John McCone, Director of the CIA. (pgs. 6-9) When the body arrives back in Washington, RFK questions Secret Service agents Roy Kellerman and James Rowley and finds that both believe there was a crossfire in Dealey Plaza.
Talbot then builds an argument that this early conclusion is what caused Robert Kennedy to take control of the president's autopsy exhibits, specifically the brain and tissue slides. Further, Talbot adduces evidence that RFK actually thought of taking the limousine also. After Oswald is killed by Ruby, Bobby begins to focus on the Mob and has labor lawyer Julius Draznin submit a report on Ruby's labor racketeering activities. RFK then told his friend Pat Moynihan to investigate the Secret Service while Bobby interviewed agent Clint Hill himself.
This chapter closes with a review of William Walton's mission to Moscow in the wake of President Kennedy's assassination. This extraordinary tale first surfaced in 1997 in one of the two best books on the Cuban Missile Crisis, One Hell of a Gamble. (The other volume being The Kennedy Tapes, published the same year.) Talbot goes into the background of Walton and why he was sent by RFK and Jackie Kennedy to send a secret message via Georgi Bolshakov who the Kennedys had used previously during the Missile Crisis as a back channel. RFK told Walton to see Bolshakov before he even reported to the American ambassador Foy Kohler. Bobby thought Kohler was anti-Kennedy, and a hardliner who could not get anything real done with the Russians. (p. 31) This new message had been presaged by another talk RFK had with the Russian in 1962. At that time Bobby told Bolshakov that Khrushchev did not seem to realize that every step his brother took to meet the premier "halfway costs my brother a lot of effort ... .In a gust of blind hate, his enemies may go to any length, including killing him." (p. 32)
The new message fulfilled the earlier prophecy. Walton told Bolshakov that the president's brother and widow believed that JFK had been killed by a large political conspiracy. And although Lee Harvey Oswald was a former defector and alleged Castro sympathizer, they believed the conspiracy was domestic. Further, they felt that Lyndon Johnson would not be able to fulfill President Kennedy's grand design for Russo/American dÈtente. That design would have to be filled by RFK who would find a temporary political base and then run for president himself. Walton said in this regard that "Robert agreed completely with his brother and, more important, actively sought to bring John F. Kennedy's ideas to fruition." (p. 33)
Talbot sums up the multi-layered significance of this momentous mission this way: "There is no other conclusion to reach. In the days following his brother's bloody ouster, Robert Kennedy placed more trust in the Soviet government than the one he served." (p. 34) From here, Talbot launches into a three chapter review of the Kennedy presidency which is meant to demonstrate why RFK felt more comfortable conveying his hidden suspicions about Dallas to the Soviets rather than say to the Warren Commission.
This chapter is the highlight of the book. It may be one of the most important ever written on either the Kennedy presidency, or Robert Kennedy himself. It basically confirms through much firsthand evidence what many have suspected. First, whatever Bobby said in public about the Warren Commission was only a figleaf. From the beginning, he never believed the lone gunman mythology. He always suspected a powerful domestic conspiracy. Second, he was going to bide his time. He would wait until he was in position to do something about the crime. But he would not jeopardize his path to get to that position by making public comments that would make him a media target in America. As pointed out by people like Jim Garrison and Harold Weisberg, this strategy entailed its own dangers. For enough people knew about Bobby's suspicions and goals to let the word reach out to others in the power elite. And this is probably one of the chief reasons for what happened in Los Angeles in June of 1968. In fact, both Harold Weisberg and Vincent Salandria predicted that if Bobby won that California primary, and if he remained silent in the interim, he would be killed before he won the presidency. Although Talbot does not go this far in explicit terms, his book is pregnant with that implication. I believe this is the first time that this message, however subliminal, has been contained in a book that reached a mainstream audience. That is a real and salutary accomplishment. In this regard, Talbot deserves kudos.
The second section of the book is a review of the Kennedy presidency that is meant to explain why RFK felt the way he did at the time of the assassination. This is about 200 pages long and takes up Chapters 2-4. Although generally good, it is much more a mixed bag.
He opens this with an analysis of the Bay of Pigs debacle. He comes to the conclusion that others have before him: the CIA knew it would fail and they were counting on Kennedy to cave and send in the Navy to complete the job. He quotes the declassified CIA Inspector General Report as saying that the planners actually knew they needed help form the Pentagon in order for the operation to succeed. (p. 48) From this disaster he rightly notes that the die was now cast between the national security apparatus and JFK. He quotes Navy Secretary Arleigh Burke as saying "Mr. Kennedy was a very bad president ... He permitted himself to jeopardize the nation." (p. 50) He then quotes Kennedy as saying, "We're not going to plunge into an irresponsible action just because a fanatical fringe in this country puts so-called national pride above national reason." (p. 51) Arthur Schlesinger told Talbot that after the Bay of Pigs Kennedy dismissed the Joint Chiefs "as a bunch of old men. He thought (JCS Chairman) Lemnitzer was a dope." (Ibid) It is at this pivotal point that Kennedy began to withdraw from his formal advisers with disdain and turn more to people like quasi-pacifist Ted Sorenson, Pierre Salinger, and his brother Robert. (p. 52) And he actually told Walton, "I am almost a "peace-at-any-price president." (p. 53)
Since Talbot correctly sees the Bay of Pigs as a (perhaps "the") seminal event in Kennedy's presidency, it is profitable to note his approach to the subject. Although his analysis is skillful, pointed, and shrewd, it is not really deep or detailed. There are many things he leaves out which could be used to strengthen his beliefs about its being designed to fail, and how the CIA was opposed to Kennedy's plans for its outcome all along. For instance, he does not mention the assassination plans, which were kept from Kennedy. He doesn't write about Operation Forty, which the CIA designed to wipe out the Kennedy Cubans and their leadership so the CIA/Batista Cubans would prevail in Havana. Although he later writes about Operation Northwoods, he doesn't write about the Guantanamo provocation part of the Bay of Pigs, which although it was aborted, would have almost insured an American response. In the aftermath, although he mentions Kennedy's firing of Dulles and Director of Plans Dick Bissell, he leaves out the termination of Deputy Director Charles Cabell. Yet it was Pentagon man Cabell who was at CIA headquarters that night trying to get the analysts to tell Kennedy that the Cubans were using Russian MIG's to strafe the exiles on the beach. This was utterly false but would have put pressure on Kennedy to send in American planes to knock them down. So although his discussion of the incident is good and correct, I believed it lacks texture and layered depth. I point this out because it is generally symptomatic of how Talbot treats the two other great confrontations of the Kennedy presidency, namely the Missile Crisis and the decision to withdraw from Vietnam. He is deft and accurate in his appraisal of these events, but he leaves out some valuable information that I think would aid his argument and make it more compelling to his reader. For example, although he believes that Kennedy was disengaging from Vietnam he writes that the only White House document that gave some indication of this was NSAM 263. (p. 216) This ignores, among others, the record of the May 1963 Sec/Def meeting which clearly shows that the administration was withdrawing from the conflagration and rapidly increasing the Vietnamization of the war. (Probe Vol. 5 No. 3) It also leaves out the fact that although, according to Doug Horne, the ARRB tried very hard to find a similar record for the famous Honolulu Conference of November 20, 1963, they could not. This meeting resulted in the tentative draft of NSAM 273, which was then pointedly altered after Kennedy was assassinated. These alterations were so serious that in his fine book JFK and Vietnam, John Newman titles his chapter on the subject, "NSAM-273 -- The Dam Breaks." (Newman, p. 445) (Surprisingly, Talbot does not include that key volume in his bibliography.) Another surprise in this section is what I see as an error of omission. The author completely ignores the entire Congo crisis. Which, in my view, is almost an object lesson in Kennedy's foreign policy thinking versus the Republican-Democratic establishment. Why Talbot would discuss the Dominican Republic crisis, and not the almost epochal struggle of Patrice Lumumba and Kennedy in Africa, is puzzling. And again, it is surprising to me that Talbot does not list in his bibliography Richard Mahoney's sterling book on the subject, JFK: Ordeal in Africa. It is simply one of the three or four best books on Kennedy's foreign policy views in existence.
But there is much to like in this section. There is a fascinating interview with Dick Goodwin in which he describes his long discussion with Che Guevara about a peaceful co-existence agreement with Kennedy. And how when this overture got out, Barry Goldwater called for Goodwin's head. Talbot describes the infamous meeting in July of 1961 where Lemnitzer and Dulles recommended plans for a nuclear first strike against Russia on Kennedy. Talbot also describes how Kennedy, feeling the heat from the organized opposition to his liberal foreign policy, was forced to demote both Goodwin add Chester Bowles at the end of 1961.
The book features a good discussion of the CIA-Mafia plots to kill Castro. In this section he is explicit about the duplicity of Richard Helms in attempting to switch the blame for those plots from the CIA to the Kennedys. (pgs 87-88) He neatly notes that Helms had photos of all the presidents he served except Kennedy's. He even notes that Helms in death, was still deceptive about those plots in his posthumous memoir. (p. 110) A deft stroke by Talbot in this regard is his (further) exposure of Sy Hersh's hatchet job, The Dark Side of Camelot. He notes how Hersh was so cozy with the CIA in his writing of this book that he trusted covert operator Sam Halpern. Halpern told Hersh that RFK used the late Charles Ford to activate Mafia assets in Cuba to destabilize, and even kill, Castro. Talbot found a Church Committee memorandum by Ford. In discussing his interview with them he explained that his meetings with RFK on Cuba were about "the efforts of a Cuban exile group to foment an anti-Castro uprising, not on Mafia assassination plots." (p. 123) Talbot properly concludes that Helms and Halpern "fabricated their story about Bobby Kennedy and the Mafia ... Officials like Helms and Halpern tried to deflect public outrage over their unseemly collusion by pinning the blame on the late attorney general." Talbot could have added here that Halpern should have already been suspect to Hersh because he is listed as a witness in the CIA IG Report on the plots, which never mentions any of this material. Further, Halpern was placed in charge of the internal investigation of the CIA's supersensitive Operation Forty. A report that, to my knowledge, has yet to surface. The man who placed him in that position was Helms.
There are other good sections in this part of the book. To enumerate some: there is a close-up look -- done with a new audio tape-- at JFK's disappointed reaction to the performance of the military during the James Meredith crisis at the University of Mississippi. (And he also reveals that Edwin Walker was on hand to stir up the racists against Kennedy and the military.) There is a long discussion of the character and role of the sad Lisa Howard in the famous Cuban back channel that she was instrumental in during 1963. And Talbot notes that during the Diem crisis in South Vietnam that same year, the CIA moved station chief John Richardson out of town "allowing the agency to cooperate with the South Vietnamese generals behind the plot." (p. 218) Right before this, Talbot has described the famous reports by journalists John Starnes and Arthur Krock warning how the CIA was running affairs there with no accountability to anyone. And Krock warned the president he had to get control of his administration.
But as I said, this section has peaks and valleys. Right along with the good and worthwhile work noted above, Talbot writes a section about that serial and certified liar Ed Partin (pgs 120-121). As I explained at length in my review of Ultimate Sacrifice, Partin was exposed by a group of certified polygraph technicians to be lying when he related the "death threats" by Jimmy Hoffa against RFK. How bad was he lying? To the extent that the machine had to be turned down when he was relating these urban myths. Later on, one of Partin's polygraph operators was indicted and convicted for fraud. Yet Talbot blindly trots out Partin once again, ignoring both these facts, and the man's past record of crimes. (I chalk this up to Talbot's swallowing Walter Sheridan whole, an issue I will deal with later.) I was even more surprised when Talbot used none other than Angelo Murgado as another "RFK insider" (pgs. 177-182, 269-270). I dealt with this shady character in my review of Joan Mellen's book on Jim Garrison, A Farewell to Justice. Talbot even writes that his tale has not been refuted. (p. 180) Apparently he did not read my discussion of Murgado's tortuous and tendentious revision of the Odio incident in the previous book. But he still buys the Murgado line about RFK using Cubans like Murgado and Manuel Artime as his own private intelligence force. Further, that they knew about Oswald in advance. Wisely, Talbot does not reveal who Murgado's other pal in the intelligence operation was, namely Bernardo DeTorres. If he had, some readers would have started raising their eyebrows.
Finally, in this regard, I must comment on the book's treatment of JFK and Mary Meyer. I was quite surprised that, as with Sheridan, Talbot swallowed the whole apple on this one. As I have written, (The Assassinations pgs 338-345), any serious chronicler has to be just as careful with this episode as with Judith Exner -- and to his credit, Talbot managed to avoid that disinformation filled land mine. Before criticizing him on this, and before I get smeared by people like Jon Simkin, I want to make a public confession. I actually believed the Meyer nonsense at one time. In fact, to my everlasting chagrin, I discussed it -- Timothy Leary and all -- at a talk I did in San Francisco about a year after Oliver Stone's JFK came out. It wasn't until I began to examine who Leary was, who his associates were, and how he fit into the whole explosion of drugs into the USA in the sixties and seventies that I began to question who he was. In light of this, I then reexamined his Mary Meyer story, and later the whole legerdemain around this fanciful tale. Thankfully, Talbot does not go into the whole overwrought "mystery" about her death and her mythologized diary. But he eagerly buys into everything else. Yet to do this, one has to believe some rather unbelievable people. And you then have to ignore their credibility problems so your more curious readers won't ask any questions. For if they do the whole edifice starts to unravel.
Foremost among this motley crew is Leary. As I was the first to note, there is a big problem with his story about Meyer coming to him in 1962 for psychedelic drugs. Namely, he didn't write about it for 21 years previous --until 1983. He wrote about 25 books in the meantime. (Sort of like going through 25 FBI, Secret Service, and DPD interviews before you suddenly recall seeing Oswald on the sixth floor.) Yet it was not until he hooked up with the likes of Gordon Liddy that he suddenly recalled, with vivid memory, supplying Mary with LSD and her mentioning of her high official friend and commenting, "They couldn't control him any more. He was changing too fast" etc. etc. etc. Another surprising source Talbot uses here is none other than CIA counter-intelligence chief James Angleton, the guy who was likely handling Oswald until 1962. Talbot actually quotes the nutty Cold Warrior, Kennedy antagonist and Warren Commission cover up artist waxing poetic about Kennedy being in love with Mary: "They were in love ... they had something very important." (p. 199) This from a man who, later on, Talbot admits loathed JFK and actually thought he was a Soviet agent.! (p. 275). A further dubious source is Jim Truitt, the former friend of Ben Bradlee who used to work for him at the Washington Post and was also friends with Angleton. Consider: Truitt had been trying to discredit President Kennedy while he was alive by saying he was previously married and had it covered up. In fact, he had pushed this fatuous story on Bradlee. And it appears that Truitt then started the whole drug angle of the story as a way of getting back at Bradlee and the Post for firing him. By 1969 he was so unstable that his wife sought a conservatorship for him and then divorced him in 1971. Truitt tried to get a job with the CIA and when he did not he moved to Mexico into a colony of former CIA agents. There he grew and smoked the mescaline-based hallucinogenic drug peyote. This was his sorry state when he first reported to the press about the "turned on" Meyer/JFK romance. He then shot himself in 1981. Here you have a guy who was a long-time Kennedy basher, became mentally unstable, was a CIA wannabe, and was planting and taking hallucinogenics with other CIA agents-- and then accuses JFK of doing the same, 14 years after the fact. Some witness, huh? I don't even want to mention the last major source Talbot uses to complete this rickety shack. I have a hard time even typing his name. But I have to. Its sleazy biographer David Heymann. Heymann wrote one of the very worst books ever published on Bobby Kennedy, and has made a lucrative career out of trashing the Kennedy family. For me, Heymann is either a notch above or below the likes of Kitty Kelley. But when you're that low, who's measuring?
Talbot makes a nice recovery from the Mary Meyer (probably CIA inspired) cesspool with his next two chapters. He now begins to focus the book on RFK. After flashing back from 11/22/63, he now returns us to that point and picks up with RFK as he begins to assimilate himself to the pain of his brother's death and his now completely altered future. He relates how Jackie Kennedy reaffirmed to Khrushchev via letter that domestic opposition to his quest for Soviet/American dÈtente had killed JFK. A concept which the Russian premier indirectly affirmed in his memoir when he wrote that if Kennedy had lived the two could have brought a peaceful coexistence to the world.
Talbot quickly sketches in the fact that with his brother gone, Bobby was now under Hoover's thumb. For example, when he met with Hoffa, to presumably talk about the assassination, RFK had to borrow Jackie's Secret Service detail for protection. And after a deep period of melancholia, during which he actually wore his brother's clothes, he decided that he would not give a quest for truth about Dallas. But he felt he could not move while he was slipping from power or, as he said, "there would be blood in the streets." (p. 268) In addition to Hoover now superceding him, LBJ cut him out of intelligence briefings while, at the same time, Allen Dulles lobbied to get on the Warren Commission. (pgs. 273-274) And when the Warren Report was issued in September of 1964, RFK coyly commented, "I have not read the report, nor do I intend to." (p. 280) Talbot quotes an aide whom Johnson had charged with reading the report that LBJ didn't believe it either. (p. 289) Furthering this point about people in power, the author adds to his non-believer list Larry O'Brien, Mayor Richard Daley, and Kennedy aides Fred Dutton and Richard Goodwin. Goodwin specifically pointed to a plot between the CIA and the Mafia. (p. 303) And to further accent the point that neither JFK's nor RFK's staff believed the Warren Report, Talbot writes at length about the sad fate of Kenny O'Donnell. Both he and Dave Powers heard shots from the front of the car. Yet the FBI told them both to alter their testimony. In fact, Hoover personally intervened in the case of O'Donnell. (p. 294) As time went on, O'Donnell grew increasingly angry and bitter about the performance of the Commission. He told his son, "I'll tell you this, they didn't want to know." (Ibid) And he added that it was the most pointless investigation he had ever seen. After Bobby was murdered, he acquired a serious drinking problem and died of a liver ailment at age 53. This was paralleled by the ordeal of Jackie Kennedy, who Talbot depicts as having screaming nightmares and maintaining thoughts of suicide. (p. 268)
One of the more interesting aspects of this part of the book is this observation that Talbot makes: "While the country's ruling caste -- from President Johnson on down -- muttered among themselves about a conspiracy, these same leaders worked strenuously -- with the media's collaboration -- to calm the public's fears." (pgs 284-285) Talbot then twists this via anecdote into a droll kind of humor. When discussing the views of the wife of Arthur Schlesinger about the JFK case, she said she liked Claudia Furiati's book, ZR/Rifle. Except for the part that pins the plot on Helms. She states: "I can't believe the part about Dick Helms. He was a friend of ours. We played tennis with him." (p. 291) Talbot talks to Marie Ridder, a former girlfriend of JFK, and widow of newspaper magnate Walter Ridder. She says that although Angleton was an evil genius, she didn't think he was involved with killing Kennedy. After all, he used to live next door to her. He had a lushly landscaped house and was a fabulous gardener. She concludes from this, "and a man who is a fabulous gardener is not going to kill off a president, I'm sorry." (p. 292) So the power elite believes there was a conspiracy. It just could not involve their tennis chums or neighbors.
RFK delegated the reading of the critical literature to people like Adam Walinsky. (pgs 306-307). As criticism about the Warren Report picked up speed, various critics wanted to talk directly to Bobby. He only met with one, Penn Jones. As part of his own inquiry, Bobby went to Mexico City and did some work on Oswald's trip down there. (p. 301) As his investigation continued, his enemies began to spy on him. In addition to Hoover, Talbot mentions both Helms and LBJ. (According to Talbot, Johnson greatly feared being challenged by a ticket of Kennedy and King in 1964 .) And clearly, the policy differences over places like the Dominican Republic, South Africa, Latin America, and especially Vietnam all begin to fan Johnson's fear and paranoia about an RFK run in 1968.
The worst chapter in the book, by far, is entitled "New Orleans". This is allegedly about Robert Kennedy's reaction to the investigation of the JFK case by local DA Jim Garrison. I have to use the word "allegedly" here because it seems to me that Talbot started this chapter with an assumption in mind and then piled the material in to fill out that assumption -- whether it actually did or not. Authors get in trouble when they shoehorn evidence to fit a preordained verdict. And this chapter seems to me to be troublesome from the start.
One problem seems to be a hangover from the David Talbot of 1992, the man who thought that Blakey was the ultimate authority on the JFK case and Garrison was somewhere between a circus clown and a charlatan. To say the least, the releases of the ARRB have not borne this out. And, to his credit, the author seems to have amended this judgment a bit. In spite of that, he presages his New Orleans chapter by calling it "a gaudy Louisiana legal spectacle" (p. 308). The whole first page of his introduction to Garrison the man is in a similar vein and he plays this off against the standard packaged tourist image of New Orleans pre-Katrina. (p. 319) When he introduces Garrison's investigation it is essentially more of the same. For instance, about the arrest of Clay Shaw, Talbot writes, "But to Garrison, he was a CIA-linked international businessman. . .." Today, there can be no "buts" about it. Shaw was not just "linked" to the CIA, he worked for them. We have this not just from the declassified files, but from FBI agent Regis Kennedy, who said, in referring to Shaw's association with Permindex, that Shaw was a CIA agent who had worked for the Agency in Italy. (Let Justice Be Done, by William Davy, p. 100) To further downplay the importance of what Garrison uncovered, Talbot quotes former RFK aide, Ed Guthman. Guthman was working as an editor for the Los Angeles Times in early 1967. He tells Talbot that he sent his ace reporters to New Orleans and they discovered that Garrison had no evidence for his charges. Guthman calls them "great reporters". If Talbot would have dug a little deeper he would have found out a couple of interesting things these "great reporters" had done. One of the "great" reporters was Jack Nelson. Nelson's source for Garrison not having any evidence was former FBI agent and Hoover informer Aaron Kohn. Kohn was, among other things, an unofficial assistant to Shaw's defense team. Another of Guthman's "great" reporters was Jerry Cohen. Cohen cooperated with FBI informant Larry Schiller in keeping Garrison from extraditing Loran Hall. This cooperation extended up to flying with Hall to Sacramento to speak to Edwin Meese. Further, Cohen kept up a correspondence with Shaw's lawyers and even Shaw himself. This is great reporting?
By page 325, we see why Talbot has set things up this way. And this directly relates to Talbot's portrait of Walter Sheridan. I was going to write that it is so warm and fuzzy that it could have been written by Sheridan's family. But I can't write that because, in large part, it was written by Sheridan's family. Namely his widow and son. Talbot interviewed the woman five times and uses her profusely and without question. Now if you are going to use people like Guthman, and Sheridan's family to profess to his good character, it leaves you with a serious problem. You now have to explain all the ugly and unethical things Sheridan did to destroy Garrison. Talbot achieves this in two ways: 1.) By recycling debunked mainstream media deceptions, and 2.) By leaving out integral parts of the story.
Concerning the former, Talbot tries to excuse Sheridan by saying that Sheridan thought Garrison was ignoring mobster Carlos Marcello. He even goes as far as saying that Garrison gave Marcello a "free pass" and referred to him as a "respectable businessman" (p. 327) This canard has been exposed for years, in fact for over a decade. Garrison busted at least three bars in New Orleans which were run either by Marcello or his associates. (Davy, pgs 154-155) Talbot does not source his "businessman" quote, but it appears he has confused Garrison with one or more local FBI agents. And it is not true that Garrison never investigated the Mafia aspect, he did. (He actually wrote a memo on it.) But he came to the conclusion, as many others have, that the Mob was a junior partner in the crime, not the engine running the machine.
Talbot then writes something even more unsubstantiated. He says that what really got Sheridan upset with Garrison is that Garrison had somehow discovered the CIA Castro assassination plots, and how they might have backfired against JFK. For one, in the book's own terms, this is illogical. For this chapter, Talbot now writes that the plots had been "supervised by Bobby". Yet, he has clearly established previously, and convincingly, that this was not the case. The CIA had done them on their own. Secondly, I have been through a large part of the extant Garrison files. His son Lyon Garrison allowed me to copy them in New Orleans. I then had them shipped to Los Angeles and filed them in chronological and subject order. I found no evidence that Garrison himself had discovered these CIA managed plots in early 1967, which would have to be true if Talbot's thesis is to hold water. Interestingly, Talbot gives no source for Sheridan's knowledge of what Garrison was on to or how he discovered it. Even more interesting, he avoids mentioning the famous Jack Anderson/Drew Pearson story, which aired at the time. This story actually did mention the CIA plots, and did say that RFK was involved with them. And considering Anderson's role as an FBI informant on Garrison, it was probably done to confuse the DA. But there is no evidence Garrison ever took the (false) insinuation of RFK's involvement seriously.
Having no factual basis for this concept, Talbot then uses the bare assumption as the excuse for why Sheridan went to the CIA to get their input on Garrison. By this time, I had become quite curious as to why Talbot was cutting Sheridan so much slack. So I flipped a few pages forward and discovered the reason. The book maintains that Sheridan in New Orleans was not acting as any kind of intelligence operative, but rather on RFK's behalf. He goes on like this for a couple of paragraphs -- quoting Sheridan's reliable wife again--and then comes this stunning statement: "And there is no evidence Sheridan and agency officials did in fact end up joining forces against the DA." (p. 331) When I read that my eyes popped. Consider: in a legal deposition, among other places, Gordon Novel admitted that he was being paid by Sheridan on a retainer basis for spying on Garrison. Since Novel was writing letters to people like Richard Helms at the time, it's fair to say he was working with the Agency. Further, Garrison discovered that Sheridan was getting the expense money for people like Novel through a local law firm, which was laundering it for the CIA. And a declassified FBI memo reveals that NBC had given instructions that the special was meant to "shoot him [Garrison] down". Further in Robert Kennedy and his Times, Arthur Schlesinger quotes Kennedy as saying that it was NBC who sent Sheridan to New Orleans, and further that he felt Garrison might be on to something. (p. 616) As many commentators have noted, including Carl Bernstein -- who Talbot uses (p. 390) -- the major networks worked with the CIA on issues like defending the Warren Report. And the chairman of NBC at the time, General David Sarnoff, had worked in intelligence during World War II. In a further imbalance, Talbot barely discusses Sheridan's intelligence background, devoting all of two sentences to it. (p. 330)
I could go into much more length about Sheridan's activities in New Orleans, and how they continued even after RFK was dead. And I could point out even more errors Talbot makes on this issue. For instance, he writes that Garrison "turned the tables" on Sheridan and arrested "him for bribing witnesses. (The charges were later dropped.)" (p. 329) Thus he insinuates that it was Garrison who was bribing witnesses and not Sheridan. Which is exactly wrong. (Davy on pgs 135-137 chronicles some of Sheridan's efforts in this aspect.) Further, the charges were not dropped. Sheridan got an entourage of proven CIA affiliated lawyers for his defense. (Ibid, p. 143) And in a recurrent tactic, they got the charges switched to federal court where they were eventually thrown out. Finally, let me make one more cogent observation about Sheridan. He clearly did not like Garrison's focus on the CIA in the JFK case. He then worked a lot with the HSCA, Dan Moldea, and Robert Blakey pushing the Mafia/Hoffa angle, which was certainly prominent in the HSCA Report and volumes. Yet on the day the report was issued Marcello's lifelong friend, lobbyist Irving Davidson, told an acquaintance that he had talked to Sheridan and that he agreed that the HSCA report was a piece of crap too. (Vincent Bugliosi, Reclaiming History, p. 1175) So if Sheridan did not believe the CIA was involved, and he thought Blakey's focus on the Mafia was B.S., what did he believe then? The Warren Report maybe?
The mystery of Walter Sheridan -- who he was, and why he did what he did -- is a long, serious, and complex one. Talbot does not even begin to plumb its depths. For that reason, among others, I believe -- and I can demonstrate -- that every tenet of this chapter is just plain wrong.
The last part of Brothers deals with RFK's run for the White House, his assassination, and a final chapter called "Truth and Reconciliation" which attempts to summarize the various attempts to solve both assassinations since 1968.
Talbot posits that Kennedy's increasing estrangement from Johnson's foreign policy, especially on Vietnam, is what provoked his premature run for the White House, which he had originally scheduled for 1972. That and Eugene McCarthy's good showing in New Hampshire. (Although other chroniclers have stated that the decision to run was made before New Hampshire.) Its a campaign that Jackie did not want RFK to make since, as she told Schlesinger, the same thing would happen to him that had happened to her husband. (p. 352) In keeping with this main theme throughout, Talbot includes RFK telling campaign worker Richard Lubic in San Francisco, "Subject to me getting elected, I would like to reopen the Warren Commission." (p. 359)
The night of the great California primary victory Mayor Daley called RFK in his suite and told him he planned on backing him at the convention in Chicago. As the phone call ended, Pierre Salinger said: "Bobby and I exchanged a look that we both knew meant only one thing -- he had the nomination." (p. 365) In the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel, where RFK was shot, Lubic recalled seeing Thane Eugene Cesar with his gun drawn. When investigators from the LA police department arrived at his home, Lubic tried to tell them about this. But they cut him off, "It's none of your business. Don't bring this up, don't be talking about this." (p. 374) Talbot quotes Richard Goodwin on what happened to America afterward: "We've been on an endless cycle of retreat ever since the Kennedys. A retreat not just from liberal ideals, but from that sense of excited involvement in the country." (p. 375)
The last chapter deals first with first the Church Committee and then the HSCA. In an interview with Gary Hart, the former senator told Talbot he thought that Helms was in on the cover-up. And further that he may have been set up with Donna Rice in 1987 so he could not become president, since he had voiced sentiments into reopening the JFK case if he had won. For his review of the HSCA, Talbot interviewed former Deputy Counsel Robert Tanenbaum who told him of his interest in and confrontation with David Phillips. He also talked to the co-author of the Mexico City report, Dan Hardway. Hardway also presents his suspicions about Phillips and relates how disappointed he was with the HSCA final volumes which cleared the CIA, even though Hardway believed some CIA officers were implicated.
Talbot takes a strong swipe at the media in this last chapter. He writes, "The American media's coverage of the Kennedy assassination will certainly go down as one of its most shameful performances, along with its tragically supine acceptance of the government's fraudulent case for the wars in Vietnam and Iraq." (P. 390) He then interviews Ben Bradlee and tries to press him on why he did not push for a better investigation of JFK's murder. Bradlee states that he was young and not established, therefore probably afraid for his career since he might be discredited over those kinds of efforts. He then adds that it would have been fantastic if they had solved the case. Although this is further than Bradlee has gone in public before, I still would have asked him about this: Years later when he was literally at the top of the world, why didn't he do more with the Post's stories about the HSCA? And in fact, in reaction to the David Phillips as Maurice Bishop story, he had actually given a cub reporter instructions to knock it down. When the reporter, David Leigh, came back and told him he could not knock it down, since it looked true, Bradlee then buried the story. Talbot concludes this section with a quite interesting interview with Frank Mankiewicz who ran the public relations desk for Oliver Stone's JFK. He says today, "I worked on the film's behalf because I believed in it. Oliver was the first serious player to tackle the subject."
Then, at the very end, he asks Robert Blakey how history will resolve the JFK case. Blakey replies that the Warren Commission will probably win out because it has the virtue of simplicity. (p. 408) Talbot softens this by saying that if Americans want to take back their country they can't give in to that kind of pessimism. When facing huge national problems, we have to be optimistic. As RFK said, if for no other reason than "You can't live any other way, can you?"
Despite its up and downs, overall this is a worthwhile and unique book. Its most important aspect, of course, is the proof of Robert Kennedy's secret quest for the truth about Dallas. That is an important contribution with which to rebut the opposition's argument of: "Well, why didn't Bobby do anything?" We can finally dispose of that question in a truthful and forceful way. The errors and excesses in the volume can partially be explained by the attempt to make it into an acceptable mainstream book, at which it has succeeded. I would hope that its success leads to a documentary -- with certain cuts as noted above-- on Discovery Channel or Showtime. The book would lend itself well to that kind of format and adaptation. While being a tonic to the upcoming Bugliosi special.