(Scott Garbe is the writer of The Kennedy Suite. He will be posting a series of blogs about the writing of the Suite, it is a fascinating journey and definitely worth following along…make sure that you check back in every now and then.)
The idea of conspiracy sprang to life the instant the third shot found its mark in Dealey Plaza with such dispassionate viciousness. “They killed him!” screamed Abraham Zapruder as the Presidential limousine was swallowed by the shadows of the triple underpass, his index finger finally slipping from the trigger of his Bell and Howell home movie camera. Bent over her broken husband, Jackie sobbed “He’s dead – they’ve killed him – oh, Jack, oh Jack, I love you.”
The enormity of the crime demanded the cold calculation of organized menace.
Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy’s personal secretary, made a laundry list of suspects as she was riding on Air Force One back to Washington from Dallas: Lyndon, KKK, Dixiecrats, Hoffa, John Birch Society, Nixon, Diem, Rightists, CIA in Cuban fiasco, Dictators, Communists.
The idea that the President could have been killed by a lone assassin working in isolation was just as incomprehensible as that fact that he had ceased to exist.
Bullet for You sets forth a list of would-be assassins representative of the myriad entities during the early 1960’s that would have greeted Kennedy’s death with relish. In so doing, the lyric of the song strives to convey the tangible animosity that hung heavy in the Dallas air and had many people surrounding Kennedy strongly urging him not to make the trip. It also reflects how the idea of conspiracy, perhaps even the psychological need for it, has persisted to the present day.
- Disgruntled Cuban Exiles: The first would-be assassin in the song is a Cuban exile, positioned on a roof top over-looking the motorcade route. Criticism of the President was bitter amongst the exile community where it was viewed that his lack of adequate air support at the Bay of Pigs led to the failure of the CIA lead operation to over-throw Castro. The failed operation was an embarrassment for the young administration and left Kennedy famously vowing to “splinter the CIA in a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” Reportedly, even Robert Kennedy harbored suspicions that the CIA had been involved in the murder of his brother. Click here if you are interested about learning more about the Bay of Pigs.
- The Mob: Means, expertise and motive converge on this popular choice amongst conspiracy theorists. It is alleged the Kennedys used mob contacts to have ballot boxes stuffed in Illinois to help secure the Presidency. The mob then grew incensed when Robert Kennedy pursued the organization aggressively as Attorney General once his brother was in the White House. In addition, it is not just conspiracy talk when historians such as Robert Dalleck confirm that Kennedy had an affair with Judith Campbell, mistress also to mobster Sam Giancana, introduced to Kennedy by Frank Sinatra.
- Right Wing Extremists/John Birch Society: When the President arrived in Dallas, he was greeted by a caustic full page advertisement in the Dallas Morning News sarcastically addressing him as Mr. Kennedy. The article was financed by John Birch Society member Joseph P Grinnan and accused President Kennedy of being soft on communism and a friend to Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito. The name at the bottom of the ad was Bernard Weissman, a JBS sympathizer who had not formally joined the society because he found that many of its members were anti-Semitic. Ironically, the name at the bottom of the ad was a prime motivator for Jack Ruby to later kill Lee Oswald. Ruby, who was deeply sensitive to anti-Semitism throughout his life, was dismayed that the ad and the subsequent assassination of the President could add to the already strong anti-Semitic environment in Dallas that he faced on a daily basis. Besides saving Jackie Kennedy the pain of returning to Dallas to testify in Oswald’s trial, Ruby reportedly had said he killed Oswald to show the world that, “Jews had guts.” To view the original ad, click here:
- Fidel Castro: In the closing months of his Presidency, Kennedy was involved in secret, back-channel discussions with Castro which aimed to find a peaceful resolution to the tension between their two countries. Things had been going so well, according to Thurston Clarke’s JFKs Last Hundred Days, that Castro joked he would be happy to come out publically for Barry Goldwater if it meant keeping Kennedy in office. Despite these overtures, Kennedy had authorized Operation Mongoose, a covert CIA operation that aimed to over throw the Communist government in Cuba and assassinate its leader. Robert Kennedy was directly responsible for running the project. According to Evan Thomas’ Robert Kennedy: His Life, former CIA director, John McCone recalled Robert Kennedy asking him directly if the agency had killed his brother. Later, McCone wondered if RFK’s emotional devastation was caused by personal guilt created by the knowledge that in actively seeking the life of Castro, he may have brought about the death of his brother.
- Emasculated Lovers: Published conspiracy suspects range from the plausibly ominous to the scurrilously ridiculous – from well-trained assassins of the Soviet Union to a Secret Service agent who pulls a hand gun out of the limousine glove box and turns to murder the man he had sworn to protect in full view of the First Lady and Governor Connelly. The aggrieved husband whose wife has left him “for a look-a-like Kennedy working in a traveling show” is representative of the most implausible of those theories that themselves conspire to turn catastrophe into carnival.
- Lee Harvey Oswald – Killer or Patsy?: In the final verse of the song, two versions of Lee Oswald serenade the listener, vying for their sympathies. Is he the killer standing in the 6th floor window of the Texas Schoolbook Depository Building, coolly awaiting the President’s arrival? Or is he the down-on-his-luck patsy, innocently sipping a Coca-Cola in the break room as the leader of the free world passes by?
Inspiring and enacting change generates hatred. Palpable hatred. This is a reality for those chipping at the mountain of social prejudice in anonymity and those moving effortlessly through the rarified air of privilege. Through the romantic haze of nostalgia, it is difficult to appreciate from a distance of 50 years just how much President Kennedy was reviled by a broad range of adversaries. He was despised as passionately as he was adored. As Mrs. Lincoln wrote on the back of her note: "There is no end to the list of suspected conspirators to Pres. Kennedy’s murder. Many factions had their reasons for wanting the young president dead. That fact alone illustrates how the world suffers from a congenital proclivity to violence".
Though the assassination provides the context for The Kennedy Suite, this song cycle is not a “Who Done It?” Bullet for You is expository in its treatment of the many conspiracies surrounding the murder of President Kennedy. It is not meant to elucidate or accuse. My belief in conspiracy died with my interest in it. My interest in conspiracy died in this realization:
The identity of the killer is of far less consequence than the consequence of the victim’s destruction. Amidst all the mystery and metaphysical wonderings, that is a truth which is deep, sad, and immovable whether the life taken belongs to the President or a child bent worriedly over his times tables.
Endowing catastrophe with meaning diminishes its power to a point where our survival of its cruelty seems possible. That is the balm conspiracy offers.
Its failure to soothe may be conclusive proof in and of itself that Lee Oswald acted alone.