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50 years later, TV re-examines Kennedy-assassination theories

Published November 5, 2013 9:34 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On Sunday, Nov. 3, the Reelz Channel is going to tell television viewers that, half a century ago, John F. Kennedy was killed by a second gunman. That, after Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president in the neck, a Secret Service agent in a trailing car accidentally discharged his rifle and delivered the fatal head shot.

"We're not alleging that this was intentional," said Bonar Menninger, the author of "Mortal Error: The Shot That Killed JFK." "What we're saying is that we believe it was a tragic accident in the heat of that moment."

Yes, the people, including Menninger, behind the television production "The Smoking Gun" are conspiracy theorists. By their own admission.

"Let's be honest here," said Colin McLaren, the author of "JFK: The Smoking Gun." "The U.S. administration covered this up. All the way up to Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, covered this up."

On Wednesday, Nov. 13, a group of scientists are going to go on PBS' "Nova" and tell viewers that the evidence shows that Lee Harvey Oswald indeed acted alone to kill the president. For a report titled "Cold Case: JFK," the award-winning series commissioned new ballistic tests, including some that have never been done before; a virtual autopsy; and 3-D laser scanning to re-create the crime scene.

Ask those scientists about the "Smoking Gun" claims and they roll their eyes and make noises like, "Pfffft."

"I could easily show that the claim — I won't even call it a theory — is easily disproved," said Lucien C. "Luke" Haag, the former technical director of the Phoenix Crime Laboratory, who has more than 47 years of experience in the field of criminalistics and forensic firearm examinations.

He openly scoffed at the "Smoking Gun" claims.

"The physical evidence, if you have an audience that has a thinking mind and an open mind, easily disproves that in five or 10 minutes. So how they're going to spend two hours selling that idea is beyond me."

Ridiculous or not, there are people out there who will believe the widely discredited "Smoking Gun" claims. Science or not, there are people out there who won't believe the scientists who lay out the case for how the "single bullet theory" — that a bullet passed through JFK's neck and hit Texas Gov. John Connolly — is "perfectly possible," in the words of John McAdams, a professor at Marquette and the author of "JFK Assassination Logic: How to Think About Claims of Conspiracy."

The one absolute is that, as the 50th anniversary approaches, interest in John F. Kennedy's life and death has not abated. Even the scientists who sneer at McLaren's "second gunman" assertions wouldn't disagree that the assassination is "probably the most talked-about crime in history. And we consider, as detectives, this is the Holy Grail of unsolved crimes."

Certainly, the conspiracy theories put forth in nearly a thousand books about the assassination have kept the story alive. Rob Lowe, who portrays the 35th president in the upcoming National Geographic Channel movie "Killing Kennedy," said he'd "read every conspiracy theory book known to man. And I actually started off as a guy who thought there's no way a guy could do it, and I've come around to thinking that they got it right — that Oswald did act alone. That's my personal belief."

He theorized that the popularity of conspiracy theories stems from the fact that the truth might be too hard to accept.

"We'd all like to believe that there's some big, uber thing out there," Lowe said. "It's always way simpler than we think, and I think it scares us to think that things can be that simple and huge, horrible things can happen by the act of one person."

It's not just the death of John F. Kennedy that continues to fascinate Americans and generate books and TV shows, it's his life.

The Kennedys "really captured the American imagination," said Sally Bedell Smith, author of "Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House," and they've never let go. "Because they were so young, and they were so glamorous, I think people have been naturally drawn to them. And, of course, it was all cut short tragically."

There's certainly something about a life cut short that continues to fascinate. Particularly when it's the life of the youngest elected president in American history.

"At times, John F. Kennedy inspired the best in us and was a forceful leader," said Mark Samuels, executive producer of PBS' "American Experience," which has produced a two-part biography titled, simply, "JFK." "At times, he seemed to drift in the tides of history or preoccupied with celebrity. Yet always Kennedy drew our attention."

According to Tim Naftali, former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library Museum and author of "One Hell of a Gamble: Khrushchev, Castro and Kennedy," there are "certain presidents in our history who remain interesting." While exploring Abraham Lincoln remains "a rich experience … I don't know if Gerald Ford in 100 years will enjoy that kind of renaissance.

"But Kennedy will belong in that period whether you like him or admire him or not, because not only did he shape the period in which he lived, but he was shaped by it. It was a turning point in American history. So he will always be interesting."

It can't be just the assassination that holds our interest. Other presidents who were assassinated — James Garfield, William McKinley — are historical footnotes to most people, while Kennedy remains among the most admired. (A 2011 Gallup poll placed him at No. 5 on the greatest-presidents list, one spot above George Washington.)

Kennedy still feels close because there's still so much of him to see. He was the first TV president — the first to make frequent appearances on what was still a new medium in the early 1960s; the first whose life and administration were extensively chronicled on film.

"I think President Kennedy had the confidence that what he was doing was worth reporting," said Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the president's niece and the former lieutenant governor of Maryland, "and that he wanted people to see because he loved history so much, history in the making."

Fifty years later, there's still an emotional connection with President Kennedy for many Americans. And a desire to know who he was.

That includes members of his family. In June, about 35 Kennedys traveled to Ireland on the 50th anniversary of JFK's joyous, four-day trip to the country where his great-grandparents were born.

"I don't think any of us were prepared for how emotionally rich those four days were of President Kennedy's visit there 50 years ago and our own experience," Kennedy Townsend said. "I think that the more that we learn how wonderful he was as president, it's been a good experience for all of us."