Essays: A theory to end all theories |
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A theory to end all theories

by Francis Wheen

WHO KILLED PRESIDENT KENNEDY? After at least a hundred books on the subject, we are still waiting for a conclusive answer. Two weeks ago, however, a young arts impresario named Giri Tharmananthar told me that he had cracked the case. In a converted warehouse near King’s Cross station in North London, he was presenting ‘the first ever public showing in the UK of leaked video footage of the Kennedy assassination’. The video, he boasted, ‘reveals without doubt that the driver of Kennedy’s car turns and shoots the fatal blow, explaining why Mrs Kennedy launched herself out of the rear of her car…’ Alas, the revelations and explanations did not quite live up to their billing. The ‘leaked video footage’, which turned out to be an image from a famous Zapruder film, was so blurred that one could scarcely see the driver, let alone witness him swivelling in his seat to take a pot-shot at the president. Still, Tharmananthar’s cunning stunt achieved its main purpose, by luring customers in to see a play that he was promoting in the same warehouse.

More than thirty years after the event, the shooting of President Kennedy still ‘has legs’, as they say in Hollywood. Look at the cover headline on the December issue of Vanity Fair: ‘JFK CASE REOPENED. New Evidence on the death of a President’. Oddly enough, the driver of the presidential car doesn’t earn a mention in the magazine’s twenty-one page article, but plenty of other suspects are rounded up – the Mafia, the KGB, the CIA, the FBI and, for good measure, Fidel Castro. Trying to follow the logic of this investigation is like playing an exhaustive and exhausting game of consequences. The mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, for instance, used to know a corrupt lawyer who was ‘linked to’ a crime operation run by the New Orleans mobster Carlos Marcello. One of Marcello’s oldest friends was Nofio Pecora, who, three weeks before the assassination, was telephoned by Jack Ruby – the same Jack Ruby who later shot Oswald dead in the Dallas police headquarters. What does it all add up to? Search me. But Vanity Fair feels sure that it must mean something.

‘Only connect’ is the conspiracy theorists’ guiding principle. Back in the 1960’s,  some of them even found a sinister synchronicity between JFK’s death and the assassination of President Lincoln a hundred years earlier: both men were shot in the head, n a Friday, in the presence of their wives; their alleged murderers were both killed before coming to trial; both Lincoln and Kennedy were succeeded by Southern Democrats called Johnson. Like Casaubon in Middlemarch, who thought that a lifetime of research would eventually yield up the key to all mythologies, assassination buffs are convinced that doggedly collating every scrap of fact or speculation they will one day solve the mystery of who did what in Dallas on 22 November 1963.

‘When you have eliminated the impossible,’ Sherlock Holmes used to remind Dr Watson, ‘whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ But the whole point of conspiracy theory is that nothing is impossible. What remains is everything, and so everything must be true: Shakespeare’s plays were written by Francis Bacon, aided by four monkeys with typewriters, John Major is really an alien invader from the planet Vulcan. Like most journalists, I am often contacted by people who assure me they are being persecuted by a cabal led by the Lord Chancellor, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Special Branch and the Princess of Wales; many of them also believe that MI5 has planted tiny transmitters inside their skulls. ‘I’m not paranoid, you know,’ they say – and their menacing manner makes it clear that disagreement would be inadvisable.

In his excellent study, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Professor Richard Hofstadter suggested that the paranoia of the conspiracy theorist isn’t necessarily a psychological abnormality. ‘I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes, ‘ he explained, ‘I use the term much as a historian of art might speak of the baroque or the mannerist style. It is, above all, a way of seeing the world and of expressing oneself,’ Just so. The amateur detectives and freelance obsessives who devote their lives to the JFK saga are not fruitcakes – well not all of them. They are artists, and the canvas they have painted is as vast and teeming as a crowd scene from Where’s Wally?

Consider the following facts. One of President Kennedy’s lovers, Mariella Novotny, was a protégée of Stephen Ward, the man who introduced John Profumo to Christine Keeler. Profumo was a minister in the government of Harold Macmillan. Macmillan’s wife, Dorothy, was the lover of Lord Boothby, who was an associate of the Kray twins. Another chum of the Kray’s was the labour MP Tom Driberg, who wrote an authorized biography of the KGB agent Guy Burgess. Eugene Ivanov, the Soviet diplomat who had an affair with Christine Keeler, was also a KGB man. Between 1959 and 1962 Lee Harvey Oswald lived in Moscow, where, it has been reported, he was recruited by the KGB.

Only connect? We’ve hardly started. Another of Kennedy’s alleged mistresses, the actress Suzy Chang, was a friend of Lord Snowdon – who in turn was an old friend of Jeremy Thorpe. The scandal which forced Thorpe to resign as leader of the Liberal Party was, according to Harold Wilson, orchestrated by the South African intelligence service BOSS. Wilson also believed that he himself was the victim of a plot by both BOSS and MI5 to smear him as a KGB agent. And he may have been right: in September 1963 the Soviet defector Anatoly Golitsyn told John McCone, the director of the CIA, that Wilson was working for the Russians. McCone owed his job at the CIA to… John F Kennedy.

Sooner or later, if the conspiracy artists stick to their task, the picture will include almost every crime or scandal of the twentieth century. You want to prove a ‘connection’ between the Kennedy assassination and the Nazis? No problem. One of the early revisionist studies of JFK’s murder, Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgement, had a preface written by Hugh Trevor-Roper. This is the same Trevor-Roper who, some years later, verified the bogus Hitler diaries on behalf of Times Newspapers. Before the Second World War, The Times was an advocate of appeasement. So was the American ambassador in London – a certain Joseph Kennedy, father of you-know-who…

Yes, yes, you will say. But where’s Wally? Where’s the smoking gun? Nobody has yet spotted it; and nobody ever will.

Observer, 4 December 1994