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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the January 25, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Inside the Conspiracy Theory
The assassination of John F. Kennedy has generated its own mythology and spurred dozens of books, magazine articles, television shows, and movies (including a highly-regarded film by Oliver Stone, "JFK"), while TV talk show hosts ranging from Jay Leno to Bill O’Reilly have done their part to render the word "conspiracy" into a kind of catch-all punch line for liberal paranoia. But even though polls show that in the 21st century Americans are more conservative, polls also indicate that nearly twice as many Americans believe that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone during those fateful seven seconds in Dallas on Friday, November 22, 1963. Now, more than four decades later, as more clues begin to unravel, there are still more questions than answers.
In her new book, "A Farewell to Justice" (Potomac Books, Washington, D.C., November, 2005), Pennington resident Joan Mellen does her best to pare away the myth-making and get down to the facts of who was behind the assassination and why. "I try very hard in my book not to speculate and not to theorize," says Mellen, who will give a reading and head a discussion at the Princeton Public Library, Monday, January 30.
The book, almost 550 pages long, was seven years in the making. Says Mellen: "My book establishes quite a bit of evidence that points to the planning of the Kennedy assassination by the clandestine services of the CIA." In impressive detail and with copious notes, "A Farewell to Justice" is the story of former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (played by Kevin Costner in the Oliver Stone film) and his lifelong mission to get to the bottom of the Kennedy assassination and bring its perpetrators to justice.
But despite his fervor, Garrison failed to get even one conviction and history has not treated him kindly. Throughout the past four decades and including the past several years, a variety of politicians, journalists, and historians have steadfastly attempted to debunk Garrison’s investigative methods and motives, branding him with a variety of damning epithets – corrupt, stupid, overly ambitious, or simply mad as a hatter.
But according to Mellen, Garrison – who died in 1992 at the age of 70 – believed that he would eventually be vindicated by history. "He said that Clarence Darrow lost the Scopes Trial, but nobody knows it," says Mellen. "Although Clay Shaw [the suspect whom he indicted for participating in the conspiracy to kill President Kennedy, played by Tommy Lee Jones in the Stone film] was acquitted by an Orleans Parish jury, Garrison believed he was right and considered it a temporary setback in the understanding of the assassination."
A professor of English and creative writing at Temple University, Mellen received the university`s "Great Teacher Award" in 2004. She is the author of 17 books that include fiction ("Natural Tendencies") film criticism ("Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film,") Latin American studies, sports ("Bob Knight: His Own Man"), and true crime ("Privilege"). She is also a contributor to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times.
She was born and raised in the Bronx, New York. Her father was a lawyer and her mother a housewife. "My parents really didn’t want me to become anything too much," says Mellen. "I remember my father asking me, `Why are you studying so much?’" She attended Taft High School with an eye toward becoming a journalist. She graduated from Hunter College with a bachelors in English in the 1960s. She earned a PhD in literature from the City University of New York in the 1970s.
In her book Mellen claims a number of new revelations about the assassination and its cover-up – including information on the massive conspiracy among the FBI, CIA, and media and journalists including Newsweek, NBC Television, and the Saturday Evening Post. The goal was to keep information away from Garrison and his team of investigators.
Mellen also contends that Oswald was not the loner that has been claimed by the Warren Commission, but was in fact a government agent who worked with the New Orleans FBI office as well as United States Customs.
In addition, Mellen suggests how attorney general Robert Kennedy may have been aware of Oswald’s connection to the FBI during the summer before the assassination and how Kennedy subsequently worked to undermine Garrison’s investigation, planning to resolve his brother’s murder during his own future presidency.
There is also new information on how the FBI, including Mark Felt (recently revealed to be the "Deep Throat" news source for the Washington Post during the Watergate conspiracy), supposedly was working to torpedo Garrison’s investigation.
Having met Garrison in 1969, Mellen says that she was always fascinated by him. Born in Iowa in 1922, Garrison moved to New Orleans as a boy. An intellectual, a literary man, his first ambition in life was to become a writer of fiction. Instead Garrison became the first district attorney in Orleans Parish to run for election as an independent and win. "He wanted to liberalize the district attorney’s office," says Mellen. "He was not a racist. He immediately got the votes of the African-American community. He was a unique individual."
Mellen managed to keep in contact with Garrison right up until his death in 1992. "The last time I saw him was in 1989," she says. "I was in New Orleans doing research on a book about a writer named Kay Boyle, and I saw Garrison for dinner. The Oliver Stone film was in the making then. Even at that time he was still talking about the Kennedy assassination. He was just as passionate about the issues surrounding the Kennedy assassination as he had been 20 years before."
When Garrison began his investigation in the mid-1960s he studied the Warren Commission report, including its conclusion that Oswald, an unstable person as well as a sociopath, acted alone. Garrison immediately concluded that the report was suspect.
Says Mellen: "Garrison discovered that Oswald had been taken to Jackson, Louisiana, to a big insane asylum called the East Louisiana State Hospital and given the assignment to get a job there. He was taken up there by Garrison’s two chief suspects, Clay Shaw and David Ferrie (who was allegedly murdered in the mid-1960s). A lot of witnesses saw Oswald there. It’s clear that he was being set up to be this insane person from a mental hospital who would later be discovered in Dealey Plaza."
Mellen always knew that Garrison would be an interesting subject for a book, but throughout the 1980s and `90s, Mellen wrote a number of other books. She eventually got down to writing what she expected to be a biography of Jim Garrison in 1997. "I knew that I would have to write about his investigation of the Kennedy assassination, because that was what he was best known for," says Mellen. "But soon it turned out that I was writing a book about the investigation rather than a biography of the man. There was just so much to write and it was so nuanced and complex."
Even with scores of books already published about the Kennedy assassination, Mellen feels that much of the real story had not yet been told. "It had been so misinterpreted by journalists, including many who were attacking Oliver Stone," says Mellen. In addition there was also some new information coming to light that hadn’t been available when Garrison was doing his investigation.
For all intents and purposes, Garrison was forced to stop his investigation in the 1970s, when he was indicted by the federal government for taking bribes. Garrison claimed that he had been framed and was eventually acquitted. Later in the 1970s there was the Church Committee and the House Select Committee on Assassinations, which offered new insight into the assassination. Then after Oliver Stone’s film was released in 1991, the JFK act was passed and Congress ordered the FBI and the CIA and other agencies to open their files on the Kennedy assassination. "The result was that hundreds of thousands, even millions, of documents went into the national archives," says Mellen. "There was just so much more information available all of a sudden."
But while there is still no "smoking gun" that definitively lays the blame for the Kennedy assassination at the feet of the CIA or the FBI, Mellen says there are so many details, traces, and indications of a cover-up perpetrated by the CIA and the FBI that it is easy to draw that conclusion. "The cover-up began even before the actual assassination at Dealey Plaza," says Mellen. "If it happened that Lee Harvey Oswald was framed in Louisiana prior to going to Dallas, it suggests that the same people who planned the assassination also covered it up.
"You know that the people actually behind the assassination and cover-up must have been very big," says Mellen. "To be able to alter the autopsy (of the President) and to stop doctors from following the trajectory of the wounds at a hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, it couldn’t just be Joe Schmoe down the street. It had to be someone very big."
Bobby Kennedy’s attempt to sabotage Garrison’s investigation in the mid-1960s was a source of concern for Garrison. "Kennedy sent a man named Walter Sheridan, a lawyer for the justice department and an operative for the National Security Agency to New Orleans to stymie Garrison’s investigation," says Mellen. "Sheridan wasn’t even shy about it. He went to the local FBI office and said, `I’ll get him. We’re going to destroy him.’"
But why Kennedy would do such a thing remains a mystery. "Garrison used to say that if JFK were his brother, he would want to know who was behind his murder," says Mellen. "I was disturbed by it also. Then last year, with my book all but done, I had the chance to interview one of the Cubans who was close to Bobby Kennedy at that time. Kennedy had assembled a group of Cubans who were charged with conceiving a plan to assassinate Castro. But Bobby Kennedy also knew something was cooking in New Orleans in the summer of 1963 and his group went among the anti-Castro community there and found Oswald, who was put under surveillance. They then found out that Oswald was a FBI informant. But Bobby Kennedy miscalculated, thinking that if Oswald was under the control of the FBI, then he was no threat. Bobby was horrified when Oswald was accused of killing President Kennedy, and he certainly didn’t know that Oswald was being used in the plot to kill JFK."
In order to write "A Farewell to Justice" Mellen says that she interviewed over 1,000 witnesses, requiring the stamina of a marathon runner. "It was a great sacrifice to write it. I really needed to give up my private life and focus completely on the book," says Mellen, who declines to share details of her personal life. "I was teaching at Temple University but then every year when the school semester ended I would head to New Orleans, driving those back roads.
"I tell my creative writing students that talent is good, but sometimes people with the most talent don’t achieve the most. But without grit, persistence, and perseverance you can`t really achieve anything. But if you work hard enough you will get your breaks."
Writers Talking, Monday, January 30, 7:30 p.m., Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Lecture and booksigning by Joan Mellen, author of "A Farewell to Justice: Jim Garrison, JFK’s Assassination, and the Case That Should Have Changed History." Free. 609-924-9529.
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