Monday, January 14, 2013

RFK Jr. Story "Has Legs"

By  Michael Granberry/Reporter
2:15pm January 14, 2013
 Robert F. Kennedy Jr. creates a story with ‘legs’ by offering pro-conspiracy views on his uncle’s 1963 assassination in Dealey Plaza

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. stunned the crowd at the Winspear Opera House on Friday night by saying that his father believed there may have been a conspiracy in the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. The reverberations continued through the weekend. In the vernacular of the day, his remarks went “viral.”

“My father believed that the Warren Commission report,” RFK Jr. said, “was a shoddy piece of craftsmanship.”

From the moment he expressed pro-conspiracy leanings, and in Dallas, no less, the story had “legs,” as Gary Mack, curator of The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, said Sunday.

It was a stunner within a stunner. It was historic, and oddly therapeutic, for those of us from Dallas, who as children lived through the shame and guilt we felt directed at our city for the Kennedy assassination, to see members of the Kennedy family live and in person – in Dallas. As a Dallas native now in his 60s, I can tell you that RFK Jr. and sister Rory deserve our gratitude for coming here at all. Just seeing them on the Winspear stage was, for me, an emotional lift; I doubt I’m alone in feeling that way.

I can remember no greater shock at any point in my life than when our 5th-period gym teacher at Annie Webb Elementary School in Pleasant Grove told us that the president had just been assassinated “in our hometown.” I heard recently that Mickey Raphael, the gifted harmonica player in Willie Nelson’s band, is preparing a book based on the dark emotions he felt as a child in Dallas at the time of Kennedy’s death.

So, it was more than a bit jarring, but in a good way, to see RFK Jr. sharing the stage with sister Rory, the youngest of 11 siblings born after their own father was gunned down in a hotel ballroom in Los Angeles in 1968. The elder RFK had just won the California primary en route to what may well have been his own presidential victory.

Charlie Rose hosted the event at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, which organized the show. For some inexplicable reason, no telecast is planned, despite the presence of television cameras in the center and on the side of the auditorium. Rose is one of my favorites, but I was disappointed that he asked not a single question about Dallas and what the Kennedys thought about the city where JFK’s 1,038 days in office came to an end.

Friday night was newsworthy for marking the first time a Kennedy family member has spoken in Dallas in public in the nearly 50 years since JFK was gunned down on Elm Street. What we did not expect to hear was a Kennedy family member publicly rebuke the Warren Commission, even though Mack says RFK Sr. had confided to friends and associates that he was skeptical of the Warren Commission report. It should be noted, however, that RFK Jr. carried this ball alone. Rory kept silent during his anti-Warren Commission remarks. It was a night of riveting theater, with RFK Jr. and Rory sharing a litany of family stories, some sad, many funny, all compelling.

In the wake of his brother’s death, Robert F. Kennedy “spent a year trying to process it,” said his son, who bears a remarkable resemblance to his dad. “He read the Greeks and the Catholic scholars. And he read the poets, Emerson and Thoreau and Aeschylus and Keats and Yeats.”

He tried to answer for himself, his son said, “why a just God would allow injustice of the magnitude that we had seen.”

Rose suggested that RFK may have felt a sense of guilt, fearing a link between his “very aggressive efforts against organized crime” while serving as attorney general under his brother, and summarily, a possible link between the Mafia “to Cubans and Oswald.”

“He publicly supported the Warren Commission report,” his son said, “but privately he was dismissive of it. He was a very meticulous attorney. He had gone over reports himself. He was an expert at examining issues and searching for the truth.”

And he concluded, despite his public support, RFK Jr. said, that the Warren Commission report was flawed.

“There was really nothing he could have done about it at that time anyway,” his son said. “As soon as Jack died, he lost all of his power.”

J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, with whom RFK often clashed, “never spoke to him again.”

He and Rory even had funny stories about Hoover, saying that, as children, they loved to go into their father’s office and push the hot button that sent a signal directly to Hoover’s office. RFK reveled in telling his wife, “Take ’em over to see Edgar,” knowing it would not be received warmly. RFK Jr. said that he and one of his brothers once invaded Hoover’s office and removed a painting from the wall, only to find a safe behind it. He immersed his hands in Hoover’s fish tank, only to be caught in the act by the angry FBI director himself.

Even Ethel Kennedy, their mother, RFK’s wife, got in on the act. The subject of Rory’s recent documentary on HBO, Ethel loved to add her own two cents to the FBI suggestion box, always writing missives in strong handwriting with bright red ink from the pen she carried in her purse.

“Get a new director” read one of her suggestions, which, of course, made its way back to Hoover.

RFK Jr. let the humor flow for a bit, then returned to his father’s feelings about the assassination that marked Dallas and the nation forever.

“He also thought it would be a distraction for the country” should he make an issue of the Warren Commission’s findings, his son said. “At that time, cities were burning, the Vietnam War was happening. He needed to focus on those to be effective.”

In quoted remarks, the elder RFK appeared not to question, even remotely, the Warren Commission’s findings.

“I would not reopen the Warren Commission report . . . . I have seen everything that’s in there.  I stand by the Warren Commission,” Robert Kennedy was once quoted as saying.

During a trip to Poland in 1964, he was confronted by a student who asked about “your version of his [John’s] death.”  RFK replied that his brother was killed by a solitary “misfit” who was dissatisfied “with our government and our way of life … There is no question that he did it on his own and by himself.”

But it was fascinating to hear, from a family member, that what was said publicly was not felt privately. RFK Jr. noted that, after New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison convened his own investigation, his father asked two of his own investigators as well as press secretary Frank Mankiewicz to determine if Garrison was on to something.

“And nobody has told this story before,” RFK Jr. said, “but Mankiewicz investigated it and he said, Garrison was on the wrong track, the specifics of Garrison’s investigation were on the wrong track, but he thought there was a link” between Mob conspirators and the president’s death. Nevertheless, adds Mack, Mankiewicz became Oliver Stone’s senior public relations adviser for his film JFK, which made Garrison a hero for pursuing conspiracy questions.  No wonder the public is confused, Mack said.

He then dropped a bombshell within a bombshell: RFK’s investigators secured phone records “between Oswald and Jack Ruby” for the months leading up to the assassination and they read “like an inventory of the Mafia leaders they had been investigating for the past two years.”

He noted that, in the four years before his father became attorney general, the U.S. government had jailed two Mafia leaders. During the two years his father served as attorney general, “643 were put in jail,” including infamous Mafia chieftain Joseph Valachi.

The list of Oswald-Ruby phone records “was a carbon copy of the telephone numbers. They had bugs on a lot of these [Mafia] guys and they were the same characters.”
RFK Jr. said that his father “was fairly convinced at the end of that that there had been involvement by somebody,” to which Rose replied, “Organized crime, Cubans?”
“Or rogue CIA,” RFK Jr. said.

As someone who has written extensively about the Kennedy assassination, I was most intrigued by the Oswald-Ruby telephone reference. So, I called Mack, the curator at The Sixth Floor Museum and a long-time assassination researcher, who is sympathetic to some pro-conspiracy positions, even though the history museum for which he works is decidedly neutral on the subject.

Oswald, Mack said, never owned a phone. Mack told me that in the months leading up to the assassination, Oswald lived in several places. In late 1962 and early 1963, Oswald occupied two Oak Cliff apartments with his wife, Marina, but neither he nor his wife ever had a telephone in either one, Mack said. They were separated in the weeks before the assassination, with Marina living at the home of Irving housewife Ruth Paine and Oswald quartered in the rooming house near the corner of Beckley and Zang in Oak Cliff. The rooming house had a phone, which belonged to Gladys Johnson, Oswald’s landlady, just as Paine’s phone belonged to Paine.

“Ruby’s phone records were released in 1964,” Mack said. “There are no other records. From his background, it’s clear that he knew some Mob figures, but he was not a Mob guy himself. He knew some of those guys, and when they would come to Dallas for whatever purpose, his club was one of the clubs they would visit.”

Even so, Mack said, “reasonable questions can certainly be asked about the Kennedy assassination, because not all the questions have been answered.” RFK Jr. in that respect is no different, Mack said, from legions of other Americans who remain openly skeptical. The autopsy alone, Mack said, was bewildering, in that two members of the three-member team had not once conducted an autopsy on a shooting victim, much less a U.S. president, and committed glaring errors in the process.

I asked if RFK Jr. or his sister had visited the museum during their time in Dallas. Mack said he didn’t know. If they did, he said, they did so on their own, which would not be unusual.

Many famous people have come to The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza since it opened, he said, and many prefer not to have their names disclosed, two prominent exceptions being former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and journalistic icon Walter Cronkite. The list of visitors includes, he said, heads of state, some with security, some without; rock stars and other celebrities; and numerous political figures.

As for Friday night’s significance, it may be, Mack said, that Kennedy family members are no different from millions of others, who are saddled with questions about a crime whose full array of answers have yet to be uncovered.

“Kennedy family members have not spoken about the assassination very much,” Mack said. “But they have on occasion, and they have always said publicly that they are satisfied with the Warren Commission report, that reopening the investigation is too painful. They haven’t seen anything that indicates to them that there’s a need for that.

“But apparently, privately, some members of the Kennedy family have raised questions about areas of the assassination. What this tells me is that some Kennedy family members are just as puzzled about aspects of the assassination as anyone else.

“And it’s to the point now 50 years after the fact that most people have an opinion, but they don’t know whether it’s based on good information or not. So in a sense, I’m not surprised that Robert Kennedy Jr. is concerned about some areas of the assassination.”

It certainly made for an interesting weekend. And whether you agree with him or not, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his sister deserve our gratitude and our appreciation for coming here in the first place. Kudos to the performing arts center for putting the program together. It’s a night I won’t soon forget.

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