The British JFK Producer Who Brought Shame on the History Channel
By Max Holland

Mr. Holland is under contract with Alfred A. Knopf to write a narrative history of the Warren Commission.

The first allegation in print that Lyndon Johnson was not merely a bystander or witness in Dealey Plaza, but a perpetrator and the chief beneficiary of President Kennedy’s assassination, dates back to 1966. On January 31st of that year, a well-known New York dealer in autographs named Charles Hamilton put on sale a letter allegedly written by Jack Ruby. The sales catalog described the letter this way:

Astounding confession of international importance pinpointing LYNDON B. JOHNSON as the real murderer of JOHN F. KENNEDY and the tool of a Fascist conspiracy to liquidate the Jews! Neatly written by Ruby to a fellow prisoner on slips torn from a memo pad, this [1965] letter was smuggled out of the Dallas Jail and is unpublished in any form.

Despite questions about its provenance—and if not of uncertain provenance, then clearly evidence of Jack Ruby’s unsound mind—the letter sold for $950 to Penn Jones, the long-time editor of the Midlothian Mirror, a small newspaper in East Texas. Jones promptly published excerpts from the letter in his self-published May 1966 work Forgive My Grief, a compilation of his editorials on the assassination. Endnote

Subsequently, the insinuation that Lyndon Johnson played a role in the assassination gained many adherents in the fall of 1966 because of two factors: the increasing unpopularity of the war in Vietnam, and new questions about the probity and integrity of the Warren Report. There was a rising perception among some elements in the country that “the whole direction of American [foreign] policy” had changed since November 1963, as evinced by Vietnam, and that President Johnson had ostensibly embraced “the road of war, terror, dictatorship and profiteering.”Endnote The coincidental but simultaneous erosion of public confidence in the Warren Report initially fed this first phenomena, and the two quickly became mutually reinforcing. If the Warren Commission’s findings were untrustworthy, then what was one supposed to make of the ostensibly drastic changes in U.S. policy?

Initially, barbed references to Johnson’s role occurred in the cultural sphere; it was too unspeakable an insinuation to make elsewhere. In 1966, Barbara Garson, a veteran of the 1964 Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, fashioned “MacBird!”, a play loosely based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” which pointed to Johnson as being responsible for the assassination. Originally conceived as an “entertainment” for a protest rally, the play became an underground best-seller and was eventually produced as an off-Broadway play, despite criticisms that it was vulgar, cruel, and tasteless. Endnote

In fairly short order books and articles presuming to be non-fiction started leveling the same claim. One of the first was by a German-American journalist named Joachim Joesten, who was also the first author to write a book about the assassination published in the United States. That 1964 volume, Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy, was printed by the publishing house of Marzani & Munsell, and claimed that Lee Harvey Oswald was in the employ of the CIA when he killed President Kennedy. Endnote In a similar vein, Joesten asserted in Johnson the Assassin that LBJ “usurped presidential power in November 1963 by backing the conspiracy to assassinate his predecessor.” Endnote By the end of 1966, innuendo regarding Johnson had become so commonplace that it was acceptable for a respected, if left-wing, magazine to claim in all seriousness that “if the evidence against Johnson is too weak to stand on its own feet, it is still stronger than the framed case against Lee Oswald.” Endnote Indeed, inside the Johnson White House in late 1966, one of the many concerns regarding William Manchester’s forthcoming book was that Manchester’s pejorative depiction of Johnson would inadvertently feed the burgeoning belief that the president had some role in the assassination of his predecessor. Endnote

The high point of the allegation about Johnson’s involvement, in retrospect, occurred in November 1967, when New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison was the featured guest speaker at a Los Angeles convention of radio and television newsmen. Garrison famously asked the “Qui bono?” (Who benefits?) question, and then answered it: “The one man who has profited most from the assassination—your friendly president, Lyndon Johnson!” Endnote It should always be kept in mind that Garrison represented a watershed in conspiracy thinking. Prior to his arrival on the scene in February 1967, not even the Warren Commission’s worst critics dared allege that the federal government itself was complicit in the assassination. The most serious charge had been that Washington was either incompetent, and/or too worried about where the trail of an alleged conspiracy might lead, to uncover the “real” killers.

As long as Garrison made headlines, Johnson was an integral (albeit subordinate) element in the DA’s grand theory of the assassination, which eventually took the form of a military-industrial/CIA plot against President Kennedy because he refused to fight a ground war in Southeast Asia and in general, end the cold war. In this scheme, Johnson usually played the role of an accessory after the fact. Endnote When Garrison’s case against Clay Shaw collapsed in 1969, the DA’s grand conspiracy theory fell into disrepute too and allegations involving Johnson subsided. Thereafter (and until very recently) President Johnson’s involvement would only be alleged sporadically and he would seldom be labeled a primary instigator. His alleged complicity pales, for example, in comparison to the oft-heard allegations regarding CIA involvement.

The point of this historiography is to show that the allegation of Johnson’s complicity is an old one, almost dating back to the assassination itself from the perspective of 2004. Therefore, one might plausibly argue that a balanced documentary treatment of this “theory” is justified.

“The Men Who Killed Kennedy”

“The Men Who Killed Kennedy” (TMWKK) premiered on England’s Central Television network as a two-part documentary in November 1988 to mark the 25th anniversary of the assassination. Endnote Three additional episodes were filmed two years later and a sixth episode was added in 1995. Endnote For 2003, the 40th anniversary, three new installments (“The Love Affair,” “The Smoking Guns,” and “The Guilty Men”) were added, bringing the total to nine. Endnote Initially the series was broadcast in the United States on the Arts & Entertainment (A&E) cable channel beginning in September 1991. The venue on A&E was a self-described “news-driven documentary” program called “Investigative Reports,” and for an American audience the British narrator was replaced by the authoritative-sounding, veteran U.S. newsman Bill Curtis, executive producer and host of “Investigative Reports.” Endnote The maiden A&E broadcast occurred three months before Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” premiered and became a box-office blockbuster. “We see ourselves as the . . . responsible solution to the dialogue,” Curtis said at the time. Endnote

TMWKK appeared on A&E until 1993, the 30th anniversary of the assassination. After 1993 there seems to have been a lull of two years, after which TMWKK resurfaced beginning in 1996 on the History Channel. Endnote Insofar as I am aware, TMWKK is one of the most frequently-televised and highest-rated franchises on the History Channel. Presumably it is one of the most lucrative. Interestingly, the History Channel has also underwritten at least one important documentary, “False Witness,” that is anti-conspiratorial in nature. Endnote It exposes Jim Garrison’s 1967-1969 persecution of Clay Shaw as a terrible miscarriage of justice and attacks the heroic, “white-hat” depiction of Garrison in Oliver Stone’s film “JFK.” To my knowledge, “False Witness,” a 90-minute documentary, has not been rebroadcast more than once since its 2000 debut on the History Channel even though it addresses directly many of the same allegations raised in Nigel Turner’s TMWKK series. In and of itself, this gross imbalance in the amount of airtime devoted to contradictory documentaries is a telling indicator of the History Channel’s bias and priorities, and its near-total lack of regard for balance, objectivity, and accuracy in programs purporting to be documentaries.

The ninth TMWKK episode, which is the focus of concern recently, is actually the third time TMWKK has generated controversy. The original, 1988 broadcast ignited a furor in Britain years before the series made its debut in the United States. The first two episodes, as originally broadcast, named a three-man Corsican hit team from Marseilles, France as having been responsible for firing all the shots in Dealey Plaza, and named names. Although one of the named assassins, Lucien Sarti, was conveniently dead, the other two (Sauveur Pironti and Roger Bocognani) were both alive and both had airtight alibis. Endnote “The only thing I know of Dallas is the soap opera I have watched on TV,” Pironti said. Endnote His lawyers threatened a “multi-million pound” lawsuit, and Central Television was subjected to public criticism bordering on ridicule. On its own initiative, Central sent its own reporters to France after the program aired, and they promptly notified the company that the allegations were bogus and “total nonsense.” Endnote

That was not quite the end of the matter. Independent producer-director Nigel Turner was censured by members of the British Parliament, and there was an attempt to revoke Central Television’s franchise based on the penalty for making inaccurate broadcasts in British law. Although that ultimate sanction was not applied, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, the British regulatory agency, did compel Central Television to commission another program devoted entirely to exposing Turner’s research ethics. This “studio crucifixion” of Turner, as it was called, was duly broadcast on 16 November 1988, marking the first time British regulators had ever forced such action. Endnote Turner’s response to the controversy was illuminating. “We expected this,” he said. “People have had 25 years to come up with alibis.” When asked why he did not bother to interview one of the alleged assassins (Pironti), Turner replied he didn’t because it was too dangerous. “We’re not talking about two-bit criminals. We’re talking about the world’s worst criminals.” Endnote The American journalist who generated the allegations in the first place, however, was somewhat more chastened. Endnote Episodes one and two of TMWKK were subsequently edited to remove the offending accusations.

The second time TMWKK came under criticism occurred in 1991-92, shortly after its broadcast debut in the United States on A&E. The simultaneous controversy over Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” however, tended to overshadow just how appalling the TMWKK series was. Writing in the Washington Post, former President Gerald Ford (a member of Warren Commission) and lawyer David Belin (a counsel on the Warren Commission staff) accused TMWKK (then only five episodes long) of using the “big lie” technique perfected by Nazi Germany to perpetrate the fraud that top echelons of the U.S. government were involved in the assassination. “False charges of this kind are a desecration to the memory of President Kennedy, a desecration to the memory of Earl Warren and a fraudulent misrepresentation of the truth to the American public,” wrote Messrs. Ford and Belin. Endnote The authors also singled out by name NBC and Capital Cities/ABC (both one-third owners of A&E at the time) for propagating such a hoax-filled series, even on a cable channel that made no pretense about being devoted to anything but entertainment. In their op-ed article, Ford and Belin also cited the responses they received from key executives at NBC, ABC, and A&E, all of whom sidestepped the issue of factual accuracy while defending their decision to air the program. Endnote In his response to Ford and Belin, Nigel Turner said the Warren Commission was responsible for perpetrating a “big lie,” not film-makers like himself and Oliver Stone. “My documentary film series . . . was based on five years of effort, more than 300 face-to-face interviews and . . . began with few preconceived notions.” Endnote

An exhaustive analysis of all TMWKK episodes would be mind-numbing. But a few generalizations can be made. One important point to keep in mind is that the episodes in the series are mutually exclusive. That is, one could not possibly accept episode one and/or three as being accurate, and simultaneously, episodes six, seven or eight. The “standards” for this series remain what they were for episodes one and two: they are risible, if they exist at all. A consistent pattern is that people who were nowhere to be found in 1963-64, when the investigation of the assassination was at its height, suddenly surface from deserved obscurity with the most astounding stories. Endnote Frequently their reputations are doubtful at best and several are convicted felons. Endnote Allegations of criminal conspiracy are casually made without even the pretense of supplying any proof or corroboration; it is simply enough to level the accusation (the “big lie” technique). Invariably, the most terrible charges involve people who are now dead (Nigel Turner apparently having learned a hard lesson in 1988). Endnote

In fact, the only true standard I can readily discern is the desire to develop yet more lucrative episodes to add to an apparently unending and profitable saga.

“The Guilty Men”

The method the History Channel employs to sidestep the preposterous claims made in every TMWKK episode is to trot out their hired historian, Steve Gillon, Ph.D., and have him explain repeatedly that the program is simply another presentation of the many theories about the assassination of President Kennedy. In and of itself, this sounds plausible and perhaps even reasonable. A true documentary about Johnson’s ostensible involvement, given that the allegation has been kicking around for 38 years, is a defensible proposition. The real problem lies in how the charge is being carried out. If one applied the standards that are apparently acceptable on TMWKK, at some future point it will be fairly easy to “prove” that Nigel Turner, when he wasn’t writing, producing, and directing new TMWKK episodes, utilized his profits to finance the international trade in child pornography.

One need not go much further than the pejorative title of this episode to judge its fairness and balance. Gillon, both before and after every commercial break in the program, reminds viewers that “The Guilty Men” presents “yet another theory” about the assassination. But “The Guilty Men” doesn’t merely present the theory in a neutral manner; it offers up big lies uncritically, and therefore propagates them.

If an objective documentary were to be made about Johnson’s alleged involvement, say 60 minutes in duration, 30 minutes would have to be devoted to presenting Johnson’s side of the case. Endnote It would take at least that long to rebut the potpourri of charges that have been leveled over the years (ranging from variations on Garrison’s “Qui bono” theory to the “oil depletion allowance” motive). Unfortunately from Johnson’s perspective, his alleged co-conspirators all have one thing in common: they are deceased. Indeed, it does not seem coincidental that the persons so casually slandered in “The Guilty Men” (such as Edward Clark, Don Thomas, Cliff Carter, Clint Murchison, Jr., J. Edgar Hoover, and John Connally) all happen to be dead. This has been the TMWKK modus operandi since the first two episodes had to be redone.

At the same time, some very well-informed individuals about Texas politics are still around, and their absence from the program is glaring. One thinks of Ronnie Dugger, for example, who wrote (as editor of the Texas Observer) about the machinations of some of the individuals mentioned during the course of the program, most notably Billie Sol Estes. Dugger is not known to be overly enamored of Lyndon Johnson and is on record as not even subscribing to the Warren Commission’s findings. Endnote How is it that someone with his demonstrated knowledge, expertise, and first-hand exposure to Texas politics and business circa 1963—a journalist who knows the Texas players—is not to be found on the program? Might it have something to do with Dugger’s ability to debunk these allegations?

Instead of someone like Dugger, the episode presents the viewer with self-styled “assassination experts” like Edgar Tatro, Gregory Burnham, and Walt Brown, and alleged “witnesses” like Barr McClellan and Madeleine Brown whose concoctions cannot be corroborated by circumstantial evidence. A few examples will suffice to illustrate that not one person in this group is either an expert or reliable.

Edgar Tatro is a high school teacher from Quincy, Massachusetts. His main claim to fame is that he has been trying for 35 years to prove that Johnson was to blame for President Kennedy’s assassination. In the episode, Tatro is the vehicle for introducing allegations originally leveled by Billie Sol Estes that Lyndon Johnson and his associates were responsible for several murders, including that of President Kennedy. At one point Tatro notes that “there is every reason to believe [Estes] is [telling the truth].” In point of fact, there is every reason to believe Billie Sol Estes is incapable of telling the truth. He is a twice-convicted felon and compulsive swindler who spent more than 10 years in federal prison. In 1984, when Estes first alleged Johnson’s involvement in the assassination, it probably had everything to do with promoting Billie Sol, his just published autobiography, and nothing to do with reality. At that time Walter Jenkins, formerly Johnson’s closest aide, noted that Estes’s charge “was just so far fetched it’s sick.” Endnote And as Estes himself admitted to the federal judge who sentenced him in 1979, “I have a problem. I live in a dream world.” Endnote

At another juncture in the episode, Tatro claims that Governor John Connally “enticed” John F. Kennedy to come to Texas so that he could be murdered. “Johnson and his cronies suckered President Kennedy into Texas,” alleges Tatro, because only there were they presumably in control of everything, ranging from the motorcade route to the forensic evidence. This allegation has no basis in fact and is a fantasy manufactured by Tatro to buttress his preferred conspiracy theory. Connally did not “entice” the president to Texas; quite the opposite. For more than a year, the governor was under pressure from the White House to arrange a political/fund-raising tour on the president’s behalf, with an eye toward the 1964 general election. Connally wrote about how the November 1963 trip came about at great length in the 24 November 1967 issue of Life magazine. Although Tatro would undoubtedly claim Connally’s article was false, President Kennedy’s own special assistant, Kenneth O’Donnell, issued a statement in 1967 saying “in essence I agree with what the governor [wrote]. . . . There was nothing abnormal about what we did in Texas.” Endnote President Kennedy’s advance man, Jerry Bruno, is also on record regarding the impulse for and purpose of the swing through Texas. “The trip to Texas was political from the word go,” noted Bruno in his 1971 memoir. Endnote

Tatro’s closely related claim that being in Texas allowed Johnson “cronies” to control such things as the motorcade route is also an easily proven falsehood. At all times security along the motorcade was the responsibility of the U.S. Secret Service, while the route itself was chosen by President Kennedy’s advance men in close consultation with the Secret Service. Neither Johnson nor Connally played any role in selecting the precise route.

Gregory Burnham, if anything, is an even more obscure conspiracy theorist than Tatro, and Burnham’s credentials as an authority on any subject are equally suspect. According to a website apparently run by Burnham, he believes (among other things) that the famous film taken by Abraham Zapruder was altered; that when the president was struck in the throat in Dealey Plaza, it was most probably by a solid-rocket-fueled “fletchette” filled with a chemical agent that paralyzed him; that the president’s autopsy photos were altered and X-rays forged; and that the fatal shot was fired from a storm drain on Elm Street (an absurdity also propounded by Jim Garrison). Endnote One might think this qualifies Gregory Burnham as Nigel Turner’s preferred authority on the forensic facts of the crime. Instead, Burnham is quoted as an authority on the Central Intelligence Agency and the history of President Kennedy’s relationship with CIA. It almost goes without saying that Burnham does not know anything about what he is talking about.

Burnham claims in the episode that the CIA’s original legal mandate was only to “coordinate intelligence . . . not to create the Bay of Pigs.” There is not a single, reputable historian of intelligence who would agree with him. One of the five tasks assigned to CIA under the National Security Act of 1947 was to “perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council will from time to time direct.” Endnote This language was intentionally vague so as to provide the legal authority for covert actions when duly authorized by the president. And to the extent the CIA’s instrumental role in the cold war developed after 1947, that was primarily a function of the increasing requirements levied on the Agency by successive presidents, not because CIA was independent or beyond any president’s control. Burnham makes an equally unsupported and insupportable assertion when he claims that President Kennedy was intent on “abolishing [the] CIA.” Again, no reputable scholar of the period would agree—which is precisely why Nigel Turner resorts to using Burnham as his authority. Incidentally, Mr. Burnham seems to earn his living as a motorcycle escort officer in San Diego, California.

One could go on ad nauseum pointing out the half-truths, omissions, distortions, and outright lies contained in the latest TMWKK episode; the reliance on convicted felons for staggering accusations; the use of “experts” and “authorities” whose expertise is recognized by no one but themselves. One wag, upon seeing Oliver Stone’s film “JFK,” noted that the only fact the famed director seemed to get straight was that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. The same could be said of not just the last, but of all nine episodes in Nigel Turner’s series.

The problem is not the existence of Nigel Turner, however, nor of the experts and witnesses he and others like him utilize. If the controversy over the Lincoln assassination is any guide, there will always be people intent on attracting attention to themselves or trying to make a dollar off of the tragedy of John F. Kennedy’s murder. Endnote That is the part of the price paid for free expression in this country. No, the genuine problem is the credibility and visibility attached to “The Men Who Killed Kennedy” because of its sponsorship by the History Channel and its corporate owners.

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