Oswald's Ghost: American Experience

Regarding the Kennedy assassination, Norman Mailer describes an utterly "American" problem and seeming solution, the simultaneous determination and inability to believe.

Oswald's Ghost

Airtime: Monday, 9pm ET
Cast: Norman Mailer, Gary Hart, Dan Rather, Mark Lane, Edward Jay Epstein, Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Priscilla McMillan, Hugh Aynesworth, Josiah Thompson, Robert Dallek
Subtitle: American Experience
Network: PBS
US release date: 2008-01-14
The belief that there is a story that can be told, to explain how terrible things happen, is potent.

-- Todd Gitlin

The images are iconic. Dealey Plaza. The Texas School Book Depository. Jackie's pink suit. The grainy film shot by Abraham Zapruder, showing John Kennedy's head falling back, back, and back again. And yet, as familiar as the pictures may be, the story they tell -- the story of John Kennedy's assassination in Dallas -- remains unclear.

The question at the center of Oswald's Ghost has to do with that uncertainty. But it's less about facts and figures, the unsolved case, than it is about perception. The question at the center of Robert Stone's documentary is about perception: how did the events of 1963 change the ways people look at U.S. authority and government, credibility and values? How did efforts to solve and/or cover up the mystery lead to today's distrust, cynicism, and discontent?

According to Oswald's Ghost, premiering tonight on PBS' American Experience, "70% of Americans continue to believe JFK's killing was the result of a conspiracy." That is, the official stories told to explain Lee Harvey Oswald's culpability are not convincing to most people who have heard them for nearly 40 years. The documentary investigates this phenomenon, beginning and ending with the fundamental, even metaphysical, doubts at its center. These have to do with power and order: as historian Robert Dallek asks, "How could someone as inconsequential as Lee Harvey Oswald have killed someone as consequential as John F. Kennedy?" The appeal of conspiracy theories lies in their capacity to explain, to find sense in seeming chaos. Dallek says, "People are comforted, I think, that human affairs are not the product of random events. There's some larger force at work here."

Oswald, the film suggests, serves as a useful emblem for almost every angle on this "larger force." If Oswald was a "patsy," if he was merely the means to cover up a much broader, more insidious construction of the official-and-underground universe, his place in (or as) a false historical record is crucial. And if he acted alone, if the magic bullet did its extraordinary, impossible work, Oswald stands in for a weird and coherent "force," the success of the conspiracy -- whatever conspiracy -- in deflecting attention from its own participants.

Oswald age 2

Oswald backyard photo

Either way, or in between, the documentary submits, Oswald's ghost remains a touchstone for the sense of loss and frustration that now typifies "the American character." Even as it offers up a series of informed and articulate interview subjects -- from Dan Rather to Gary Hart, Edward Jay Epstein to Josiah Thompson -- the film makes the process of puzzling, the pursuit of "truth," its focus. Each event recounted is a piece. Historian Priscilla Johnson McMillan had a freaky moment of connection (she sent a letter to Kennedy on November 22 and knew before she was told that Oswald was the killer). Hugh Aynesworth, reporter at the Dallas Morning News, after interviewing witnesses on the scene, made his way to the Texas Theater just in time to see Oswald's arrest. And attorney Mark Lane saw Oswald on TV, whereupon he judged him "really bewildered," and went on to write an article questioning the Warren Commission and was hired by Oswald's mother to represent "her son's interest" after his murder by Jack Ruby.

The sheer strangeness of the sequence of events is enough to raise questions about most interpretations. But the Warren Commission's (and Lyndon Johnson's) plain interest in getting its work done by the election in 1964, allowing the country to "move on" and Johnson to be president, provokes speculation (again) regarding almost any subsequent body reaching a contested conclusion, from the Peers Commission on My Lai to the 9/11 Commission.

It's the Warren Commission, even more than the assassination, that initiated the distrust that persists to this day. The report produced, as Norman Mailer observes, a "comedy of conspiratorialists, this incredible morass of possibilities." Oswald's host recounts the most colorful and public, including New Orleans DA Jim Garrison's case. Under a lively image montage -- swinging pocket watch, eerie reverse-colored footage, a vintage Hoffmann-Wellenhof reel-to-reel -- the film includes a primary source in Garrison's case, a clip from Perry Russo's tape-recorded hypnosis by Dr. Esmond Fatter ("This door as an entrance to a time tunnel..."). ON top of such surreal history, the de-reconstruction in Oliver Stone's brilliant and bizarre JFK looks almost tame. In an archival on-set interview, Stone sums up: "As a dramatist, I am shaping for story ends, but in its essence, I think this story is true."

Robert Stone in Dealey Plaza

Indeed, the documentary insists, distinctions among truth, sense, and deception can only be deciphered in "essence." According to Mailer, who believed Oswald committed the crime "because he could and because he wanted to," Oswald's meaning extends beyond his guilt or innocence. "Oswald's the ghost that sits on American life," Mailer pronounces, "the ghost that [lays] over a great many discussions of what are some of the real roots of American history. What's abominable and maddening about ghosts is you never know the answer: is it this or is it that? You can't know, 'cause the ghost doesn't tell you."

It's no small fluke of cosmic timing that Mailer's own ghost now hovers over the question of Oswald's ghost. For Mailer's argument, made throughout his interview segments in the documentary, is as much a function of Mailer as it is any piecing together of evidence. His understanding that the killing of Officer Tippit was the point of reckoning tells you more about Mailer than the case: after that shooting, Mailer surmises, Oswald could no longer make a speech about his beliefs, because, Mailer intones, "You shoot a police officer, you're a punk." Terse and pugnacious, Mailer's language is the argument.

Mailer here describes an utterly "American" problem and seeming solution, the simultaneous determination and inability to believe. The rest of the '60s produced abiding doubt; as Tom Hayden notes of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., "The impression is that we're facing power structures or conspiratorial cliques that will stop at nothing... We're not as democratic as we were taught." Such disillusionment has become central to how Americans conceive themselves. "Sometimes," Dan Rather says, "Conspiracy theories turn out to be true, sometimes they can be proven." And sometimes, it doesn't seem to matter.


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