When I began writing this, two books, Killing Kennedy and Killing Lincoln written by TV celebrity Bill O’Reilly and his associate Martin Dugard, were numbers one and two on the non-fiction best sellers lists. It’s not unusual for books by celebrities to become best sellers because name recognition is a powerful promotional force. The more renowned the celebrity, the more likely the chances of his or her book becoming a best seller, even though many such books have proven to be pretty thin gruel and quickly fade. Killing Lincoln, however, is one of those rare books that deserves long term success because it is genuinely excellent. The vivid descriptions of Lincoln’s killer, John Wilkes Booth, and especially his escape, pursuit and death are about as good as historical reading gets.
| || |
Portrait of John Wilkes Booth before Lincoln’s assassination. Image courtesy Library of Congress.
Which is why I was particularly excited when I learned that the duo of Dugard and O’Reilly had also written a book about Kennedy’s murder at the hand of Lee Harvey Oswald. Their day by day, hour by hour account of Lincoln’s assassination, supported by tidbits about the personality of his murderer Wilkes, was as revealing as it was fascinating and I looked forward to similar revelations about Oswald. All the more so actually because as a long-time student of firearms and shooting I looked forward to them unveiling a physical trait of Oswald’s that would most certainly redefine the continuing debate about his marksmanship and ability to deliver a rapid series of well-aimed shots at a moving target.
Conspiracy theorists, you will recall, initially averred that it would have been humanly impossible for a single rifleman to lay down the barrage of aimed fire that hit both Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally. However, a series of shooting tests conducted by Congressional investigation panels pretty well established that a single rifleman could indeed have performed as Oswald was alleged to have.
The Kennedy limousine rolls through Dallas’ Dealey Plaza, moments before the President is shot on November 22, 1963. Photo by: Jack Jordan Jr. (1917-1998) © Cade J. Campbell
I recall one such demonstration involving the erecting of scaffolding to duplicate angles and distances Oswald dealt with to deliver his fatal bullet(s) and a government sniper recreating the actual shooting. At that time a college student, I was somewhat unimpressed by the remarkable shooting skills attributed to Oswald, having myself been a shooting member of an army rifle team that competed in major rifle competitions, including the National Rifle Championships at Camp Perry, Ohio. Included in these competitions were rapid fire events during which ten shots are fired in a matter of seconds. The 200-yard rapid fire stage, for example, requires the shooter to be standing up when the clock starts ticking, then get into a sitting position and fire ten shots at the target, during which time his rifle must be reloaded, and do it all in 60 seconds! A good shot will put all his shots in a group no bigger than your hand and it is done with iron (non-telescopic) sights whereas Oswald was aiming a scoped rifle. This is why experienced competition shooters were not particularly impressed by Oswald’s performance as a marksman, but on the other hand, being familiar with the stress of performing under pressure we were all the more impressed, awed even, by his determination to execute his objective under the most stressful circumstances imaginable. But, as it happened, as I was to discover years later, Oswald had a distinct physical trait that gave him a significant advantage when he aimed his surplus 6.5mm Italian rifle at Kennedy’s head. If O’Reilly and Dugard’s research happened across this vital bit of information and revealed it in their book it could, in my opinion, turn the entire Kennedy Conspiracy Theory on its ear.
| || |
The Mannlicher-Carcano rifle owned by Lee Harvey Oswald. Warren Commission Exhibit 139, now at the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland. Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
The first parts of the book, as it turned out, were rather bland, or at least seemed so to me, but perhaps only because of the fireworks I anticipated in the final pages. All was readable and informative of course, especially Kennedy’s struggles following the sinking of his PT boat, but then the narrative bogged down into a retelling of his sexual escapades. A few names, real and imaginary, were perhaps added to his list of conquests, but mostly it was the same territory trodden in checkout line tabloids. Even so, I eagerly turned the pages (pressed the tabs on my Kindle, actually) toward the page containing the one sentence that I knew would be the book’s pivotal moment. “Surely,” I reckoned, “O’Reilly and Dugard are too good to miss something this important,” but when I arrived at that page there was no such bombshell, only a few disappointing lines of unimaginative supposition. The authors had their chance and had missed it; now the story would have to be told another time by someone else.
Stay tuned for Part II of John and Lee and Me!