Jefferson Morley: Decades after that trip to Dallas, some writers still have grave doubts about the Kennedy assassination.

Roundup: Talking About History

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy remains the great unsolved mystery of American politics. With dozens of books in print on the subject, the case of the murdered commander in chief now seems to attract more interest from the publishing industry than from journalists or historians.

The fascination with a shocking crime is not hard to understand. On Nov. 22, 1963, the president was shot in the head during a motorcade through Dallas. Police arrested an ex-Marine named Lee Harvey Oswald, who proclaimed himself a "patsy." Two days later, a Dallas strip-club owner, Jack Ruby, shot Oswald dead on national TV. Not until the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, would the American people experience such a bewildering, sudden and painful loss.

Why official Washington has seemingly lost interest in the story in recent years is harder, though not impossible, to figure out. The JFK story remains an enduring symbol of popular mistrust. Public confidence in the federal government was somewhere near its high-water mark in 1964, the year the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald, for no discernible motive, killed Kennedy alone and unaided. Confidence declined steadily over the next three decades. Rejection of the Warren report was not the only or even primary cause of that decline (think of Vietnam and Watergate), merely a vivid indicator.

So while a new crop of JFK assassination books blooms every November, the Washington press corps, confident in its own ability to uncover wrongdoing, tends to see the JFK story as a black hole of misinformation and irrationality. That viewpoint has gotten plenty of support over the years from ludicrous conspiracy theories positing that Kennedy was killed by a gunman lurking in a sewer, by a bystander wielding a dart-shooting umbrella or (my favorite) by an accidental gunshot from a Secret Service agent. After the fierce debate over Oliver Stone's controversial 1991 hit movie "JFK," which portrayed the assassination as the work of a sinister CIA-Pentagon cabal determined to kill Kennedy lest he pull out of Vietnam, much of the Washington press corps never rejoined the discussion of his murder. Most (but not all) historians and journalists scorned Stone's scenario as unfounded, wild-eyed and destructive. But a CBS News poll taken two years later found that far more respondents thought the CIA was involved with JFK's murder (49 percent) than thought that Oswald acted alone (11 percent). This impasse fuels the industry of new assassination books....

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