David Talbot: The Warren Commission Report 40 Years Later (The Story the Elites Never Believed)

Roundup: Talking About History

David Talbot, founder of Salon, at Salon.com (Sept. 15, 2004):

Forty years after the Warren Report, the official verdict on the Kennedy assassination, we now know the country's high and mighty were secretly among its biggest critics.

Once again, we find ourselves in the season of the official report: the 9/11 Commission Report, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report, the Schlesinger inquiry on Abu Ghraib, among others. And once again the official version is under fire....

So it is only appropriate, in this stormy season of the official version and its discontents, that we observe the 40th anniversary of the Warren Report -- the mother of all such controversies. The vast, 26-volume report was delivered by the commission chairman, Chief Justice Earl Warren, to President Johnson on Sept. 24, 1964. The Warren Report concluded that President Kennedy was the victim of a lone, unstable assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, who was himself, conveniently, gunned down just two days later in the Dallas police station by mob-connected hustler Jack Ruby. The Warren Commission -- itself the victim of massive fraud and manipulation by the FBI and CIA -- came under immediate fire from critics, with its report being denounced as a government coverup by a growing army of independent researchers. History has not been any kinder to the Warren Report, which has been derided and condemned by everyone from the House Select Committee on Assassinations -- the only other federal panel to exhaustively probe Kennedy's murder, and which found in 1979 that the president was the probable target of a conspiracy -- to Oliver Stone in his explosive 1991 film "JFK" to the History Channel, which routinely airs even the outer limits of conspiracy theories.

Four decades later, the Warren Report is widely regarded as a whitewash, with polls consistently showing that a majority of Americans reject the official version of Kennedy's death. (The Assassination Archives and Research Center will hold a conference to discuss the latest scholarship on the crime in Dallas and the Warren investigation from Sept. 17-19 in Washington. Information is available on its Web site.

But there is one sanctuary where the Warren Report is still stubbornly upheld and where its manifold critics can expect their own rough treatment: in the towers of the media elite. Fresh from assaulting Oliver Stone, not only for his film but for his very character (a media shark attack in which, I must confess, I too once engaged), the national press rushed to embrace Gerald Posner's bold 1993 defense of the Warren Report, "Case Closed," making it a bestseller. ("The most convincing explanation of the assassination," historian Robert Dallek called it in the Boston Globe.) And the 40th anniversary of JFK's murder last November sparked a new fusillade of anti-conspiracy sound and fury, with ABC's Peter Jennings making yet another network news attempt to silence the report's critics. Most of the press lords and pundits in the 1960s who allowed themselves to be convinced that the Warren Report was the correct version of what happened in Dallas -- whether because they genuinely believed it or because they thought it was for the good of the country -- are now dead or retired. But after buying the official version for so long, it seems the elite media institutions have too much invested in the Warren Report to change their minds now, even if they're under new editorial leadership.

One of the great ironies of history is that while the media elite was busily trying to shore up public confidence in the Warren Report, the political elites were privately confiding among themselves that the report was a travesty, a fairy tale for mass consumption. Presidents, White House aides, intelligence officials, senators, congressmen, even foreign leaders -- they all muttered darkly among themselves that Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy, a plot that a number of them suspected had roots in the U.S. government itself. (In truth, some high media dignitaries have also quietly shared their doubts about the official version. In 1993, CBS anchorman Dan Rather, who did much along with his network to enforce the party line on Dallas, confessed to Robert Tannenbaum, the former deputy chief counsel of the House Select Committee on Assassinations, "We really blew it on the Kennedy assassination.")

Thanks to tapes of White House conversations that have been released to the public in recent years, we now know that the man who appointed the Warren Commission -- President Lyndon Johnson -- did not believe its conclusions. On Sept. 18, 1964, the last day the panel met, commission member Sen. Richard Russell phoned Johnson, his old political protégé, to tell him he did not believe the single-bullet theory, the key to the commission's finding that Oswald acted alone. "I don't either," Johnson told him....

And so 40 years after the Warren Report, with the country's political elite still wracked with suspicions about the Kennedy assassination, yet immobilized from doing anything about it by fears of being politically marginalized, and with the media elite continuing to disdain even the most serious journalistic inquiry, the crime seems frozen in place. It is now up to historians and scholars and authors to keep the spirit of inquiry alive.

For decades the only public critics of the Warren Report were a heroic and indomitable band of citizen-investigators -- including a crusading New York attorney, a small-town Texas newspaperman, a retired Washington civil servant, a Berkeley literature professor, a Los Angeles sign salesman, a Pittsburgh coroner -- all of whom refused to accept the fraud that was perpetrated on the American people. Undaunted by the media scorn that was heaped upon them, they devoted their lives to what powerful government officials and high-paid media mandarins should have been doing -- solving the most shocking crime against American democracy in the 20th century. Their names -- Mark Lane, Ray Marcus, Harold Weisberg, Sylvia Meagher, Vincent Salandria, Mary Ferrell, Penn Jones Jr., Cyril Wecht, Peter Dale Scott, Jim Lesar and Gaeton Fonzi, among others -- will find their honored place in American history. It is these everyday heroes, and their successors, whose best work will some day come to replace the heavy, counterfeit tomes of the Warren Report.

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