Television Review

This crime still haunts the American psyche

JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, posing in 1963. JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, posing in 1963.
Email|Print| Text size + By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / January 14, 2008

The mere thought of enduring another documentary on the assassination of John F. Kennedy should drive anyone to the Cartoon Network.. Anything but more stale air about the horrid particulars of that day in Dallas in 1963.

This is less because those particulars are shocking than because they're tired. Most of us old enough to remember them long ago stopped asking others where they were on Nov. 22, 1963, except perhaps on first dates. It was once the question of the '60s, but we're in another millennium.

And those born after Dallas haven't a clue what we're talking about in emotional terms. Through no fault of their own, they can't grasp the dimensions of the rupture it created in the American idea.

Against all odds, veteran documentarian Robert Stone waded into this miasma and came out with an excellent look at the Kennedy assassination and its effects on America. "Oswald's Ghost," which airs tonight on WGBH, is sophisticated journalism worth watching.

Stone, who produced, wrote, and directed the program for "American Experience," reviews the forensic minutiae but never gets trapped in them. He moves briskly to a larger collage of images and memories.

We glide past the grassy knoll, Jack Ruby, and Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit, whom Oswald shot. Past the ravings of then New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison and the "magic bullet" theory dreamed up by Warren Commission staffer Arlen Specter. Past the clip of Walter Cronkite overcome by the news he announced on television.

Then Stone places Dallas at the lip of America's dark descent into political and psychic chaos that left first Martin Luther King Jr. and then Robert F. Kennedy dead two months apart in 1968. By then, Americans had lost faith in their government.

Over time, more people came to believe that the Warren Commission, charged with investigating the assassination, produced a whitewash. They doubted that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone. Their anger fed into the fury of people already appalled by the lies of their government about Vietnam. By then, there was nowhere to go but the streets.

"I just gave up on government and politics," recalls former Senator Gary Hart.

Stone assembled a strong roster of talking heads to drive his documentary. The A-list group includes Hart, historian Robert Dallek, authors Mark Lane and Edward Jay Epstein, journalists Dan Rather and Hugh Aynesworth of the Dallas Morning News, both of whom were there that day, and activist Tom Hayden, among others.

Norman Mailer, author of "Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery," is the star here. His gifts to alchemize facts into profundity are evident. His take on Oswald is acute.

Mailer called Oswald, among other things, a ghost - a perfect image to capture the troubling, near-metaphysical presence of the man who has remained embedded in our psyche for more than four decades.

"The maddening thing about ghosts," says Mailer, who died last year, "is you never know the answer." Indeed. Abraham Lincoln is no such ghost. His death we can digest.

Stone reminds us that when the Warren Commission concluded in 1964 that Oswald acted alone, almost everybody bought that conclusion. It was more comforting than the alternative.

Only later did the conspiratorialists start spreading like kudzu. Lane and Epstein were at the vanguard of this group. Today more than 70 percent of Americans believe there was a conspiracy of some kind.

Lyndon Johnson, for one, believed the South Vietnamese were behind it after the United States had helped topple the Diem regime weeks earlier. (This thesis anchors "The Tears of Autumn," the fine novel by Charles McCarry.)

There is a rich list of potential villains besides the Vietnamese. Let's see, we've got Fidel Castro, anti-Castro extremists, the Mafia, the Russians. Rogue elements within the CIA, the CIA on orders from then vice president Johnson, the CIA and Johnson in cahoots with the Warren Commission. I'm sure I'm forgetting someone.

There is a sizable group of Americans who have come full circle on Dallas - from Oswald alone to conspiracy and back to Oswald alone. Fact and rumor blur. This is why fiction, led by Don DeLillo's masterpiece, "Libra," may ultimately best capture the essence of this tale.

Mailer did a 180 on Dallas. "I wanted it to be a conspiracy, but I failed," he said. "I couldn't figure it out. There were too many odd moments that didn't add up."

Sam Allis can be reached at

Oswald's Ghost

"American Experience"

On: WGBH, Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 9-10:30

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