Hollywood & History: The Debate Over “JFK”
What obligation does Hollywood owe facts, accuracy, the truth? When popular history like Oliver Stone’s JFK gets hold of a subject, what kind of damage can be done?
Those are the central questions in this panel discussion with authors Norman Mailer and Edward J. Epstein, screenwriter Nora Ephron, and producer/director Oliver Stone. Although Stone’s 1991 film was hailed as a cinematic tour de force, it ignited a firestorm of controversy for the way it mixed fact with conjecture, truth with fiction. The discussion was held at Town Hall, New York City, on the night of March 3, 1992. It was sponsored by The Nation Institute and the Center for American Culture Studies at Columbia University.
Here is the edited transcript of this three-hour discussion:
VICTOR NAVASKY (Editor, The Nation ): ….I have moderated more than my share of panels in my time, but never have I been as besieged, not to mention “be-faxed” in advance of a panel, by so many irate citizens, angry because they or their viewpoint is not represented on the panel. Would all of you who don’t think you belong on the panel, please stand up? [Laughter] What did I tell you? It’s that kind of thing. This, I take it, is a good sign, but it also makes for an audience, much of which it believes it knows more than the panel. So it should be an interesting evening, if people like me would sit down and get on with it, or anything.
Anyway, just so that there’d be no misunderstanding. …. Our goal tonight is not to determine who killed Kennedy, nor to pass on whether JFK or anyone else would have withdrawn from Vietnam. Rather, using JFK, the movie, as our primary care study– not our only one, but our primary one– it’s to explore the relationship …. of movies … to history, of fiction to fact; of image to truth; of labeling– is it a documentary, a docudrama, a feature film– to expectation.
If in the course of their journey, the panelists’ questioners, designated or otherwise, feel the call, the need to sort out the known from the unknown, so be it.
And to assist us in our labors– we have invited Leon Friedman, scholar and attorney, to serve as a kind of reference librarian, a parliamentary historian. By which I mean: if we need to look something up or clarify a pointof law, Leon, who has many relevant documents on his table and in his briefcase, and more in his head, will do his best to assist. And if other people don’t agree with what he has to say, we’ll move on from there. But there it is.
So on to the panel. I’m going to introduce all the panelists, and then they’ll speak, presumably, in the order in which I introduce them.
And so, I won’t say Norman Mailer needs no introduction because he always has something new up his sleeve that you didn’t know about before you got here. And if I tried to list all his credits anyway, we would never get to our business tonight. So let me only say two things. One is: reviewing Armies of the Night, Alfred Kazin observed that only a novelist could have written such a history. And Norman comes to our subject this evening having thought much about movies, which he has made and experienced. He has thought much about fiction-as-nonfiction, and vice versa. You should read The Executioner’s Song again, and of course, most recently, Harlot’s Ghost.
In a cutting critique of the movie, John Leo links JFK to two dangerous cultural trends: a public which no longer makes a sharp distinction
between news and entertainment and an electronic media which discourages interest in literal truth.
A chart and analysis by several assassination researchers of how specific scenes in JFK demonstrate how Oliver Stone “tampered with the historical record.”
An academic paper assessing how the paranoid message is uniquely suited to a historical film drama or docudrama and how this message is seen “most powerfully in JFK , but also in Silkwood, Missing and The Parallax View.”
And he has thought, too, about JFK the person rather than the movie, although he’s written also about the movie. Remember “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” his report on the 1960 Democratic convention.
My spies tell me that in the upcoming Vanity Fair, where he has already published his preliminary thoughts about JFK, Norman renders an imaginary conversation between Earl Warren and Lyndon Johnson discussing– What else? Now in addition to my spies, my moles have sent me a copy of what they purport to be a part of this discussion, and I don’t want to scoop Vanity Fair, but I will just read you one fragment, just one fragment of the conversation. And this takes place while Johnson is trying to persuade Earl Warren to serve as Chairman of the Warren Commission, which he has declined to do.
Earl: Don’t we know that Oswald did it? Can’t we arrive at such a conclusion without doubt?
Lyndon: No, sir. Oswald is the wild hair, right-in-the-orifice of the problem. [Laughter]
The last time The New York Times attacked the docudrama as a forum, they singled out Nora Ephron’s and Alice Arlen’s movie, Silkwood, for the honor. So, incidentally, did the Motion Picture Academy which nominated their screenplay for an Oscar. So anyone who is not laughing or crying too uncontrollably to appreciate Nora’s latest movie, which she also directed, This is My Life, or who knows of her relationship to the “her” in her parents’ play, Take Her, She’s Mine, or was around for the publication of her novel, Heartburn, will know she has thought long and hard and hilariously about the relationship of life, not to mention fact, to fiction.
It would, of course, qualify my friend Edward J. Epstein that he wrote Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth, among the first widely publicized serious challenges to the Warren Commission’s findings, while he was still a Cornell graduate student. Or that he went on to write Counterplot about the Garrison investigation, and some years later, Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald. But Epstein also is a published novelist: he published Cartel in what year, Ed?
Edward J. EPSTEIN: …(inaudible).
NOVASKY: Seventy-six, and those of you who didn’t read it when it came out: remember, in 1976 he introduced a character named Normal Schwarzkopf. I’m not kidding; it’s true. And if we had a required reading list of this evening, his press critiques, “News from Nowhere” and “Between Fact and Fiction,” would certainly be on it.
Oliver Stone’s main achievement, I can tell you, has been to resist writing letters to the editor of The Nation attacking and denouncing our various attacks on his movie, JFK. This former taxi driver and a graduate of NYU’s film school– who has written and directed such films as Born on the Fourth of July, Platoon, Wall Street, you know the rest– also seems to have won as many awards per annum as Mailer. And as he catches up in age, he’ll catch up in number of awards. [Laughter] Moreover, when The Nation celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary last year, his name was prominent among our trustees and we’re grateful for that as well as this evening.
So it’s a pleasure and a privilege and an occasion for only mild trepidation that I now turn you over to our panel, who I hope each will try to stick to their 10 minutes. Thank you.
NORMAN MAILER: I really can’t speak in public without telling a joke. However, since we’re limited in time, I’m going to make it a short joke. Why won’t Baptists make love standing up? Answer: Someone might think they were dancin’. [Laughter] [Applause]
The point is that you got to know America. We’re an awfully complicated country. And in fact, every time I start to think about America and its variousness, I get a Southern accent. [Laughter]
Every genus has its advantages, and being a chameleon is awfully good for a novelist. Now I’d much prefer to speak ex tempore, but I think the occasion is serious enough and formal enough– And since I also happily have written something about it, I’m going to impose on those of you– I hope you are few– who not only read the piece I wrote in Vanity Fair about JFK, but were bored by it. That’s why I hope you are few. I’ve re-edited it for this evening to bring it from about 45 minutes to 10 minutes of reading aloud, and I will read from that.
As I say, it’s not my preferred way to speak but I think it’s the only way to do it on this occasion. And then later, I can entertain myself by being obliged to speak ex tempore, if any of you have a question.
JFK cannot be discussed as just a film. One does better to treat it as a psychic phenomenon, a creature in the dream life of the nation, and this is legitimate. Film at its most compelling lives in our minds somewhere between our memories and our dreams. One of the most advanced art forms of the twentieth century is therefore one of the most primitive, as well, or at least such a claim can be invoked when we are dealing with the sinister edge of serious film on a large screen in a dark theater. In that sense, Stone’s instinct to make a movie out of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy proved superb.
Of course, like many a movie man beforehand, he mislabeled the product. He did not make cinematic history, and in fact, to hell with that. He’s dared something more dangerous. He entered the echoing halls of the largest paranoid myth of our time: the undeclared national belief that John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed by the concentrated forces of maligned power in the land.
It is not only our unspoken myth, but our national obsession. We have no answers to his death; indeed, we are marooned in one of two equally intolerable spiritual states, apathy or paranoia. That’s a large remark but it may fit our condition.
The assassination of JFK remains as the largest single event in the history of nearly all Americans who were alive that day. No afternoon in the recollection of our lives is equal to November twenty-second, 1963. And in its aftermath we lost our innocence and had to decide whether life was absurd. For one demented assassin could swing the ship of state wholly off its course, or worse, whether the route of the ship of state had been so determined that even a president wishing to change the given was hurled off the bridge.
We have lived with that question ever since: do we descend into paranoia or suffer the tedium of an apathy that tells us we will never know, and so may as well accept the theory of Oswald as the sole killer. There’s a profound reason why the Washington establishment clings to the lone assassin and the incredible bullets that passed at many an angle through both Jack Kennedy’s body and John Connolly’s. Apathy is easier to endure than livid inquiry. A dubious set of unsatisfactory facts disrupts much less than does an all-out, full scale investigation. Just as a good lawyer never asks a question to which he does not have the answer, at least not if he can help it, so the Washington club does not pursue the assassination. But no one knows, unless there is someone who does know, where it may all end.
JFK is false, probably, to the likelihoods of whatever conspiracy did take place since it is all but inconceivable that a major plot involving the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI and the White House could ever hold together through the decades. Yet the horror persists. What if the assassination were not an absurdity committed by one man in a surrealistic universe, or even a foul deed brought off by a few determined operators who’ve managed to remain undiscovered because the real powers of the nation were all terrified of their own possible implication, so terrified that all evidence was buried and all real inquiry paralyzed.
Now what if it were even worse than that: what if the assassination was designed by powerful people for large purposes? Once as a guide for approaching political questions that do not have a quick answer, Lenin laid down the axiom: Whom does this benefit? And by that measure, to the degree that history conforms, more or less directly, to the needs of power and policy, then yes, if Kennedy was going to end the war in Vietnam, he had to be replaced. Lyndon Johnson was the man to do it.
History, rarely tidy, is not always so functional. Stone’s movie offers us the overarching paradigm, not the solution and that becomes a large part of its power. It is a crude movie, driven home with strong colors and heavy strokes as indeed all of his films have been. He’s one of our few major directors, but he could also be characterized as a brute who rarely eschews the heavy stroke. All the same, he has the integrity of a brute. He forages where others will not go, and the result is that we live for three hours in the ongoing obsession of our national lives. We descend again into that obsession to which we know it is better not to return, that dark land where no answers are provided.
It is amazing how powerful the film becomes. Even when one knows the history of the Garrison investigation and the considerable liberties that Stone has taken with the material, it truly does not matter, one soon decides. But no film could ever be made of the Kennedy assassination that would be accurate. There are too many theories and too much contradictory evidence. Tragedies of this dimension could be approached only as myths. Here the one that we are witnessing exerts upon us the whole force of Greek drama, and we return again and again to the national chorus of which we were a part on November twenty-second, 1963. We live again in the mystery, the awe, the horror, and the knowledge that a huge and hideous event did take place on that day. And the gods had warred; a god fell; and the nation could never be the same.
It did not have to be Oliver Stone who made this film. Another director and another script bearing on the same events might have been as powerful if it had dared as much. But Stone is entitled to his kudos for he was the first to enter the caves of this obsession in our era, and …(inaudible) for the year and more of writing, shooting, editing and being assailed by the media. He was the first movie maker to be fevered by the heat and chilled with the terror that what he was daring to say about this assassination could keep him sleepless. Now that he is successful, the point is being raised that Stone’s mythic presentation of the murder of President Kennedy is a monstrous act, for it is going to be accepted as fact by a new generation of moviegoers. One can only shrug. Several generations have already grown up with the mind-stultifying myth of the lone assassin. Let cinematic hyperbole war, then, with the establishment’s skewed reality. At times, bullshit can only be countered with superior bullshit. [Laughter] [Applause]
Stone’s version has at least the virtue of its thoroughgoing metaphor which moves into parts of our heart that we have anesthetized for years. And so JFK becomes an incomparable experience, a great film. It may be the worst of the great films, but it is one of the very few that has the power to make new history. Let us look for a new and compelling investigation of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
NORA EPHRON: I’m not here to talk about JFK, per se, but about what it is like to have written a movie based on something that happened. Eight years ago Alice Arlen and I wrote the screenplay for Silkwood. It was a carefully annotated script, meticulously researched, and we kept scrupulously to what we determined were the key historical facts of the case. In Karen Silkwood, we wrote a character who was considerably closer to whoever Karen Silkwood was than the person who had been written about in journalistic accounts, most of which had tended to whitewash Karen and gloss over certain less-than-perfect aspects of her character. In fact, what drew Alice and me to Karen Silkwood’s story were the less-than-perfect aspects, and what we tried to write was not the story– Not a movie about a heroic woman who did something heroic, but rather the story of a complicated, interesting, flawed woman who quite unexpectedly did something heroic.
We were extremely proud of the job we did and of the movie Mike Nichols made from it, and we were completely unprepared for what happened when it came out, which was, first, an article in the Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times, which focused completely on comparing the facts in the movie to the facts of the Silkwood case. And then, a couple of weeks later, in the tradition you have now grown used to, a New York Times editorial denouncing the movie as a docudrama.
A docudrama, in case you don’t know, is a movie The New York Times disagrees with the politics of. [Laughter] [Applause] But the point I’m trying to make here is that it doesn’t matter whether you are good little girls like me and Alice, or big bad boys like Oliver Stone, The New York Times is going to pound you into the ground.
They won’t bother, of course, if your movie is Out of Africa or Goodfellas or The Pride of the Yankees or Bugsy or The Glenn Miller Story or Lawrence of Arabia, to name just a few of the wonderful movies that have done what any movie based on something that actually happened must do: which is, to impose a narrative. So no one really objects that Dennis Finch-Haddon didn’t really see Isaak Dinesen on a train on her way to Africa, or that Tommy DeSimone was actually very tall, or that Mrs. Lou Gehrig looked nothing whatsoever like Theresa Wright.These things don’t matter, because they don’t matter.
For something to matter it must be political, or more important, ambiguous, deliciously ambiguous, unresolved, mythic. The very thing that attracts a filmmaker to a project is the thing that guarantees his life will be hell once he makes it. Because suddenly, the filmmaker has ventured onto forbidden turf, and on this turf is a big sign that says, “Keep Off the Grass.”
In the case of JFK, the attack is that much worse because the press is one of the reasons why we still don’t know what happened in Dallas. And whenever you write something that implies that the press has not done its job, you get into trouble with the press because you mortify them. Incidentally, this happens with books, too, not just with movies. It happened with All the President’s Men and The Final Days, to name two books that were mortifying to the press. And I would suggest that the recent gang rape of Robert Caro on the grounds that he was wrong about Coke Stevenson was actually inspired by the mortification he caused the press earlier by discovering things about Lyndon Johnson, particularly about the source of his fortune, that had lain around undiscovered by the press for years.
But let’s get back to movies. You venture onto the grass, but no one says, “Keep off the grass.” That would give the game away. What the press says, as a rule, is not that they mind your being on the grass but they object to your methodology. What they say is that they have no problem with your making a movie of this sort as long as you stick to the facts. The facts. I mean, this is a comical notion because it implies that having the facts correct means that the story you tell is correct, and we all know the number of times we have read things that were correct on the facts, but just plain wrong.
In the case of JFK, the most commonly objected to of Oliver Stone’s methods was the combining of documentary footage with film footage. But the truth is that Stone could have done without all that. And in addition, he could have changed Garrison into the flawed human being he actually was. And why didn’t you, Oliver? [Laughter] Oh, never mind. The point is, you could do any number of things and the press will still find something to object to. They will point to a silver fork that was actually stainless steel, or a breakfast that was actually dinner, or some character you have made a composite of, or some events you have telescoped: something that proves that you have got it completely wrong. And they will fall on this like a fumbled football, and wave it in the air to show that you have distorted the truth.
And all of this is nonsense, that’s what I’m trying to say, because what the press is truly objecting to is not your techniques, but that you’re there at all, that you have a political agenda, and– and this is the most important part– that you are imposing a narrative, that you are telling a story.
Now it is a writer’s obligation to impose a narrative. Every time you take a lump of material and turn it into something, you are imposing a narrative. It is a writer’s obligation to do this, and by the same token, it is apparently a journalist’s obligation to pretend that he never does anything of the sort. The journalist claims to believe that the narrative “emerges” by itself from the lump of material, rises up and smacks you in the face like marsh gas. [Laughter]
A couple of years after Silkwood was attacked in The New York Times, I found myself at the New York Bar Association on a program on docudramas with Max Frankel of The New York Times. Frankel was at the time the editorial page director of the Times; he’s now the editor of the paper. And I want to tell you what he said when it was his turn to speak.
He said that he was wearing a tie, which he was, and he held his tie up for all of us to see. He said that he had put the tie on that morning, and that it had special meaning for him, it was a gift of enormous sentimental value. He went on at some length about the tie, although never being much more specific than that. So we never did find out what was so special about the tie, or who gave it to him, and I don’t even remember what it looked like. And when I called him about this a couple of days ago, he not only didn’t remember what it looked like, either, but he didn’t even remember the story although he did say that it sounds like the sort of thing he might have said, which I assure you he did.
Anyway, here’s what he went on to say: He said that if you were making a movie about that evening at the New York Bar Association, and you put an actor into the movie playing him, and wearing an identical tie it would not be the truth, because you would have no way of knowing what that tie meant to him. [Laughter] Now I love this story. I love it because it’s so honest, and it’s right out there. Max Frankel honestly believes there’s only one version of the story, and it’s his. But I just told you my version and I promise you, it’s just as good. [Laughter]
I said to him that night, “You mean we can’t even make Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet?” And he said, “That’s right.” He was quite cheerful about it.
The other day, when I called to check the story with him, by the way, he continued in his merry way by ending the phone call with me by saying, “And congratulations on your recent success in fiction.” Fiction, nonfiction; is that all there is? Or to put it in a completely opposite way, as Edgar Doctorow did in an essay a few years back, quote, “I am led to the proposition that there is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction. There is only narrative.”
Edgar Doctorow brings me to another story. Years ago he wrote a novel called The Book of Daniel, which happens to be a masterpiece. It is a novel that was clearly inspired by the historical fact and ongoing myth of the Rosenberg case. I always feel that someone should mention the Rosenbergs at any event sponsored by The Nation in Town Hall. [Applause] It was very clearly not a nonfiction book about the Rosenbergs; it was very clearly an improvisation, a novel inspired by that case. The characters in the book are named the Isaacsons, and when the book was published it received splendid reviews.
Some years later, Sydney Lumet made a movie based on the book called Daniel, and when The New York Times Arts & Leisure section put out its hit on the movie, an article that it will not surprise you to hear compared the events in the movie to the facts of the Rosenberg case, it actually said in the Times that Mandy Potemkin was playing the part of Julius Rosenberg. So here we have the case of a writer who removed something very deliberately from historical fact, who never pretended to be telling the story of the Rosenbergs, but they nailed him for it anyway.
Having said all this, let me speak to the topic as I understand it, which is what the obligations of film are to history. As someone who is trained as a journalist, I have strong feelings about this that I suspect are slightly more rigid than most screenwriters. I believe that you have to hit the marks, whatever the marks are. The marks differ from project to project and there’s no way to make a simple rule about what they are. But in the case of Silkwood, as I explained, one of the primary marks was Karen’s character, which we believed we had a moral obligation to convey, warts and all.
There were, in addition, a number of episodes that it seemed to us had to be conveyed with as little dramatic license as possible. When we got to areas where it was not known what happened, like when Karen Silkwood’s urine sample was contaminated with radiation, we did not depict anything in connection with that episode that wasn’t known at the time. At the same time, we did compress things, made up the characters of the people Karen worked with, etcetera. We made a movie that was our version of what had happened. What we believed was that we had written something that conveyed, not necessarily the truth, but what it was like, sort of, maybe. And what it was like in a way that ordinary journalism couldn’t come close to.
It was clear to me when I saw JFK that I was seeing Oliver Stone’s version of the story, and I didn’t object to it any more than I object to the 601 books that have been written about the assassination. One of the problems with the movie JFK is that it is more ambiguous and brilliant than its defenders, but that shouldn’t be held against the movie which, in its own way, is not just a wild and wacky look at the assassination, but manages to convey 30 years of Kennedy assassination madness and recapitulate it in a way that seems to me practically ontological. I hope I’m using that word correctly, but I’m probably not.
What intensifies this even further was Oliver Stone’s splendid performance as himself, a performance that was– I’m completely serious– inspirational to those of us who were bewildered and cowering in the same circumstances. Unfortunately, though, there are very few directors who want to make a movie, and then spend four to six months after it with Ted Koppel. [Laughter] On the contrary, most directors who will look at a similar sort of movie will say to themselves, “Life is too short.”
There are people who say that movies have a special obligation in this area, that for instance, young people will see JFK and think that the Joint Chiefs of Staff killed President Kennedy. But I don’t know why they are going to think this any more than I do. And what if they do? [Laughter] [Applause] Eventually they will grow up and figure it out for themselves, or else they won’t. It’s not the issue, and it is not the filmmaker’s responsibility.
The real danger is not that we might have an inaccurate movie– which, by the way, never hurt anyone– the real danger is that the wholesale, knee-jerk objection to movies based on things that happened might result in something far worse, which is a chilling effect on the creation of works of art. Thank you.
EDWARD J. EPSTEIN: Well, I’m going to be in the minority, but I believe there is a difference between nonfiction and fiction. I don’t believe the difference is a trivial difference; I agree with everything Nora said, that it’s not the difference between teaspoons and silverware, and it’s not the difference between someone’s height. But there is a difference. Both are forms of knowledge and both can strive for the truth.
Some of the best books I know are novels, like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, which gets much closer to the truth than most of the nonfiction books on Vietnam. So I’m not making an argument for nonfiction or for fiction; I’m just making an argument that there’s a difference.
The difference, I believe, is that in nonfiction a writer is bound by the universe of discoverable fact. When he reaches the limits of that universe, he stops. In fiction, on the other hand, a writer isn’t bound or limited, and shouldn’t be. He uses his imagination to fill in the gaps, and perhaps this is what Norman Mailer means by “the mythic structure.” He fills it in and invents what either his intuition tells him it should be, or his suspicion, or his research, but it is a leap in imagination.
Now the problem occurs when you try to mix these two forms, when you mix fiction and nonfiction. You don’t get a hybrid where you could separate out the facts from the fiction and say, “There’s X% facts and Y% fiction”; you get pure fiction. The reason for this is, when you change substantial facts or jump into gaps and put in imaginary scenes, it influences how every bit of nonfiction after that is perceived.
Since the subject is JFK, I’ll give you an example from JFK, a movie which I like very much, by the way, and which I’m very grateful to in the hopes that my books will be reissued. [Laughter] And more than that, I agreed with what was said that for 25 years no one’s paid attention to this subject, and now suddenly here we are in Town Hall. So for all these reasons, I think we owe Oliver Stone a debt of gratitude. [Applause]
In JFK there’s a very powerful scene with a man called David Ferrie, who I assume everyone’s seen the movie and remember. Just before he’s found dead in mysterious circumstances, he makes a confession. He’s in a hotel with Jim Garrison, the D.A. of New Orleans and his staff, and he confesses everything in a brilliantly done, frenetic fit. He says that he was involved in the assassination; Lee Harvey Oswald was involved with him. Clay Shaw, one of the men who were later indicted for the assassination by Garrison was also in this plot and he lays it out: the CIA’s involvement, everything.
Okay, fine. It was a very powerful scene, made even more powerful by the fact that Ferrie is found dead two days later, February twenty-second, 1967 to be precise.
The only problem is, the scene is fictional. Ferrie never confessed to Garrison or to his investigators. He was in the hotel room; that part was accurate. He steadfastly denied that he ever knew Oswald, a denial which very few people believe, including myself, but he denied it. He denied that he had anything to do with Clay Shaw; he denied that he had anything to do with the assassination. This you can learn from reading Jim Garrison’s book because in both of his books, Jim Garrison says that Ferrie denied to him, even though he didn’t believe Ferrie, his role in the assassination; then he’s found dead.
Okay, so in the film, a denial is changed into an admission. Now this is a little different from changing a silver spoon from a tablespoon to a teaspoon, or vice versa. After you see this, and after an audience sees this, they assume, as they should, that what follows, much of which is nonfiction, much of which is true– They know, because they’ve seen Ferrie confess to his relationships with Oswald, the CIA and everything else. So obviously it’s altered.
This said, I’m saying nothing more than Norman Mailer said: I’m saying that this work is a work of fiction. It’s based on a true fact. Much of it is true. It gets, or tries to get, at major truths and it might be right or it might be wrong. But we have to regard it as fiction, not fact.
I think Oliver Stone has every right to express his opinion. As Nora correctly said, there’ve been 601 books that have expressed opinions, many less coherently and making less sense than him. I have no problem; I think the movie should have been shown and I again compliment him on it. It’s very effective, brilliant, dramatic. I’m not a movie reviewer. But I do think that we shouldn’t shrug away this difference and say, “It doesn’t matter; everything is fiction and nonfiction; it all mixes together.” Maybe it does, but I still think this difference should be respected.
The second point I want to make is somewhat different, and it has really very little to do with the film. Something real did happen, the film notwithstanding, in New Orleans in October 1967 and went on to 1969. Jim Garrison did hold an investigation. He wasn’t Kevin Costner. He arrested not only Clay Shaw but 12 other people. Three of these people were journalists: Walter Sheridan of NBC, David Chandler of Life, Richard Townsend of WSDU TV. These people disagreed with Garrison. They wrote exposªs of him. He issued arrest warrants for each of them claiming crimes from obstruction of justice to bribery.
Okay, fine; maybe a district attorney should do that. Three members of his staff disagreed with what he did and went public, claiming that he was fabricating the case against Clay Shaw. Which I believe he was, incidentally, for reasons that I could discuss with you, and maybe I will depending on my time. But in any case, these three people also were arrested, or arrest warrants were issued for them. Six witnesses claimed that Garrison bribed them; offered them parole or releasing them from prison, or intimidated them in some way in order to get them to give false evidence or plant false evidence. These six people were arrested and … sentenced.
I think the most instructive case of this abuse of justice is a case that no one remembers. Maybe people in this room do, but I didn’t remember until I reread my book, to tell you the truth. This was the case of Edgar Eugene Bradley. He was arrested in November 1968 by Garrison in California for conspiring to kill President Kennedy. He’s not in Oliver Stone’s movie; he’s not even in the index to Jim Garrison’s book. Why not? What happened to Bradley? He was arrested and released on his own recognizance. The case was never continued. When I asked the assistant district attorney in Garrison’s office what had happened, he said it was all just a mistake. Well, you know, someone was charged with killing President Kennedy, arrested, and it was a mistake and no one remembers? Well.
Now I’ll tell you the reason why I believe the case was fabricated against Clay Shaw. Which I think is a tremendous abuse of justice for any district attorney, no matter how much he’s on the right side of issues, no matter how much he adds to our mythic understanding, to go out and arrest someone for murder. What happened was: David Ferrie committed suicide, I said, on February twenty-second. Two days later, on television came a new person named Perry Raymond Russo. He was a pornography salesman, a weirdo; he had been under psychiatric treatment. And when he appeared on television, he said that he knew David Ferrie, and that he knew Ferrie was up to a lot of mysterious things, but he didn’t think Ferrie was connected with the assassination.
Now I’m giving you this chronology, as it all happens within six days and I’m only giving you three of them. The next day Garrison sent his investigator, Moosh Ghambra,(?) a former boxer, to Baton Rouge where Russo lived, interviewed him, and according to the memorandum of the interview which came out at the trial in other places, Russo never claimed to have known Lee Harvey Oswald. He claimed to have known Ferrie. He never claimed to have met Clay Shaw, although he claimed to have seen him on two different occasions from a distance. He claimed that Ferrie had a roommate with a beard which he thought might have been Lee Harvey Oswald, although in that period Oswald didn’t have a beard. And that was about it.
The memorandum was given to Garrison on February twenty-fifth. After that came the sodium pentathlon. Russo was injected with sodium pentothal. He was told what he had said under sodium pentothal, that he identified Clay Shaw. He didn’t remember it; he was told again that he’d done it under truth serum. He was brought to Clay Shaw’s house and range the bell, told to ring the bell, and looked at Clay Shaw.
On March first, Clay Shaw was arrested on Russo’s identification of him, and on March second, Russo was hypnotized, told to imagine a screen. Now up to this point, Russo had never said that there was a meeting that he attended with Ferrie and Clay Shaw, and never a meeting to do with the assassination. He was hypnotized by Dr. Faddah(?) in New Orleans, and told to imagine a screen and there was a meeting on the screen. And in that meeting on a screen, he saw an assassination– He saw these men talking about important business. Well, by the time the hypnosis and the sodium pentothal and everything was over, he told his story and that basically was the story that led, first of all, to the two-year indictment and trial of Clay Shaw, and the 58 minute acquittal of him.
Now I’m not saying that there wasn’t a lot of things going on in New Orleans. In fact, many of the things that happened in the film JFK, I find fascinating and possibly true. But I’m just saying that something did happen in New Orleans; it was an abuse of justice and as much as we wish it was otherwise, it wasn’t.
I’ll be happy to answer questions. Thank you.
OLIVER STONE: I obviously would like to address some of your questions, Mr. Epstein, but we’ll wait till afterward. And when we get into the more specific discussions, I would like to talk about history because that’s where it starts right now. The history that I grew up with, that I learned in the 1960s and seventies and even into the eighties was that it was a bad guy that shot a good guy out of a window, and that man was in turn shot by an angry and patriotic vigilante, Jack Ruby. The widow, Jackie, was weeping. Judge Warren came and told us everything was fine. And that Lyndon Johnson took over the country in this tragic accident, and basically effected the policies across the board of a weak but handsome and charismatic young president.
My outlaw history of the movie, JFK, touches on, I think, five points of history and re-examines them. The first one being that Oswald did not act alone, that three bullets is impossible given the graphic clarity of the Zapruder film which shows us two major improbabilities: the first being that we see the president hanging there with his throat wound, it seems, forever. He hangs, and hangs, and hangs. Governor Connolly makes the turn to look at him holding his Stetson with his supposedly broken wrist. And it takes approximately, almost two seconds for the bullet to penetrate both people. This is absolutely impossible, and it’s impossible to the naked eye; it’s impossible in ballistics.
The other improbability in the Zapruder film is the fatal shot to the head, frame 313, the fatal head shot coming from the rear and throwing President Kennedy’s head backwards. I therefore posit two rifles, minimum; actually three, given the trajectory to the overpass where James Tague was. Where, when I was in Dealey Plaza, it just seems impossible to hit Mr. Tague from the sixth floor window. It had to be from, I believe, the Dal-Tex Building.
And if there were two rifles, I have to ask myself, who has the experience; who has done this before? And obviously I came up with my conclusion, my hypothesis, my inference, my speculation that the only people that had done this abroad had killed people, had made coups d’ªtats, were, are intelligence agencies. Specifically, I don’t know. The CIA is mentioned in the movie; military intelligence is mentioned in the movie; Office of Naval Intelligence is mentioned because they are reputed to have a defector program in the Soviet Union, and Army Intelligence is mentioned in the movie.
Second point: Lyndon Johnson did not carry out the policies of John Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson took the country, subtly at first but significantly to the right. John Kennedy was moving the country to the left not only in Vietnam but across the board in his relationships with Mr. Khrushchev in Russia we see a form of early dªtente taking place with a solution to the October missile crisis in Cuba. We see a furtherance of that dªtente with the space treaty and with the groundbreaking nuclear test ban treaty of 1963 which was violently opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
On top of that, we have Mr. Kennedy’s eloquent Cold War speech at the American University calling, for the first time, by an American president for an end to the Cold War. In addition to that, we have Mr. Kennedy talking to Mr. De Gaulle about terminating the engagement in Vietnam. De Gaulle was on his way to Washington in February, I believe. We have Mr. Kennedy negotiating through people like Mr. Atwood and … Howard with Fidel Castro of Cuba, to end the problem with Cuba. And his unofficial envoy, John Danielle, the French newspaper reporter, was with Castro the day that Kennedy was killed, and witnessed Mr. Castro’s shock and amazement knowing that of course he faced in Lyndon Johnson a far more formidable opponent than John Kennedy.
We have Mr. Kennedy’s known positions on civil rights, that he was starting to embrace the cause of civil rights although belatedly. We have his position on the Federal Reserve Board. We have his very strict, noncombat troop policy in Laos, Vietnam, Cuba, and as you hopefully will read in the book, JFK and Vietnam by John Newman, which is out this month, you will see through documentation that he resisted an enormous amount of pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to engage combat troops in Laos, Vietnam and also Cuba. And he said no on five, six occasions.
Going back to 1961 there was an air of crisis about Vietnam, which is something I had never realized. I thought the Vietnam thing started really in ’63, ’65. But it is clear from this book that there was an air of crisis as early as 1961, particularly starting with Laos in April ’61, culminating in a tremendous amount of pressure in October ’61 to send combat troops to Vietnam. In response to which, President Kennedy seemed to have reached a compromise, not a clean one by any means, but a compromise wherein he sent 16,000 noncombat advisors to Vietnam.
With his death as you know, he had issued in October ’63 his final National Security Action Memorandum 263, calling for the withdrawal of the first 1,000 troops from Vietnam, and forecasting the withdrawal of the rest of the troops by the end of 1965. A position he told to people like Roger Hillsman, Arthur Schlesinger, Michael Forestal, his archenemy in the Senate Wayne Morse, and his venerable opponent of Vietnam policy, Senator Mike Mansfield, who is still alive today and will confirm it: that he, Kennedy, was going to withdraw from Vietnam. He’s 90 years old, and when asked by a journalist the other day, “Is Kennedy going to withdraw from Vietnam?” he picked up the phone and he said, “Yes,” and he hung up.
I position to you, historically, that Mr. Kennedy was the last liberal president this country had; that we have had, in a deliberate pattern of disassociation from liberalism, five increasingly conservative presidents in this country. And Mr. Kennedy for years now has been libeled and trashed for his womanizing, his Mafia associations, for drug-taking, for any number of things, partly out of ideological motivation, to destroy the concept of the L-word.
The third point I touch on is a CIA– Is what Fletcher Prouty called in his book, The Secret Team, the fourth branch of the military, which came into being after World War II essentially to carry on the fight against Communism by using the best of what the Nazis had to teach us, the best of what the Nazis had to give us. We brought in scientists, we brought in political strategists, and we kept in place in Eastern Europe and in Russia a ground force of people, of partisans able to rise up and defeat the Communist menace. So World War II– I am hinting that in this movie– never really ended; World War II continued right into the Cold War. [Applause]
Mr. Kennedy attacked the CIA– we know this from his reactions to the Bay of Pigs– and he did a very significant thing: he fired the three top men of the CIA. People whose histories go back to World War II: Mr. Cabell, Mr. Bissell, and Mr. Alan Dulles. This was serious business. He vowed also to fracture, to splinter, the CIA into a thousand pieces. And he issues three very important National Security Action Memorandums 54, 5 and 6– which I tried to show in the movie– that basically transferred the paramilitary activities of the CIA back to the Pentagon, which didn’t want them and didn’t do anything about it, and nothing was done. But he tried nonetheless.
The fourth thing I try to touch on in the movie– and obviously it’s only a three hour movie, it can’t be a six hour movie– is, I think, the Mafia as American mythology. I think that Mr. Coppola made a wonderful movie but I think that it creates a sense of a myth about the Mafia that it is an all-powerful, world-encompassing organization that can do what it will, such as wipe out presidents, kill Popes, etcetera, without really understanding the true nature of the Mafia.
And I think that we have to look to films, honestly, like Goodfellas, which show you the hard, scrabbly nature of the Mafia organizations trying to make a quick buck here and there. A book such as Lacey’s new book on Meyer Lansky, which I find– I don’t know if it’s absolutely accurate but it has certainly an interesting amount of documentation that shows you a Meyer Lansky who’s struggling in the last years of his life to make a few dollars. This should be questioned, the role of the Mafia.
And the fifth thing I think I touch on– and obviously has gotten much publicity– is the role of the media, which I think Miss Ephron has really said pretty much what I had to say. Certainly the media; not the Mafia, the media [Laughter] has told us that–
Let’s be honest: …in the wire stories that went around the world, the profile was ready. He was a Communist, he was profiled as a Communist, and that was sent out. And it was seen by people like Fletcher Prouty in New Zealand several hours after his arrest. I think you saw the same wire story whether you were in Egypt or Alaska.
That wire story was ready to go because it was a cover story. And when they were on Air Force One going back to Washington there, Mr. Teddy White wrote about it in his book, The Making of the President, Lyndon Johnson, before he set foot in Washington, was told by the White House Situation Room that the shooting had been done by one man, Lee Oswald, who had this psychotic past. The story was in place and it was told to the people on Air Force One. This was before he was arrested for the murder of the president, as you know it, around midnight of that night; this is at 6:00 o’clock Washington time.
The press, furthermore– On Sunday morning when Mr. Oswald was killed, as you know, The New York Times headline was very clean and simple and it did say, “President’s assassin is shot to death in a jail corridor by Dallas citizen.” That convicted him in the public’s mind, I believe, and had a lot to do with the consequent attitude of the press because they didn’t bother to say “President’s alleged assassination”; this was a neat ending to this John Wayne movie. And the media, in a sense, convicted Mr. Oswald and he never had a trial; he never had legal representation, and basically he never had the decency of a defense.
The media has continued on and, I believe, ignored the origins of the Vietnam war. When the issue came up recently with the John Newman book, we have had a difficult time to try to get this debated. We have not even had the book reviewed in such organs as The Washington Post and The New York Times. We are trying to get it reviewed, because this book shows declassified documents; it shows something about our history and the origins of the Vietnam war that we don’t yet understand.
The Pentagon Papers has not gone far enough. We can go on and on with the media, with the Laos and the Cambodia issue, the Iran issue, the Nicaragua issue. But essentially, I think that the media has functioned in this way. It has libeled four people because these four people represent an unofficial history. The four people being: Jack Kennedy, Jim Garrison, Lee Oswald, and now, me and my film. [Laughter] [Applause]
It makes me doubt all our history; all our history. I grew up in the forties and the fifties and the sixties, reading the Random House series of books on American history. I’ve come to have severe doubts about Columbus, [Applause] Washington, the Civil War being fought for slavery, the Indian Wars, World War I, World War II, the supposed fight against Nazism and/or Japanese control of resources in Southeast Asia. I doubted everything; I don’t even know if I was born and who my parents were; [Laughter] maybe virtual reality. Howard Zinn, I think, gets it best with People’s History of the United States, and I would urge you to reexamine it. And that book, I think, should be in schools and I don’t see it in schools. I see the two paragraphs of American history on “Oswald did it alone,” and that’s all we get. These kids are not getting an alternative version of American history.
Our government, the establishment that I have seen– And Norman and Nora know a lot more about it than I do. But what I have seen is a very narrow, narrow prism, a dinner-party parochial mentality of people that have dinners in New York and in Washington, and who decide what is good for the world, what is right, what is official, what is history. And I know, I’ve been out in the world; so have all these panelists. And what I have always seen, whether it be in Vietnam or at a ballgame, has never matched what I hear in the official organs. [Applause]
Even if I am totally wrong, Mr. Epstein, I am still right in the sense of Shakespeare’s analogy to Richard III. Elizabethan politics dictated at that time that because Henry Tudor had defeated Richard at Bosworth Field, that Henry had to be the good guy and Richard III had to be the bad guy. And I’m saying to you, I’m essentially right because I am depicting the evil, with a capital “E,” of government. And in dramatizing this particular set of characters– Mr. Garrison, Mr. Ferrie, Mr. Shaw– I am dramatizing the universal flaws in the modern conditions of our government.
Long after we argue the points of chain-of-evidence, 5.6 seconds, three shots, the movie will have entered the realm of myth. And still, in 100 years, we’ll be damned all over again, because the movie touches on two different but eternal myths.
The Myth One: the classical myth of the charismatic, young prince who renounces war. She is his nuclear sword to be struck down by his courtiers. Camelot stripped of Mçrt d’Artur, MacBeth, Caesar. Ongoing American tragedy, far removed from Lerner & Lowe. And two, the modern myth, is that of the common man: Jim Garrison, Frank Capra, risking a comfortable life to do battle with the forces of overwhelming evil. He cannot in the end, of course, be triumphant because this would mean a successful political revolution against this invisible government. He must fail, and become a martyr in his quest for truth.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, in the nineties, must reflect the tragic realism of the repressed and ignorant masses, still imprisoned in a single-party superstate with its own Cold War police, religion and culture. Thank you.
NAVASKY: This is an eloquent set of statements here. We’re a little over our time so I’m going to try to keep brief what goes on between you, so that we can get to the questions off to my left and from the audience. But first, let me say: Does anyone feel the need to make a response rather than ask a question, because something you said was misinterpreted or point of personal privilege, or anything like that. Does The New York Times Arts & Leisure section want to make a response? [Laughter]
Okay, if not, let me ask one question to all of you, and then ask any of you if you want to say something more. As I heard these fascinating statements, here’s the question that I had: Norman, as I listened, congratulated Oliver Stone for making a powerful film which may change history. And Epstein congratulated Oliver for making a good movie but said, “Don’t confuse that with the facts; it has nothing to do with the facts.” Nora– I don’t remember whether you congratulated him, but– said he made his narrative, and that it was bound to be attacked for the reason that people disagreed with it politically. But also, it was a misconceived attack because that’s what it’s all about; narrative is what it’s all about.
Now here’s my question: It seems to me that there are two criteria by which we are judging this film and films here. One are (sic) criteria internal to the film. Is it a good movie, as you talk about it in, I guess, traditional film school terms. And the other is, what is its impact in the world? And it’s the second point that my question has to do with.
My question is: if you are judging it by its impact in the world, by its political impact, and if– as a lot of things that Oliver Stone said make one feel– he cares passionately about how it’s received in the world, then are you not entering the realm of a political argument? And if you are, what’s wrong with people who disagree with you saying, “Hey, you got it wrong! You got the facts wrong!” because they want to have a different political impact in the world.
If they do it hypocritically and pretend to be attacking the form, in the way that Nora Ephron described, then it seems to me there’s something wrong with it. But if they are putting their strategy against Oliver Stone’s strategy to reach a political result, as well as their image against his image, is there anything wrong with that?
That is a question that I put to anyone on the panel who wants to talk about it. Norman, did you?
MAILER: Yeah, I don’t know if I can make it up there.
NAVASKY: Yeah, okay. And from now on, I’m going to let you sit there to talk, but you can come up here if you want to.
MAILER: I think Victor put us into a high focus. I’m going to change the axis of the question just a little by saying that I’ve never seen a good movie or a great movie or an exciting movie where I don’t always– since I’ve been writing for, what, close to 50 years and making movies for something like 20 years– I don’t think I ever see a movie these days without thinking of how I would have done it. This is not egoism; this is professionalism. That is, one of the ways in which I learn– because I’m a professional who writes and occasionally makes a movie– one of the ways I learn more is by thinking. Whenever I see something that’s good or exciting or stimulating, I think, “How would I have done it?”
And I learned a great deal from this film because when I saw it, while I was very moved by it and thought of all the powerful emotions that enabled me to say it was a great film, at the same time I felt, “Why didn’t Stone do the real Garrison? That would have been, by my light, more exciting,” I thought, because there, what you’ve got is a true protagonist. You don’t have Mr. Smith or Mr. Deeds. What you have then is a complex man with a lot of dark sides to his nature who was ambitious as hell. Maybe secretly he’s running for president. And he thinks if he can crack this case, he will go all the way. And it seemed to me that would have made more of a drama.
And maybe it would have, but I think it would have ended up– And this is what I learned from it. It would have ended up being a drama that would have appealed, perhaps, to about one-tenth as many people as JFK has. …Which tells us, in effect, what state this country has come to, and how close we are, indeed, to fascism, which is indeed that the only way we can get rid of one crippling myth is to drive it out with another. [Applause]
So what I recognize is that I’d really learned something from Stone, which is: At this point, if you want to make history, you almost have to stop dealing with the facts, because the other guys, who’ve been controlling our history ever since the Second World War, have been manipulating those facts to their hearts’ content, and we get trapped. We get trapped [Applause] and destroyed as if we were 10,000 troops going out against 500,000 troops in terms of force, when we try to conduct an intimate, fact-by-fact contest with these people.
But what we have going in this is the possibility, finally, for an interesting political movement which has nothing to do with electing people. Because we’re worn out with that. What it has to do with is getting, finally, a true and powerful commission made up of enough legislators to have subpoena power. I don’t know much about subpoena power, but you obviously have to have a commission that does have subpoena power, whether you need legislators or not. Some people told me you don’t even need legislators; you do have to have the power to command files and to command witnesses.
And then it ought to be a commission of truly educated and dedicated citizens who’d be willing to devote some months, or possibly more, some years of their time to finding out what did happen and what didn’t. Because the horror we really face is that we’re probably never going to know. But at least let us have that tragic dignity as Americans, which is we can say, “It was messed up so much by so many people from Left to Right, all terrified that they might have something to do with it. Everything from Castro wondering whether his own DGI had anything to do with it; and liberals here, because we’re also guilty of this, thinking, “It can’t possibly be Castro’s; I don’t want to hear anything of that sort”; all the way over to John Birchers on the other end thinking, “God, did we do it? Did that maniac I have for dinner every Sunday is”– [Laughter]
Everything in between. The CIA went through horrors. The Office of Naval Intelligence went through horrors. Everyone, everyone who was engaged in this country from Left to Right across the entire spectrum, had an absolute, immediate reflex, which is: “My God, what if some of our people are involved in this?” And so what they did is they shut down the evidence; they destroyed the evidence, and the more violent people on the fringes started murdering people who might have something to do with the evidence. And the thing now is a destroyed battlefield.
But maybe a commission; maybe a commission of absolutely dedicated people could at least clear the crowd and establish what we can know and what we can’t know about this. Because until we find that out, it does nothing but breed two illnesses: apathy and paranoia. Thank you.
NAVASKY: Does anybody else on the panel want to speak to the question I raised? If not, what I’m going to do is now ask you whether you have anything you want to say to each other? Or would you rather hear from our distinguished questioners? I’m going to take this silence as silence, and I’m not even going to ask Leon to tell us about subpoena power, but when the Mailer Commission is constituted we’re going to call on you, Leon, which I support personally.
So I’m now going to turn this over, back to Jack Salzman, who is going to conduct a question period. And I want to say, we promised to try to do this within a two-hour framework and with the permission of Oliver and others, I’d like to try to break our promise because we’re running so far behind. But not by a lot. That’s all, so anyway, let’s go to Jack, okay?
SALZMAN: Let me first introduce the three questioners we have …One question each. And then we’ll start a discussion and then see where we go with that, but really try to take questions from the audience….
On my extreme left is Christopher Hitchins, who is known to many of you as a columnist for The Nation, Washington editor for Harpers, book reviewer for Newsday, and the author of Blood, Class and Nostalgia. Next to Mr. Hitchins is Bill Sharp, who is the director of the Institute for Media Analysis and known to you for his work with Jim Garrison’s book. And to my immediate left is Max Holland, who is a contributing editor to The Nation, to The Wilson Quarterly, the author of When the Machines Stop, and is working on a biography of John McCloy, one of the members of the Warren Commission.
A very quick question before I turn it over to our distinguished and important questioners; to anyone there, since all of you have commented to some extent on this matter. But I wonder, since all films are obviously political in one way or the other, and all films have a political impact, if only to constantly reinforce the status quo, I wonder if any of you would want to comment on why you think films like Silkwood, Daniel and JFK are the ones that get attacked most roundly? The response to JFK has been extraordinary. I wonder, Mr. Mailer, do you think it’s those people out there, those other people, who are in some way creating their own conspiracy? You did suggest though, Ms. Ephron, that the media is in fact operating in some way. But why the attack on films of this nature, on films that do engage in political concern?
MAILER: Well, I’m tempted to give the short answer, which is, as Leon Trotsky once said, certain questions answer themselves by being asked. [Applause] But briefly… I think people who write for the media, who work for the media, are always suffused with bad conscience. And I think it is inbuilt because one attains a certain kind of power for too little. And one’s always making decisions that affect the lives of other people too quickly, too quickly. I once said that about reporters, that being a reporter meant that there was an imperative to become hysterical every 24 hours, because you have come up with the facts before you know them.
And because you very often come up with facts that are in error, you very quickly learn if you are a reporter that get something out that’s wrong. Because if you’re not sued, it’s fine; you’ll get the real story tomorrow when the aggrieved person calls into the paper. [Laughter] [Applause]
So given all that, they live … by a conscience. And of course, we always judge. We’ll never forgive a criminal for a crime that the judge is capable of committing himself. And therefore, of course they attack people who play games with facts, because that’s what they do all the time and they can’t bear to face themselves.
SALZMAN: Should we let that response stand for the rest, or would any of you like to comment? All right, I will then turn this over to Max Holland.
MAX HOLLAND: Every art form has its own standards and methodology. I embrace the notion that a filmmaker may engage in certain peculiar devices to arrive at truth, which as Dwight McDonald wrote, “something different from, though not unrelated, to the facts.” A filmmaker’s artifice may include such devices as creating a composite character, inventing a character out of whole cloth, collapsing or elongating time, and including or combining footage from other sources.
None of these devices, to my mind, are objectionable in order to impose a narrative, as Nora Ephron described it. What I cannot accept is that facts don’t matter, and that all facts are equally important. Facts are not equal, and when a filmmaker bends facts or ignores certain facts in order to create or support a thesis, the filmmaker crosses a line. Here are some important facts that matter, and how they are treated in the film, JFK:
In life, shortly after Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested, Dallas police found a picture of him holding a rifle. The picture was taken by his wife Marina. Lee Harvey Oswald, when he was being interrogated, claimed that his head had been imposed on another man’s body. In 1979 the House Select Committee on Assassinations, using additional techniques not available to the Warren Commission, established that “the camera owned by Oswald had taken the picture and that the negatives had not been tampered with; further, that the rifle in the picture was the rifle found in the Texas Schoolbook Depository.” This is page 55 of the Committee’s report.
In the film, JFK, a person is shown fabricating this photo. In life, “when Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested by Dallas police in a movie theater, he drew a gun, a gun later shown to be consistent with the revolver that was used to kill Officer J.D. Tippett. This is the proverbial smoking gun if there ever was one.” That’s page 59 of the House report. In the film, JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald is sitting passively in the movie theater when arrested by Dallas police; he draws no gun.
Finally, the infamous single-bullet theory: when the House reinvestigates —
What obligation does Hollywood owe facts, accuracy, the truth? When popular history like Oliver Stone’s JFK gets hold of a subject, what kind of damage can be done?
Those are the central questions in this panel discussion with authors Norman Mailer and Edward J. Epstein, screenwriter Nora Ephron, and producer/director Oliver Stone. Although Stone’s 1991 film was hailed as a cinematic tour de force, it ignited a firestorm of controversy for the way it mixed fact with conjecture, truth with fiction. The discussion was held at Town Hall, New York City, on the night of March 3, 1992. It was sponsored by The Nation Institute and the Center for American Culture Studies at Columbia University.
Here is the edited transcript of the second half of this three-hour discussion:
MAX HOLLAND: Finally, the infamous Single Bullet Theory. When the House reinvestigated the Kennedy assassination in 1979, their conclusion, using sophisticated techniques not even available to the Warren Commission, was that “the forensic pathology panel’s conclusions were consistent with the so-called Single Bullet Theory advanced by the Warren Commission.” Dr. Michael Baden, who is chief here in New York City, was the head of that panel.
In the film JFK, as everyone who has seen it will remember, perhaps the climax of that film comes when Kevin Costner says “We are supposed to believe that a bullet hit John Kennedy and then took a 90 degree turn in mid-air, when all the evidence points that there was a single bullet consistent with the wounds found on Kennedy and John Connelly.” I give only three instances, there are many, many more. Facts that Oliver Stone doesn’t even concede exist. Given this tendentious treatment, JFK the film does not reclaim our history.
Rather, to my mind, it reflects what Mr. Stone has said elsewhere about movies in general. This is from an article in Mother Jones, March-April 1991, not too long after the film about The Doors was released:
” I feel that movies are not reality, but an approximation of reality, and in some cases, a wished fulfillment,” Stone once told American Film.
Thus my question to Mr. Stone: Isn’t the film JFK a case of wish fulfillment?
STONE: I don’t know where you get your facts.
STONE: First of all you point to the House investigation as if it were a final investigation, [Applause] and we know that the House, I think, the House investigation was severely compromised by Mr. Blakey’s participation in the house investigation. Even you Mr. Epstein have joined me in that. The House investigation I believe started very well with Mr. Sprague and I think politics de-railed it. But there is some work. But I cannot say that’s the Bible here. When you talk about Marina, I asked her that specific question, she did say she took the photograph with Lee, yes. With that rifle, she said that to me. But she did say very clearly, that she was standing on the stairs when she took the photograph. And as you know, the photograph shows the stairs behind Mr. Oswald.
We also now know, from this last week, that there was a strange mat found down by the Dallas Police Files. Seems to be a cut-out of some kind, that maybe was used in this event. We don’t know what it’s for, it’s a mystery object, much like the Rosetta Stone you talk about being the Tippit killing. Which is– The Tippit killing, very blatantly, there is no chain of evidence on that particular gun that Mr. Oswald had. The cartridges found at the scene do not match. There was the– Officer Poe put his initials inside the cartridge cases. Those same cartridges never reappeared again. They just vanished. The closest eye witness to the murder of Tippit never identified Oswald in a lineup, Domingo Benavides. Mrs. Acquilla Clemons never identified– saw two gunmen.
And we have the whole issue of this lineup. The lineup itself is highly suspect because it wasn’t done right. Mr. Oswald was brought screaming into a lineup, with a t-shirt, a black eye, and protesting that he had no lawyer present. And he identified himself by name at the time, as Lee Harvey Oswald. Who was famous throughout the country as being, because of the media, the assassin of the President. And that’s where.– The Warren Commission found their five or six witnesses that pointed to Oswald as the killer of Tippit. But where is the chain of evidence ballistically? It does not exist.
The autopsy sir, the Bethesda autopsy. If you at this point maintain that those autopsy are correct I think that you are severely dislocated from reality. [Laughter] [Applause]
That autopsy, at best, if not rigged, was a highly compromised affair. As Jim Garrison brought out in his trial, by bringing Pierre Fink to the trial, who said on the stand that he was not allowed to track the wound in the neck, because there were military officers there telling him what to do.
We also now know, from the Gemberling Document, and Agent O’Neill and Agent Gemberling, FBI people, that the doctor put his finger in the back wound and it was like three or four centimeters long. It was not a deep wound. That is supposed to be the magic bullet of which you speak. That means that bullet went into the back and came out his neck. But we know that the wound was a shallow wound. That has never been explained by anybody from the House– Or the Warren or the House investigations.
HOLLAND: Well that’s an interesting mªlange of fact and fiction. I guess my response to you would be, you are severely dislocated sir, if you do not believe that John F. Kennedy participated and helped plan efforts to assassinate Castro and the coup that overthrew Diem.
STONE: Well I don’t– Present your evidence that he knew about the assassinations to kill Castro or Diem.
ARTHUR SALZMAN: Okay, Professor Friedman?
STONE: In fact I spoke to Mr. Lucien Conein, who is was with the CIA and he, if anything Mr. Conein would have a motive to destroy Kennedy because he was on the side of a very strong Vietnam policy. Mr. Conein told me, in Arlington, Virginia that the plan was to remove the Diems, get them on a plane, there was a plane standing there. He said the Diem brothers went to the tarmac, they were about to get on the plane and get out of the country, when one of the Diem brothers turned to the older one and said– They muttered something, they whispered, and then they decided that they wanted to go back to the palace, presumably to get some more something, he didn’t know what. They went back and they were never seen again because the Vietnamese military interrupted them.
SALZMAN: We’re going to try and keep this rather orderly, we’re going to try. So Professor Friedman, and then Mr. Epstein.
LEON FRIEDMAN: Well I’m sitting here trying to sort this all out, and in five minutes you’re not going to be able to give all the evidence. What happened between the House report and the original Warren Commission report were that the doctors at the Warren Commission did not use photographs, x-rays, in their report. Partly because all the evidence they had to rely on had to be published thereafter and they didn’t want the photographs and x-rays to go. So the first time around the Warren Commission did not use the original x-rays and photographs. The second time around — there were two other reports in between — the House Assassination Committee did use photographs and x-rays. And they did make at least three or four additional analyses of both the ballistics and the entry wounds that the Warren Commission did not.
And among the things that they did were to discover that the bullet that went through Connolly — First of all the bullet that went through Kennedy, wherever it was, the fibers in the back went in and the fibers of his shirt in the front went out. So that is consistent with an entry wound in the back and exit wound in the front. In addition, that was never any doubt, there was no question about it at the autopsy. Mr. Stone is absolutely correct, the doctors couldn’t find the entry wound, their explanations for that, I don’t want to bore you with all of that. But what the House Assassination Committee did was to discover that Connolly’s wound, and they looked at photographs, was oval in shape. That is to say it wasn’t a round wound, which indicates that the bullet was tumbling. And the only way it could’ve tumbled is if it had gone through something beforehand. And what else was there to go through other than Kennedy. And, again, their analysis, eight of nine, Cyril Wecht from Pittsburgh has dissented from a lot of this because he thinks too much metal was lost– So that the two additional analyses that were made by the House Assassination Committee was to look more closely at the wounds, to look at the x-rays and photographs, to check the size of the wound, and to actually– They did compare his x-rays, the x-rays were without question JFK’s x-rays, they looked at dental records to do so.
And it was their analysis, again there is nothing sure about this, they said more probably than not, in their opinion, whatever that meant, there was a single bullet. There were two bullets that went into Kennedy from above and behind. Now that does not disprove conspiracy, that only means that the base facts on which you start your analysis were consistent between the two reports.
Now Oliver Stone is absolutely correct, the lineup was a horror show. Oswald is dragged in there and says “Look, what am I doing here. The other people don’t look the same as me.” And the eyewitness says that’s the one who did it, the one who’s up there screaming and yelling [Laughter]. Now there was a lot of sloppiness in the evidence, but I suppose what you have to do is start at whatever hard, I mean again not for movie purposes, for determination of what happened, you start with what solid hard evidence you have and build up from that. And the House Assassination Report added something significant to the early report and it seems after looking at that material, that the evidence for two bullets, above and behind, starts to look a little better than it did the first time around. Whatever that adds to the whole controversy.
STONE: This is nonsense [Laughter]. The HSCA Single Bullet Theory is not the Warren Commission Single Bullet Theory, because the neck wound that was originally here in the Warren Commission was moved below the shoulder blade. When you move a wound down six inches it changes all the trajectories and the whole scenario. It was in the back. And you are still not dealing with the Gemberling and O’Neill testimony that there was a shallow back wound and they saw the doctor put his finger in that shallow back wound.
You also, as you saw in my movie, you saw the face, you saw the stolen photographs of Kennedy at the autopsy and he’s lying with his face up. That was a real picture taken by a Secret Service agent. It was stolen and it was passed on to the research community. The face is a clean face. If that shot went into the back of his head as they showed us in that phony photograph showing the small wound in the back of his head– Believe me, I was in the infantry so was Mr. Mailer, his face would’ve been blown out from the front. There would’ve been an exit area in his face [Applause], there would be no face. And the fibers facing out on the neck of the shirt are from a scalpel cut. The Dallas doctors cut his shirt and tied to perform a tracheotomy, it is not a bullet hole.
SALZMAN: At the risk of never getting to Bill Schaap, we’ll take a quick response from Mr. Epstein.
Edward J. EPSTEIN: Yeah I’m not going to really respond. I agree with Oliver Stone on a couple of points. I just wanted to make two comments.
I just really want to make two comments which go to the heart of this discussion. Your question on the so-called Single Bullet Theory– You say that it’s a fact that a single bullet went through President Kennedy and Connolly. It’s not a fact. It may be a possibility, that’s all the House Committee says. Whether you believe it or not, it uses the word that you quoted — “consistent”. It’s a probability. I don’t know whether the odds are one in ten, one in a thousand, one in one. But you can’t hold the film accountable for not putting in every probability.
Now as far as the film goes, I didn’t know how to interpret all this. Because if this was from Garrison’s point of view, as I interpreted the film– Garrison did believe that the Single Bullet Theory was wrong. He didn’t actually appear in the trial, his assistant DA did, but he would’ve said those things if he appeared there. So I agree with Norman’s standard that that’s perfectly fair. I mean if this is presenting Jim Garrison’s view– When I saw the film I thought “That is Jim Garrison.” You know, the photograph you bring up certainly was a photograph that Marina took of Lee Harvey Oswald. I know that because the photograph was given to eight other people and two of them gave me copies of the photographs. So I don’t doubt your point, but I know that Jim Garrison believed that the photograph was the composite he says it was. So if we’re calling Mr. Stone and telling him to be accurate in presenting Garrison’s point of view, we can’t tell him to fictionalize Garrison too, in order to make him come out with conclusions
SALZMAN: Why don’t we take a question from the man who has worked closely with Jim Garrison on the book. Mr. Schaap.
BILL SCHAAP: Thank you I just– Is this on? I just want to preface my question with one thing I really have to say to Norman. Because I’m more concerned if he feels this way than I am if Mr. Epstein feels this way. I’ve known Jim Garrison for many years and my partner Ellen Ray has known him 25 years, and he’s not, and I don’t think ever was, a venal, ambitious man. To me it’s inconceivable that anyone with ambition for high office would possibly have dreamed of doing what Jim Garrison did [Applause]. Now I — Although my colleagues and I did publish Jim’s book On The Trail Of The Assassins, of which we will always be proud, actually in fact for many years I spent most of my time simply battling the CIA through Covert Action Information Bulletin and a series of books, including Garrison’s.
So I’d like to pose this to the panel. In my opinion, the CIA in particular, and I’m using it broadly and we might include the related military intelligence agencies and the intelligence components of the FBI and the executive– At least as the CIA is constituted at present, with the bulk of its resources devoted not to gathering intelligence like many Americans think, although less and less every day, but to covert operations and disinformation, I think it ought simply to be abolished [Applause]. I think we ought to start over with an intelligence organization that actually gathers intelligence. And doesn’t raise and deploy secret armies, topple elected governments around the world, assassinate leaders, cause literally, not figuratively but literally millions of deaths, and orchestrate a worldwide network of disinformation.
So I want to ask the panelists this. If you agree with me about the damage the CIA has done and can do, and I’m not pre-supposing that there are no CIA fans on the panel although I have my doubts, irrespective of what it or any of its present or former personnel might have had to do with the assassination, doesn’t this film JFK provide the best opportunity we’ve had in years and years to mobilize public opinion, especially the young, against this most powerful branch of secret government?
And if you agree with that, I would wonder if any of you have any ideas on what we could do to keep this ball rolling [Applause]. Beyond opening the files, we’re all in favor of opening the files, although I was most impressed by Norman’s line in his article about the Mercedes in the South Bronx– “I’m not so sure what’s going to be left.” But can’t we start a national debate now about the need to get rid of the invisible government and in particular the CIA?
NORMAN MAILER: Well you’re not going to be happy with what I have to say. I was over at Langley about a month ago. It was reported in the Times. It was misreported in the Times. It was reported as a love fest and of course it wasn’t that. It was a courteous occasion. Because one of the things we were each trying to show the other is that we had better manners. The CIA was trying to show me they had better manners than I did, and I was trying to show them that I had better manners than they do. But it was not a love fest. We had serious disagreements. I did– I was able to say at one point, because as I say they were quite courteous and listened to me so carefully, that I got carried away with it until afterward I realized that I had told them much more about what I thought than they had told me about what they thought [Laughter]. But then I thought afterward, well that’s what they’re supposed to be. An intelligence-gathering information–[Laughter].
So, at any rate, the point I want to make is that I think we’re entering an enormously complex and difficult world. Ten years ago I would’ve said yes, abolish the God damn thing. Get rid of it, it’s hideous. It’s just a towel boy for the Cold War. It obeys the needs and necessities of every President who’s carrying on that phony Cold War, knowing perfectly well that the Russians are through. But we’ve still got to go on with it because it works. It works for getting votes, it works for getting this. It is– They don’t say to themselves it’s also going to wreck the economy but now we found that out.
The Cold War– Whether you support the Cold War or not, the Cold War went on– I was saying to them at Langley, twenty years longer than it had to. Nixon was probably ready to make the peace back in the early `70s. Which I present to you– If you want to have a nice paranoid notion to sleep on tonight, maybe that’s why Watergate occurred. [Laughter]
But– The new Gary Sick. But at any rate, the problem we face now is that now we need a good intelligence agency. We need a very good one. We need one even capable of occasionally doing something pretty ugly and dirty. I am not absolutely convinced in my own heart that it would’ve been worse to kill Saddam Hussein than to kill hundreds of thousands of Iraqi [Applause]. It’s a very difficult point because the moment you start saying yes let’s have wet jobs you’re opening the door to all sorts of horrors. But there’s a terrible horror on the other side.
SALZMAN: Wait, wait, wait, hold on a minute.
MAILER: What we do need, and I’ll end on this. What we absolutely do have to know at this point is which Third World countries in the world are getting nuclear potential. Because if you get a minor war between two Third World countries that’s a nuclear war, it’s going to make the oil fields of Kuwait look like a pool. The ecological damage that’ll be done, it won’t destroy the world, but the ecological damage will be horrendous. So that we have to have that kind of intelligence at least.
This happens to be the wrong year in which, I believe, to dismantle the CIA. What we have to hope instead is that maybe they can come around the turn if America comes around the turn. If America, as I fear, gets worse and worse and goes further and further to the right, it will really make very little difference whether there’s a powerful CIA or not, because there’ll be so many powerful right-wing organizations running the government that it just won’t matter. But if we go the other way, if we move to the left, there has to come a point when there is, I wouldn’t say a rapprochement with the CIA, but a recognition that it can have serious functions. Thank you.
SALZMAN: Victor do you want to respond.
VICTOR NAVASKY: I would only say, it seems to me the way to find out whether Third World countries have nuclear capability is to give support to a strong United Nations international inspection machinery [Applause], not to a strong secret police organization.
SALZMAN: Mr. Stone? Do you want to comment on the abolishment of the CIA?
STONE: Umm– [Laughter]. Listen, I tried to see Gates but he won’t see me. But he’d see Norman.
SALZMAN: Okay, our last question. Mr. Hitchens.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: I’m all to conscious of occupying the ghastly position between you and your turn so I’ll be brief [Laughter]. I’ll take my stand on the high ground of history however, in the seconds that remain to me. The reason I’ll do that is because history is, as I was taught, a dialectical. And synthesizes fact and myth for our convenience. And I have a question to two gentleman on the panel, to Oliver Stone and to Normal Mailer. Both of these comrades have made great use of a key phrase upon which I want to take them. The phrase is “American Innocence” and the corollary word is “loss of same” as experienced in 1963. I myself find this an objectionably narcissistic description of the history of the period. [Applause]
The United States in 1963 was a society stranded between McCarthyism and desegregation. Still a segregated society. Kennedy and his family had supported McCarthy and had not supported desegregation [Applause]. It was a society where Joseph Kennedy, a man who had made his fortune by organized crime and who had, and I very much sympathize with what Oliver Stone says about the Second World War, origins of the Cold War, but you had in Joseph Kennedy’s case being flat out on the other side in the Second World War.
Where a man of this caliber could buy political careers for more than one of his sons. It was a society in which the President could plan the invasion of Cuba, at least discussion the assassination of the Cuban Revolution’s leader, and fuck the mistress of one of the mob leaders who was involved in the second project [Laughter]. And keep all of that out of the press which adored him. You media haters [Applause]– You media haters, and I know you’re out there, should ask yourselves, is it not the case that the modern art of media manipulation begins with Camelot? Only The Nation, only The Nation resisted Arthur Schlessinger’s pressure not to print what it knew about the Bay of Pigs. Everybody else played the White House game, and the media game was Keep Kennedy Afloat. It was a society in which JFK, in other words, could run against Eisenhower and Nixon from the right, inventing a missile gap which he knew not to exist, and thus very greatly gratifying, incidentally, the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Now if this gentleman is the idyllic realm of Sir Galahad of which we have been deprived, might not your counter-myth turn out to be somewhat more conservative than you have so far allowed? And if indeed we are to get another and more serious inquiry, why would it be the case that most of the missing evidence is sealed in the Kennedy family vaults and archives?
Or should I say the Kennedy Dynasty vaults and archives. In order to perpetuate the Arthurian metaphor which we’ve been stuck, ever since Jackie Kennedy went to see a musical. [Laughter] [Applause]
In other words, what do you think gentleman, what do you think ladies, what do you think comrades and friends all, of the only likely and plausible theory, the one that fits all the known facts, and does no violence to a sense of justice in proportion, known as the Blowback Theory? Whereby John Fitzgerald Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy of sources he had himself willingly set in motion. And the cover-up is just the cover-up, because the pre-existing use by the President of those sources is listed among the things that are not fit to print, and not fit for us to know. Do we not therefore have a hypothesis that does no favor to any realm of any illusion? Thank you.
MAILER: …this country because he’s one of the few examples we know of a man who started with every tradition, and familial tradition on the right. And with a great deal of political skill and sophistication and double-dealing, like all major politicians, he moved and maneuvered, and moved and maneuvered, but he was able to react to experience. So that our take on him, if we track him, was that he moved at least to the center from the far right. And I do happen to know a bit about what was going on with Castro. And the fact of the matter is that like all politicians, like Castro himself, Kennedy was doing two things at once. He was carrying on Mongoose and attempting to destroy Cuba, and weaken it, savage it, scar it, and on the other hand he was also beginning to recognize that it was going nowhere and he was also taking up peace initiatives. This is what politicians do. They work both sides of the street. They’re incompetent if they don’t.
And it got to the point where we don’t know. One of the things that that assassination took away from us is the further growth or failure to grow of Jack Kennedy. So I don’t see him as a little liberal plaster saint, but I do think he was a man who was flexible, who was extremely intelligent for a U.S. President, and he was growing. [Laughter] [Applause]
SALZMAN: We’re ready for questions, what I must ask– Photographers if you’re in the middle of the aisle would you please move away. I need people to come down to the microphone.
__: Let Stone respond!
SALZMAN: Do you have a response?
STONE: I think Norman said it well. And I don’t think Christopher you can visit the sins of the father on the son [Applause]. In the Trotskyite tradition I feel always that you find it impossible for the system to adjust and to reform. And this has always been source of my debates with you. I feel that the system is changeable, and I think Norman put his finger on it when he talked about the ability of the man to change. He was an intelligent and articulate man, and he was a smart man, and he saw it coming. Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was very politically popular. Peace was popular in ’64. He had, of course, to maintain a strong, as Bush does with Buchanan, a strong conservative position. Because the Goldwater thing was coming.
And I think that there’s one small little thing that you overlook. He may have been involved with McCarthy but just before he died he made– There was an award that he was about to make, to Robert Oppenheimer, he was going to give him the Enrico Fermi Prize. And as you know, that was an extremely, extremely sensitive issue. I think that Jack Kennedy came a long way and would’ve been a great second-term president.
SALZMAN: Do we have a question?
__: More Hitchens!
__: Yeah more Hitchens!
HITCHENS: That’s really not sufficient public demand but thanks all the same [Laughter]. I do think it is time for the floor.
Q: I don’t know which mic is supposed to go first, but I guess I’ll start. I’d like to ask– I’d like to add to something that Mr. Hitchens said about the innocence thing before. Mr. Mailer, to further correct you, you said that when Kennedy was shot that that was the end of American innocence. You’re a little bit closer than Don Henley but you’re still way far off. When the Europeans came here and holocausted most of the American Indians, that was the end of American innocence. Since that time this country has treated blacks, gays, Asians, and many other groups like horse shit. And I don’t know why you indulge in this myth.
And I’d like to ask you– You were on Primetime Live a couple of months ago and Sam Donaldson asked you about the Gulf War. You seemed to say something a little bit different tonight, but you– He said “Are you for the Gulf War?” and you said “Well it shouldn’t have happened but it’s good for America to have a war like that every twenty years.” Were you serious?
MAILER: Well that’s two questions. The last one first. I think we did need that war, I think that’s how bad things were. It was not a war that made one the least bit happy but I think we needed it. I think things would be even worse without that war.
Q: Why not go to war on the people–
MAILER: May I finish? May I finish?
SALZMAN: Wait a minute, please.
__: … (inaudible) Genocide, 100,000 people dead!
MAILER: Let me finish would you.
MAILER: One of the reasons there were 100,000 people dead is that–
__: Because of George Bush, that’s why. [Applause]
MAILER: Hey pal, knock off [Laughter]. If I’m talking I’m talking. If you have no interest in hearing what I have to say then either make more noise or leave. But if I am talking I hate being interrupted, it’s like getting hit with a jab. Doesn’t bring out the best in you.
George Bush blew that war. I think he’d had only 300 Americans killed and I think he felt at the end of the war that day, it would be a great record. So he didn’t want to go on one more day. If he’d gone on one more day there might not have been 100,000 Iraqi killed. But in any event, war is merely one of the horrors that face us. If you’re going to take an absolute liberal position, as for instance Victor did, and said let’s do it through the UN, the fact of the matter is the UN is not competent to find out where all the nuclear things are buried. We’re going to miss the KGB before it’s all over because they were good at that. The CIA is probably pretty good at that. You need that kind of information.
We’re entering an extraordinary world where all the old signals are off. It used to be that Third World countries were wonderful little places that were terribly exploited. Now they’re ugly places that are run by maniacs very often. We have to face that fact. If you keep using liberal jargon forever you will finally die in your own platitudes.
Q: Who sold arms to Iraq and Iran in the early `80s? Are you a moron?
SALZMAN: Excuse me.
People you really must ask questions. If you disagree with what somebody has to say please do not address a question to that person. It is–
Q: That gentleman has left the mic.
SALZMAN: It is very hard for us to see with the lights on, so when you speak– We’re going to go upstairs, down here, the guy in the center, and then we’ll go over there, and then over there, but please be sure to identify yourself. And please make it a very quick question.
Q: Mr. Stone, thank you for making JFK. I have a question. Mark Lane recently wrote that George Bush was a CIA agent operating out of Houston, Texas in ’63, and he was connected with the Bay of Pigs operation, and he knew Mohrenschildt, who was Oswald’s connection supposedly to the CIA. Now after your extensive research I was wondering, do you know or do you believe Bush was CIA operative in ’63, connected possibly to the assassination? And do you believe that he should be impeached for his dealings? [Laughter]
Notwithstanding Iran-Contra and his involvement.
STONE: Mark Lane has made an issue of it, he knows more about it. I know that there was a CIA agent called George Bush, by that name, but he seems to have a different middle initial and there’s been some confusion on the issue. I do believe that it’s possible Mr. Bush knew some of these Cuban anti-Castro exiles, because he was in the oil business. And he may well have been involved with the CIA at that point. But I don’t put him at Dealey Plaza or see him there [Laughter]. But we should ask him that. And as Norman said, there should be an investigation. We should have people like Richard Helms grilled. We should have people like Ruth Payne brought out, and people like Warren de Breys (?), the FBI agent that handled Oswald. He’s still alive and he’s in New Orleans, he’s 80-years-old, let’s bring him out there, let’s have a strong investigation. Get to the bottom of it. Thank you. [Applause]
NAVASKY: There was a George Bush in the CIA. Back in 1963. The agency– When a fellow named McBride wrote an article about it in The Nation, the agency for the first time in its history publicly denied something out loud. It always said we don’t comment on it, and it referred reporters to this man, without giving his address, but it told what his rank was in the agency and what he did. McBride then tracked down this other, second George Bush. The second George Bush had indeed worked for the agency, but he was not the George Bush that McBride had written about, he had a different job. And he was upset that the agency had revealed what his rank was when he left. So there is a mystery about whether Bush was in touch with the Agency prior to the time that he swore before Congress that he had never been in touch with the Agency before he became its director.
On the other hand, Ed Epstein ought to know about De Mohrenschildt because he was with him the morning he committed suicide. And maybe he could tell us about that.
EPSTEIN: George De Mohrenschildt would just be more food for thought. I was with him, I was interviewing him, on a four-day interview, and in the middle he shot himself [Laughter]. I don’t know whether I bored him to death or there were extraneous factors [Laughter]. But the only thing that always interested me about it is the last thing that he pointed to before he went home and got killed. Was that he had a photograph that Oswald had given him, he claimed the night Oswald went to shoot at a right-wing general called Walker.
He said that he reported this to the CIA contact man he was with. And why I always found this interesting, going back to the conspiracy that Hitch talks about, is that it would show that if the CIA had had knowledge that he was a potential assassin, they would’ve had reason to do a cover-up no matter what their involvement was. So I always found that fairly interesting. I always consider it another unresolved, mysterious death. But thank you Victor.
SALZMAN: Mr. Stone, go ahead.
STONE: One little thing. My researcher tells me that we know that in De Mohrenschildt’s phone book George Poppy Bush is mentioned and his phone number is given. That’s interesting. And Costner, Kevin Costner, when he saw Bush, told me that Bush’s first reaction to his shooting the film in Washington was to tell Kevin where he was on that day [Laughter].
EPSTEIN: You know it’s not suspicious– It’s not suspicious that Bush knew De Mohrenschildt, because De Mohrenschildt was in the oil business at the same time Bush was.
STONE: Of course, of course.
SALZMAN: Okay we have a question over there?
STONE: But De Mohrenschildt may have been CIA.
Q: Thank you Mr. Salzman. Mr. Salzman asked us to identify ourselves, so. I’m with an organization called New Jewish Agenda, and I wanted to ask Mr. Stone– You mentioned the name Fletcher Prouty three times in your opening talk. Fletcher Prouty, among many things, was not only one of your advisors, but I understand he serves on the Populist Action Committee of an organization known as the Liberty Lobby. The Liberty Lobby is an organization of the far-right that currently supports with money and political clout, the candidacy of David Duke for president. It is an organization that peddles the theory that the Holocaust is a Jewish hoax. And this man was a crucial advisor to your film.
How are we to regard with credibility of any significance, anything you or this film has to say, especially on those parts of the film where Mr. Prouty was involved? How could you, as someone who claims to be believe in democracy, work with such people who have shown a lifelong hostility to democracy? And how could you as a Jew work with people who peddle the worst kinds of anti-Semitism? How could you?
STONE: Listen, half Jew, take it easy [Laughter].
Q: It makes no difference to the Nazis.
STONE: Yeah I’d go first, I’d go first. But listen, we got the Nazis they’re already here. They’re not wearing uniforms and they’re not goose-stepping. But– you worry about.
Listen, Fletcher Prouty is a member of the Liberty Lobby. I’ve checked with the ADL, he never made any single one anti-Semitic comment and he joined the Liberty Lobby late in life. I am concerned with his actions from– Actually from 1940 on, to 1963. That is what concerns me. And his credibility I think his unquestionable. He is a strong right-winger, he was at the time, he was involved in Black Ops, and he knows a lot about these coups. You do not find, let’s say, college professors in this business. People with the necessarily politically correct views.
This man was an operative, and he turned against the CIA and his former position. And I think he’s very brave to have done that and he has pointed up in the Secret Team, and in numerous articles the flaws of the CIA, since he retired his commission in 1964 as a Colonel, Chief of Special Operations. He briefed people like Dulles, Cabal and Bissell.
SALZMAN: I have two people up here who would like to comment, then we’ll have time I’m afraid for only one more question. I’m sorry about that.
Q: I have a question upstairs.
SALZMAN: I’m sorry, just one minute.
Q: It’s down here, it’s over here.
Q: Alright sorry, I didn’t see you.
NAVASKY: I would just like to refer interested readers to a letter I think that will appear in The Nation from Jonathan Quitney–
__: Turn the light on!
NAVASKY: In which he talks about how Stone even misused Fletcher Prouty. Fletcher Prouty told Stone apparently that there was lax security in Texas. Stone turned that into a order that the army should stand down.
SALZMAN: Mr. Epstein.
EPSTEIN: I want to comment on Fletcher Prouty, not on JFK. Fletcher Prouty is one of the great professional sources of our time [Laughter]. I interviewed him on at least three different stories. When I interviewed him for my book Legend, the Reader’s Digest, which fact-checked the part that I published, wouldn’t publish it because his entire career had been– He had falsified it in the military and wasn’t where he said. He says on almost any issue he was an editor of a magazine called Gallery. Which was sort of a Penthouse type. And he will say almost anything that someone wants to hear. I know nothing about the Liberty Lobby or any of that, I’d never found him to be anti-Semitic, never heard a remark like that.
But I do know that he’s extremely accommodating [Laughter] and I was very excited when I first met him. And when I realized that Donald Sutherland, who said “Call me X, because if my name gets known I’ll get killed”, was actually supposed to be old Fletcher Prouty, who has written books himself, he appears in Mark Lane’s book, he appears everywhere, he’s a terrific source and journalists might need him, but I don’t think his credibility is beyond question.
SALZMAN: I have a question on the left and that’s going to be the last question, I’m sorry. This will have to be the last one.
ALLEN BRODY: Thank you. My name is Allen Brody and I write for the Marketing Press. So I have a question to Oliver Stone, and to any who care to comment. The obvious Rosetta Stone in this case was Jack Ruby. Why did he do it? My question is, why wasn’t he given what people in marketing would call the “depth interview”, why wasn’t he cross-examined? In particular, in the movie, Jim Garrison says they didn’t want to talk to Jack Ruby because that would tip off the papers. The next thing, the story got into the front page. So the papers were in fact tipped off. But he never went back and interrogated Jack Ruby.
My other question, on a slightly different note, is if your next movie is a disaster, will you blame it on the CIA? [Laughter] Thank you.
STONE: We showed the interview with Ruby, that’s actual testimony. He asked to be taken to Washington, he asked that of Justice Warren. Warren gave him the answer that was given in the film, that it could not be done. It would be too difficult, there was too many problems when making the move. But there’s no question that Mr. Ruby seemed to have some things on his mind that he wanted to share. But he did not feel comfortable or safe in Dallas. As we now know he had a re-trial coming up and he died very suddenly of cancer. It’s open to speculation.
Mr. Ruby also– Let me just go– What was your other question, I’m sorry. Oh, the disaster? Forget it– [Laughter].
I don’t know what Mr. Epstein is talking about, Fletcher Prouty has a commission. He can call the Pentagon and he can check on this tomorrow.
EPSTEIN: He didn’t work for Jack Kennedy is what I mean, where he claims.
STONE: He never worked for Jack Kennedy, he worked as a Chief of Special Operations, he was attached to (Gen. Victor) Krulak in the Pentagon, and he worked on the Taylor-McNamara Report of October ’63. Which is what forecast the withdrawal of all the troops in ’65. And this is– This is entirely credible and is checkable. And I don’t know why you’re saying these things about Mr. Prouty when you know he served his country for some 20-plus years.
Q: I have a question for Mr. Stone please.
STONE: I would like to go back at some point to the issue of Jim Garrison with Mr. Epstein.
HITCHENS: Serving his country is putting it a bit high.
Q: May I ask a question of Mr. Stone please?
Mr. Stone, Ms. Ephron and Mr. Mailer have both asked this question but never really gave you the opportunity to answer it. As a filmmaker and as a screenwriter– There have been references to Mr. Garrison’s flawed character and the darker side of his character. Why didn’t you include that in the screenplay?
STONE: I think that’s a legitimate criticism and I’ve answered it before. I think that it is strictly not a biography of Jim Garrison. I have three hours and eight minutes, and I’ve told four stories here. I told a bit of the Garrison investigation in New Orleans. I used it as a, in a sense, to get through the looking glass to the larger issue of the reenactment in Dealey Plaza, which is the second story. The third story is Oswald’s background, the fourth story is the Fletcher Prouty story. So I have four tales to tell. To go into the various flaws of Jim, I think makes the film a smaller film, a biographical film, and I think would’ve taken the focus off the larger issue. Which is what Jim says in the movie, “We’re through the looking glass here. Black is white, white is black, let’s get to the bottom of this case: Why Kennedy was killed.”
I consider Jim Garrison a hero [Applause]. Because in the 1960’s he was saying that elements of the CIA killed our President. That was an outrageous statement. It would’ve destroyed any political career. He could not have run for dog catcher off of that statement. And he was destroyed for it. His credibility was questioned, he was scandalized, he was vilified.
Mr. Epstein, who spent 48 hours in New Orleans, has judged Mr. Garrison, I think very harshly. When I spoke to Mr. Ivon, who was his main man, Lou Ivon who was played in the film, he spent more time with David Ferrie it is true, than Jim Garrison. It is based on talks with Mr. Ivon that I sketched out the scene in the motel room where Mr. Ferrie is ranting and raving. According to Mr. Ivon he was ranting and raving.
EPSTEIN: Why isn’t it in Jim Garrison’s book then?
STONE: Because it isn’t, okay. That’s another issue. Mr. Ivon is talking to me about this when I was down in New Orleans. Because Jim Garrison was not there. He’s not going to exactly write what he doesn’t know. Mr. Ferrie was known as a ranter and a raver. And we don’t say that what he says is true, we show him in the full fury of his madness, let’s say, where he says at one point very clearly “who the fuck knows who shot Kennedy? The shooters don’t even fucking know.” Implying the method of espionage where possibly the assassins don’t even know the names of the people that hired them.
And we know that Mr. Ferrie knew Mr. Oswald from the Civil Air Patrol, from his library card. Ferrie said in a speech to a veterans group that he had flown missions for the CIA, and boasted of training anti-Castro Cubans for the Bay of Pigs. We know he knew Clay Shaw from a photograph that emerged, that was not available to Mr. Garrison, showing Mr. Shaw and Mr. Ferrie in drag together with two other young men at a party. It emerged and it’s very clearly those two people. Mr. Epstein talks about Garrison’s arrests of Townsend, Chandler and Sheridan.
Walter Sheridan should’ve been arrested because there’s– The motivation of this documentary that Mr. Sheridan worked on, one time NBC correspondent, is highly questionable and I wrote a letter about it to the New York Times. We have CIA documents that have come to the light, that say before the NBC documentary was aired that Sheridan put on, that Sheridan was in New Orleans to, quote, “Destroy Garrison’s act.” Now how the hell does the CIA know what NBC is going to put on the air four weeks before?
There must’ve been some contact between the CIA and Mr. Sheridan, who has a government history. The CIA– That documentary went on and on with these witnesses that Mr. Epstein offers, but the CIA documents say that Sheridan offered a witness $500 for his story for the NBC program. Perry Russo told me that he was offered a trip to California, to get out, to start a new life in California. The witness in this $500 didn’t think that it was enough money and he went home. Later he signed affidavits saying he made the whole thing up. None of the witnesses that Sheridan brought ever stood by their testimony outside that documentary. That’s why Garrison subpoenaed him. Not only did he subpoena those two witnesses, but he also went to the FCC and he got, because it was such a hatchet job on the air, for one hour his whole reputation was destroyed, he got a half-an-hour rejoinder through the FCC and I urge you to look at this piece of film.
EPSTEIN: The FCC doesn’t have power over networks. … (inaudible)
STONE: He got on the air because of the injustice essentially of the one-hour documentary, and I urge you to look at this piece of film because Mr. Garrison speaks very well for himself. And as Bill Schaap said he’s a very articulate man. He did arrest the wrong man. Edgar Eugene Bradley was a mistake and he had him confused with another man called Eugene Hale Brady.
EPSTEIN: Why did he arrest him?
STONE: Eugene Hale Brady is a long story, I don’t think we’re going to get into it at this stage of the name (sic.). But Brady is an interesting figure and he may have been at Dealey Plaza that day. Russo was not the only evidence against Shaw. There was the Dean Andrews testimony that a Clay Bertrand had contacted him and asked him to go to Dallas.
EPSTEIN: But I want to ask you about that, just about the Andrews.
EPSTEIN: He convicted Dean Andrews of perjury. In the conviction it was because Andrews said that he had made up the name Bertrand. And he was convicted of perjury. If Andrews had, if that was true, and I will concede you that, if he had made up the name Bertrand then how could witnesses have identified Bertrand as Shaw and used that name before they had ever heard it before? Back in 1962.
STONE: Well the connection to Bertrand, we have Officer Habighorst who saw–When Mr. Shaw was arrested he gave as his alias Clay Bertrand. And that testimony was shown in the film. Officer Habighorst was not allowed to testify by the judge because Shaw did not have a lawyer present. There was a woman at Eastern Airlines, I think a very credible woman, who again testified to Shaw signing the alias Bertrand. This is important. There were ten witnesses in Clinton, Louisiana, ten witnesses, that saw Shaw, Oswald, and Ferrie together at a Corps civil rights rally. We have Brosheres and Logan, two other members of the, let’s say the homosexual underworld in New Orleans, that have made the connections, not only Perry Russo, Brosheres, and Logan made the connections of Shaw to Ferrie.
Shaw was a perjurer on the stand. Not only that, we now know, from the Helms’ testimony, and the Markettie (?) testimony, the CIA was very concerned about Shaw’s trial, and did their utmost to help him. Helms admitted that he was a contact agent for the CIA. We know Shaw was a member of the board of Permindex in Italy. Permindex is a fascist company that was thrown out of Italy, why? For supplying funds to the OAS, which was trying to assassinate Charles de Gaul.
Garrison did three things, I think, that whatever, whatever flaws, and he did three things that I think are crucial, and they’ve been overlooked. And I’m sure Bill can add some things. But one, he liberated the Zapruder film from Time-Life, and he showed it for the first time in a public forum [Applause]. Two, he conclusively proved that Oswald– It was supposed to be a lone-nut communist, had anti-communist associations in Dallas and New Orleans. With people like Ferrie and Bannister. And I think Shaw. And that was– The HSAC hearings brought this to the fore, these connections, and confirmed Ferrie knowing Oswald. And the third thing he did, and I think it’s crucial, we’ve discussed it earlier, is he brought Pierre Fink under testimony and under duress, to admit that they were not able to track the wound of the neck wound at the Bethesda autopsy because there were military officers telling them what to do. I think we should Jim Garrison a little more credit than what Mr. Epstein has done.
EPSTEIN: Oliver– Jim Garrison, we can differ on our opinion of whether Jim Garrison was a good man or a bad man. We can differ about Fletcher Prouty. But your idea that a journalist should be arrested because he tries to foul up an investigation, this I think is radical. Because as Norman Mailer said, you know, basically, and I agreed with this, and with what Nora said, is the big issue about your film is political. I agree that it’s not the pettiness of facts being wrong or anything else. People are angry about it because they don’t like the politics of it. I think everyone in this room agrees on that.
What Norman Mailer said is that people will agree one way or agree another way. Life magazine, which you say, you know, gave the film to– Or Garrison liberated from it. They were partners with Garrison in the investigation. David Chandler was the reporter for Life that was arrested, or not arrested, an arrest warrant was issued for him, he got out. Life magazine came out and said that Garrison was a fraud. I don’t put any credit on that, but I’m saying that we have to allow different opinion. Just as I’m willing to allow you your opinion, I’m glad your film is out, I think it’s a terrific film, I have an opinion and so does Walter Sheridan. Who you said was government connected, yes he was government connected, he was a very close friend of Bobby Kennedy and he worked on the “Get Jimmy Hoffa” movement, and he certainly was a political figure. I agree with that. But even political figures have a right to get into this debate.
And Bobby Kennedy did send them to New Orleans, because Bobby Kennedy thought that there might be something to Garrison investigation. Just as I thought when I went down there. The fact that people came out with different opinions doesn’t mean that they should be arrested.
SALZMAN: Please, please, Mr. Stone do you want the last word?
STONE: He was arrested for bribery. For trying to bribe a witness to testify against Garrison.
__: That’s a crime.
STONE: That’s correct. And it’s interesting to note that Mr. Sheridan never worked again as a journalist. It was a one-time hatchet job.
SALZMAN: Ladies and gentleman we’ve gone on almost as long as JFK has. We are almost at the three-hour mark. We promised– [crowd noise]– We promised a couple of people, we promised a couple of panelists that we would stop at ten o’clock, they must be elsewhere. We knew that we could not cover everything that needed to be dealt with, that’s obvious, and so my unpleasant task is to thank all of you for coming, and say we’re stopping at this point. Thank you very much.
This story was originally published Nov. 20, 2003