Before politics and beyond conspiracy: Arlen Specter and JFK
Arlen Specter died Sunday. The longtime Pennsylvania Senator will be remembered for many things including his role at the Anita Hill hearings and his late-in-life defection from the Republican party.
Specter's place in history, though, was sealed well before either of those things. Specter hadn't even made it to Capitol Hill, in fact, when he made sure his name would never be forgotten.
Specter was a staffer on the Warren Commission investigating President Kennedy's assassination when he developed "the single bullet theory", easily the most controversial of the conclusions the panel reached in deciding Lee Harvey Oswald was JFK's lone assassin.
The Commission ruled that Oswald fired three shots at Kennedy. One missed. Two hit. One struck Kennedy in the head and fragmented. The one you see above was found on Governor John Connally's stretcher at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Specter first proposed the theory that it had struck Kennedy in the back, passed through the President's body, then went on to hit Connally (seated in front of JFK in his car) in the back before blowing out a rib, hitting the Governor in the wrist and burrowing into his thigh, only to fall out on the hospital stretcher.
The theory thus accounted for all of the shots and wounds while also establishing a timetable for the tragedy: the thought at the time was that the incident played out in roughly six seconds, and Specter's proposal would explain how Oswald could squeeze off off that many bullets in that amount of time.
Commission critics never bought it.
They claimed the holes didn't match up, that the positions of the men weren't right, that a single bullet couldn't do that much damage and come out as intact as the one you see above. If Specter's theory could be debunked, it would mean Oswald couldn't be the only shooter, that a conspiracy had to be in play.
The critics were wrong, but it didn't stop them from cultivating a culture of disbelief that would go on to become a cottage industry, cranking out all manner of books, filling up hours of late night talk radio, and generating a bunch of movies including Oliver Stone's blockbuster "JFK".
About that "wrong" part: the late Peter Jennings hosted a 2003 Kennedy assassination documentary, "Beyond Conspiracy" shortly before he died. In it, never-before-used computer animation was implemented to explain what Specter had come up with well before such technology could put images to his theory.
I used to be among the "buffs" who obsessed about who killed Kennedy, who thought there was no way Oswald could've acted alone. I watched bootleg copies of the Zapruder film in college meeting rooms with fellow like-thinkers, convinced that JFK died in a dastardly crossfire pulled off by forces that had yet been brought to justice.
Then I started reading the other side and opening my mind.
There still is a robust conspiracy community out there, and it'll be going into overdrive next year as the 50th anniversary of he assassination approaches 13 months from now. No doubt some of the more visible Warren Commission critics will be trotted out on cable news shows in the days ahead as Specter's passing brings new attention to the single bullet theory.
Specter and the Commission got it right. Theirs is not a perfect piece of work, but it had the essentials down cold. Oswald's profile matches that of history's other assassins: disaffected loner of little accomplishment with an unrealistic view of their part in global events. Oswald had already tried to kill before he pulled the trigger on Kennedy, so homicide wasn't a foreign concept to him. He was comfortable with lies. All evidence puts him in the window that day, with the gun he'd purchased in his hands. Jack Ruby's impulsive decision to kill him before he could stand trial spared Oswald the formality of having the adjective "convicted assassin" forever attached to his name.
Oswald's alleged guilt and Specter's theory are, almost a half century later, fact.