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Shortened Term Limited JFK's Accomplishments, But Not His Contributions.

Fresh Air's Dave Davies discusses John F. Kennedy's abbreviated term in office with presidential historian Robert Dallek, who finds that while you can make an argument that Kennedy accomplished little, he represents something special in the American experience. Dallek's latest book is Camelot's Court: Inside The Kennedy White House.

21:27

Other segments from the episode on November 22, 2013

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 22, 2013: Interview with Robert Dallek; Interview with Philip Shenon; Commentary on television coverage of the John F. Kennedy assassination.

Transcript

November 22, 2013

Guests: Robert Dallek - Philip Shenon

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Today Americans are remembering that Friday 50 years ago when we were stunned to hear of the gunfire in Dallas that killed President John F. Kennedy as he rode in a motorcade. It was an unspeakable tragedy that shocked the nation and spawned endless conspiracy theories, but it also marked the end of a presidency that was unique in American history, as the country was governed and inspired by the rich young charismatic Bostonian with a glamorous first lady.

A little later in the show, we'll hear part of my interview with investigative reporter Philip Shenon, whose new book explores the flawed investigation of the assassination by the Warren Commission. And our TV critic David Bianculli will tell us why the coverage of the assassination was a television event like no other before or since, and he'll explain why he was literally locked in his room watching it.

But first we'll talk about Jack Kennedy's abbreviated term in office with presidential historian Robert Dallek, who finds that while you can make an argument that Kennedy accomplished little in his 1,000 days in office, he represents something special in the American experience.

Ten years ago, Dallek published a biography of Kennedy called "An Unfinished Life." He's returned to the subject with his latest book, "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House." I spoke to Dallek last week, and we began by listening to a portion of Kennedy's inaugural address.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Let the word go forth from this time and place to friend and foe alike that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage and unwilling to witness or permit a slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.

DAVIES: Well, Robert Dallek, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

ROBERT DALLEK: Thank you, nice to be with you.

DAVIES: You know, that speech is less than 14 minutes, but it's among the most remembered in history. Why?

DALLEK: Yes, I agree. Dave, it's one of the four great inaugural speeches in American presidential history, and Kennedy worked feverishly hard on that speech, and he would practice it sitting in the bathtub in order to get the rhythm correct, to get the whole thrust of it in a way that would strike resonant chords with people not only across the United States but around the world and that it would be heard in the communist camp as well.

He was very mindful of its importance and also of the fact that here he was, the youngest man ever elected to the White House, and he wanted to set down a marker, I am a serious person, I am not some youthful upstart, and also of course the first Catholic elected to the White House. He wanted to demonstrate his broad vision and his world outlook.

And so the speech was very carefully crafted, and what you notice in the speech is there is no mention of domestic affairs. There's one brief, passing mention of the issue of race, which of course was a great, great issue at the time. But it was all about foreign policy.

DAVIES: He comes into office in 1961. There's active planning underway by the CIA for an invasion of Cuba. You know, the communist regime of Fidel Castro was a thorn and embarrassment for the United States. And the plan, of course, was to have these Cuban exiles, armed and aided by Americans, invade and somehow dislodge Castro. These plans were well underway. Kennedy could've stopped it. How did he address this issue?

DALLEK: Kennedy was very reluctant to go forward with the Bay of Pigs operation, but what he understood was that if he shut it down, these Cuban exiles were going to, because they had been trained in Guatemala by the CIA, and they were all revved up to go and do this, they were going to go around saying Kennedy didn't have the guts to go forward with this operation, we would've succeeded, we would've toppled Castro, and Kennedy, it makes him look weak.

And so Kennedy felt politically he could not take the risk of shutting this down. Would it succeed? The CIA and the military was telling him yes, there would be an uprising against Castro, and if the invaders faltered, they could escape into the Escambray Mountains. What they didn't tell him was that the mountains were 80 miles distant from where the invaders would land and that they'd have to make their way through swamps.

And also what they didn't tell him was that there was a CIA memo saying that for this invasion to succeed, American military forces will ultimately have to intervene. And Kennedy made a condition of the invasion that American forces didn't intervene, and he told the exiles that, and they said they wanted to go ahead with it anyway.

And Kennedy said later, you see, these generals and the exiles thought that if they were stumbling, I would not be able to resist sending in American forces to rescue them. But they didn't understand that I was determined not to do this.

DAVIES: Now, of course anybody who knew what was really going on in Cuba would've been aware that there would be no uprising because the fact is that Fidel Castro was an enormously popular figure in his country. So these exiles land at this obscure beach, the Bay of Pigs. What happens, and then how does Kennedy deal with it?

DALLEK: Well, first I would say you're absolutely right. A friend of mine who was a journalist in Cuba at the time, an American journalist, said later, you know, any high school student in Havana could have told Kennedy there's going to be no uprising. Castro is quite popular.

Well, when they land, what they run into, of course, is the fact that Castro brings some 20,000 troops up to the beaches. And before the operation took place, Kennedy had a meeting with Dean Acheson, former secretary of state under Harry Truman, and Acheson said to him, how many exiles will be landing on the beaches, and Kennedy said, oh, 14, 15 hundred. Acheson said, how many troops can Castro bring up to the beaches, and Kennedy said, well, maybe 20, 25 thousand.

Acheson shook his head and said, you know, it doesn't take Price Waterhouse to figure out that 1,500 aren't as good as 20, 25 thousand, you see. So already, you know, they knew that they were going to be in a tough spot.

DAVIES: So the invasion force(ph) lands. They're quickly surrounded. Most of them are captured. It was an embarrassment for the United States, and it was clear they had backed this thing. What lessons did Kennedy draw from this disaster?

DALLEK: Not to listen to the so-called quote-unquote experts, without great skepticism or questioning their judgment. You know, after the Bay of Pigs, that was in April, at the end of May he went to Europe, and he met with de Gaulle in France. And de Gaulle told him you should get the smartest people around you you can, get the best advice you can, but at the end of the day, you have to make up your own mind.

DAVIES: Now, I think it was also in that first year that he met with the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, in Vienna, right?

DALLEK: It was indeed, in June.

DAVIES: Yeah, so what were his goals? How did that go?

DALLEK: Well, it went badly. He went from France to Vienna. He meets Khrushchev. They have all these photographs taken on the steps of - I think it was, they initially met at the Soviet Embassy, and the reporters are shouting one more shot, one more shot. And Kennedy, who's smiling and delighted because here he is a head taller than Khrushchev, decades younger, looking so much more vibrant and appealing, and Khrushchev grudgingly agrees to additional photographs, you see.

But the minute they get inside the room and they start having a conversation, Kennedy makes the mistake of getting engaged in a debate with Khrushchev about the virtues of capitalism versus communism, you see. And he was told by the some of the Soviet experts, including Llewellyn Thompson, the American ambassador to Moscow, not to get into this sort of debate with Khrushchev. You weren't going to win anything; you aren't going to gain anything.

But he allowed it to happen, and Khrushchev beat up on him unmercifully, and Khrushchev came to the meeting with the feeling that this was a young, inexperienced man who had faltered in this operation at the Bay of Pigs. What was wrong with him? Why didn't he send in American forces to assure the victory? What an embarrassment for him.

So Khrushchev felt he had the upper hand, and Kennedy sensed that too, and he came away from that meeting with Khrushchev really frustrated. And at the end of the conversations, the last day, the last minutes, they talked a lot about Berlin. And Khrushchev was threatening, of course, to turn East Berlin over to the East Germans, and Kennedy said that you try and do that, it's going to be a very cold winter.

And when came back to the United States, he mobilized some of the National Guard forces as a signal that the United States was prepared to meet any kind of assault on Berlin with force.

DAVIES: So Kennedy didn't feel like he did well with Khrushchev. Was there a public perception that he had failed?

DALLEK: There was. There was the sense in the June of 1961 that Kennedy was off to a very weak start. And as an antidote to that, he had made a speech in May of '61 in which it was a kind of second State of the Union Address. And it was in that speech that he proposed to the country that they land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Khrushchev, remember, came to the U.N., banged his shoe on the table, said we're grinding out missiles like sausages, we will bury you, you see, and of course they had Sputnik. They had stolen a march on us in space technology. and so Kennedy's reach was for the idea that you raise hopes in the United States, you inspire people to feel we're not behind, we're going to achieve great things in this space race, and we're going to eclipse the Soviet Union in this Cold War.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Robert Dallek. His new book is called "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House." We'll talk more after a break; this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: We're speaking with presidential historian Robert Dallek. His new book is called "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House." Kennedy had a second chance at a Cuban crisis. In 1962 he gets word that Soviet ships are unloading intercontinental ballistic missiles to be installed in Cuba. I mean this represents a terrible threat. I mean these were missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads to the United States.

What kind of advice does he get on how to deal with this?

DALLEK: Well, he gets very mixed advice. The military, the joint chiefs, tell him that he cannot allow this to stand, that Khrushchev may call these defensive weapons in order to defend against another American invasion, sponsored invasion of Cuba, but in fact they are offensive weapons because they are medium and intermediate-range missiles.

They could reach far into the United States. They can reach Washington, D.C., and it gives the Soviets now a new parity with the United States in nuclear defensive material. So Kennedy, of course, goes on television, announces that the Soviets are trying to place these missiles in Cuba, that this is impermissible, and he resists the advice of the chiefs.

He does not want to risk getting into a nuclear war. So when he has advice from Robert McNamara and Adlai Stevenson that instead of going forward with some kind of military action, that what they should do is put an ultimatum before the Soviets, tell them that they're setting up a quarantine of the island, Cuba, in fact it's a blockade, but he doesn't use that term because a blockade is an act of war, but he calls it a quarantine to bar them from shipping additional war materiel to Cuba.

And this works because Khrushchev understands that he's risking a nuclear conflict with the United States and that the United States has a great advantage over the Soviets in these nuclear missiles. We have submarine missiles that can reach any part of the Soviet Union. And Khrushchev is frightened. He backs down. And Kennedy tells advisors don't gloat, don't make it appear that we have embarrassed and humiliated him, you see.

But he really has a great victory here, and it really boosts his standing as an effective, forceful foreign policy leader.

DAVIES: Did this lead to a different relationship with Khrushchev and progress on the nuclear issue?

DALLEK: Without question. What it led to was the nuclear test ban agreement. See, both men had been so frightened by the prospect of getting into this nuclear conflict, and especially Khrushchev, that he then invited Kennedy to send a delegation, a high-ranking delegation to Moscow to negotiate a test ban.

Kennedy sends Averell Harriman, very seasoned diplomat, of course, who is in his administration but also had a term of service in Moscow as ambassador. And very quickly, after all these years of struggling over this issue, almost within a matter of 10 days they reach an agreement, and this is a triumph of Kennedy's diplomacy.

But, you see, also for Kennedy, at the end of missile crisis, he meets with his joint chiefs, who he had held at arms' length. They had been pressing him for military action. And they said to him, Mr. President, you've been had. Khrushchev is hiding those missiles in caves. They want to make plans to, again, invade, strike at Cuba. And Kennedy says, OK, make plans.

Part of their plan is to drop a nuclear bomb on Cuba, and they talk about how the collateral damage could be controlled. Well, of course it would turned the island into a pile of rubble and not to mention what it would've done to the south coast of Florida. Well, Kennedy and the joint chiefs, they were so at each other's throats, so to speak, and they thought Kennedy was weak, and he thought they were far too militant.

You have to understand, these generals came out of World War II. They had bombed the Japanese and the Germans, so to speak, back to the Stone Age, and their attitude was that if the Soviets have an advantage on us, they'll take advantage of it, they'll use nuclear weapons. Why should we be so restrained?

Thomas Power, the chairman of the U.S. Air Forces, said what's all this concern about nuclear weapons. If we fight a war with them, and there are three Americans left at the end of the conflict and two Russians, we've won, you see. But Kennedy simply did not have that outlook.

And I think his greatest achievement was in reining in these considerations about potential use of nuclear weapons.

DAVIES: Let's talk about Vietnam. I mean Kennedy escalated the American presence there because it was clear that the South Vietnamese regime, which the United States was supporting, was corrupt, unpopular and likely to fall without a lot of help. We don't know whether, you know, the American involvement would've escalated as it did under Lyndon Johnson. What's your take on how he handled Vietnam?

DALLEK: He was very conflicted about Vietnam. You're quite right, he increased the number of advisors from roughly 600 to over 16,000. But he was under pressure from some of his advisors, including particularly Walt Rostow, who became Lyndon Johnson's national security advisor, to possibly bomb Hanoi and Haiphong and to send in ground forces.

Now, we'll never know what he would've done. I don't think he quite knew what he would've done. But he didn't want to lose Vietnam, but by the same token he simply did not want to get deeply enmeshed, involved, and turn that into what he called the white man's war, an American conflict. And so I don't think he ever would have put in 545,000 troops the way Lyndon Johnson did.

And to me, the most telling evidence of this is that as the missile crisis was ending, and plans had to be made because of the pressure from the joint chiefs for a possible invasion, Bob McNamara, secretary of defense, put an invasion plan before Kennedy. And Kennedy wrote a note to McNamara and said, Bob, I read the invasion plan. We have to remember what happened to the British in the Boer War, what happened to the Russians in the Winter War of 1940 in Finland, and what happened to us in Korea.

We could get bogged down. Now, he's talking about Cuba. If he's worried about being bogged down in Cuba, imagine how he would've felt about getting involved in those jungles of Vietnam.

DAVIES: So where does John Kennedy stand among American presidents in your view?

DALLEK: Well, I don't think you can consider him a great president in league with Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, but I would certainly call him a significant president because of being the first Catholic to have achieved the office and opened up the nominating process and the possibility that so many other people from other backgrounds could now become president other than white Protestant males.

And I think that he taught us that nuclear weapons are unusable weapons. This was in many ways the message of the Cuban missile crisis and the way in which he dealt with the joint chief of staff. And he came late but nevertheless forcefully to the issue of civil rights in 1963. So I think he was a significant president and, most of all, one might say, his post-assassination Camelot image is very important to the country because he continues to provide a kind of hope.

The greatest story, and Richard Hofstadter once said, America is the only country in history that believes it was born perfect and strives for improvement. And Kennedy, I think, still gives people that sense of optimism. They remember the words. Kennedy spoke of a new frontier, promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, and that happened.

He set up the Peace Corps. Youth optimism, a kind of belief in a better future for the country, and parents for their children. This is not to be discounted. It's an important achievement, in a sense.

DAVIES: Robert Dallek, thanks so much.

DALLEK: My pleasure.

DAVIES: Robert Dallek is a presidential historian. His latest book is "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Today, Americans are remembering President Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas. Our next guest, veteran investigative journalist, Philip Shenon, has spent years reviewing the work of the Warren Commission, the panel appointed by President Lyndon Johnson, which concluded Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone. Shenon pored over the files of the commission, spoke to many of its surviving staff attorneys and did original research and interviews about many aspects of the case.

While he's not convinced of a conspiracy to murder the president, he concludes that senior officials of the U.S. government, especially at the CIA and the FBI, destroyed evidence and lied about the assassination and the events that led up to it.

Shenon spent more than 20 years at the New York Times and wrote a respected book about the 9/11 Commission. His new book is, "A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination."

Over the years, the Warren Commission's work and its report has gotten a lot of criticism that evidence was inadequately examined, that certain leads weren't followed.

And it's interesting that Earl Warren himself, who was the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, and, you know, had a real record for groundbreaking decisions in law, that Earl Warren himself was an issue. And I think probably a lot of people, you would probably agree, that he was a bad choice to do this. And one of the reasons was that his - he had a very close relationship with the Kennedy family. How did that affect the testimony and evidence the commission was able to look at?

PHILIP SHENON: Well, Chief Justice Warren clearly adored President Kennedy and the Kennedy family. So after the assassination, Earl Warren is apparently shattered. He describes it as being like losing a son. And repeatedly, during the course of the investigation, he makes decisions that seem to be designed to protect President Kennedy's legacy, to protect the privacy of the Kennedy family, even if that means that not all the facts are gathered about the assassination.

DAVIES: Well, one question was would they interview Jackie Kennedy, the president's wife. What happened?

SHENON: Chief Justice Warren, until the very last stages of the investigation, seemed to be determined not to interview her. The young staff investigator who was responsible for interviewing the witnesses in the Dallas motorcade - Arlen Specter, an assistant district attorney from Philadelphia who would later go on to be better known as the United States senator from Pennsylvania - he believes that she should be the lead-off witness because she would have information that might be so valuable both about what happened in the limousine in Dealey Plaza and also about whether or not her husband knew of threats against him before the assassination.

Warren, in the final stages of the investigation, under intense pressure from some of the other commissioners, agrees to the interview with Mrs. Kennedy, but he conducts it secretly, without telling Specter, and interviews her for just a few minutes. And Specter learns of this only after it occurs, and he is furious.

DAVIES: Now another question, of course, was the autopsy photos from the examination of President Kennedy's body. I mean, given that there was a need to look at the wounds on the president and match that with ballistics evidence and other physical evidence that would be developed in the course of the investigation, it was important for the investigators to know exactly what the condition of the president's body was in. They never got a hole of the autopsy photographs, right?

SHENON: Well, they do get a hold of them. Chief Justice Warren actually looks them over, and after he looks them over and sees how horrifying they are, he makes the decision that nobody else will be allowed to see them. That includes the other commissioners and all of the members of the commission staff. And this creates a huge division on the commission.

The young staff members, and again Arlen Specter in particular, protest repeatedly, saying they have to have the autopsy photos because they are the essential medical evidence that will allow them to determine how the president died and who might have killed him.

And to the very last stages of the investigation, the staff fights for those photos, and ultimately they are refused, and those photos remained under seal in the custody apparently of Robert Kennedy for years thereafter.

DAVIES: Now the medical evidence, of course, is critical, particularly, you know, as we later see there were so many questions asked about whether the commission had gotten it right, whether - you know, about the directions that the bullets came from, for example. Tell us a little bit about the autopsy itself and what happened to the original notes of the autopsy.

(LAUGHTER)

SHENON: I've got to say this is one of the more jaw-dropping stories that I encountered in all this, but the night after the assassination, the Navy pathologist who oversaw President Kennedy's autopsy took the original autopsy report and all of his notes from the autopsy room and pushed them into his fireplace in his home in Bethesda, Maryland.

He did this, he claimed, because they were stained with the president's blood, and he didn't want them ever to be seen. But when it was discovered on the commission staff what the pathologist had done, there was huge alarm because they thought this was going to inspire conspiracy theories for years to come.

The autopsy in many ways was rushed, and it was bungled, and we are still dealing with the aftermath of that because so many of the mistakes made in the autopsy room that night have led to so many of the conspiracy theories about what happened to the president's body.

DAVIES: Yeah, Dr. Humes was not a forensic pathologist, right. I mean, he didn't - he wasn't used to looking at evidence of murder scenes.

SHENON: Well, Mrs. Kennedy on the flight back from Dallas on Air Force One was given a choice of having the autopsy done either at Walter Reed Hospital, which is an Army hospital, or at Bethesda Naval Hospital, which is nearby, but in obviously, a Navy hospital. And because her husband had been in the Navy, she decided on Bethesda. But even Navy pathologists thought that was a bad idea, since Navy pathologists have much less experience with gunshot wounds than do their counterparts in the Army.

And the two pathologists from the Navy who were assigned to oversee the autopsy had no real experience. They weren't forensic pathologists. They had no experience with medical legal autopsies in which a crime was involved.

DAVIES: Right. So we have kind of the wrong people doing the autopsy, some original notes destroyed and some critical evidence from the autopsy not shown to the commission investigators. It's in some respects not surprising, then, that there's room for speculation about what actually happened to the president's body.

I want to talk about the FBI and what it did and did not tell and release to the commission. You know, this commission was appointed by the president. The FBI is a part of the Justice Department, controlled by the president. The president instructed everybody to cooperate with the commission. It's clear that the FBI didn't cooperate. J. Edgar Hoover, its director, was a force unto himself.

Why would the FBI want to hide some of what it might know about Oswald?

SHENON: Well, because it turned out that Lee Harvey Oswald had been under surveillance by the FBI for months before the assassination. And the question becomes: Didn't the FBI have information to suggest what a threat Lee Harvey Oswald might be? And didn't it have an obligation to warn the Secret Service in advance of President Kennedy's arrival in Dallas that this man Lee Harvey Oswald might be a threat?

The decision seems to have been made by Hoover very early on to portray Oswald, whatever the evidence, as a lone wolf whose plot to kill the president could never have been detected by the FBI in advance. There was no conspiracy that the FBI could have stopped and saved the president. So that becomes - the extent of the knowledge that the FBI had of Oswald before the assassination seems to be something that people at the FBI want to hide from the Warren Commission.

DAVIES: Now, one of the fascinating parts of the story, of course, is this nightclub owner in Dallas, Jack Ruby, killing Lee Harvey Oswald two days after the assassination, walking up while he's being transferred from a jail with a gun in his pocket and shooting him. And for years, you know, that fueled conspiracy theories. Either somebody had to have Oswald dead because they were setting him up as a patsy or because he might reveal co-conspirators, and Jack Ruby was the guy there to do it.

So he's clearly a critical figure in the investigation and is a fascinating character in the course of the Warren Commission. What did he tell the commission and its investigators?

(LAUGHTER)

SHENON: Well, he tells them many different things, but he is quite insistent in a meeting he has with Chief Justice Warren in Dallas in December of 1964 that there was no conspiracy, that he decided to kill Oswald on impulse because he loved President Kennedy, he loved the Kennedy family, and he didn't want to see Mrs. Kennedy forced to come back to Dallas for a trial of Lee Harvey Oswald.

But Ruby's actions have inspired many, many of the conspiracy theories that we now deal with. The fact that the president's assassin was himself assassinated two days after President Kennedy's murder is what puts us in the position we are now, which is so many unanswered questions, because we have never had a trial of Oswald that might have resolved them.

DAVIES: Right. He tells the commission that his people, meaning the Jewish people, are being tortured and killed by the thousands, and this is somehow connected to his act. He insists on taking a polygraph test, which he appears to pass. And two commission lawyers were assigned to find out everything they could about Ruby, including whether he had a connection to Oswald. Were they allowed to do the job?

SHENON: Those two lawyers found themselves enormously frustrated. They thought the commission wasn't terribly interested in the Ruby element of this investigation and wasn't allowing them to pursue all the questions about Ruby that they wanted to pursue, including whether or not Ruby had ties to figures in organized crime who might have wanted to see President Kennedy dead or Oswald dead.

See, I wasn't aware until I get into the weeds of doing the research on this book just how much internal turmoil there was on the Warren Commission and just how frustrated these two particular lawyers were in trying to get to the full truth about Ruby.

DAVIES: Philip Shenon's new book is, "A Cruel and Shocking Act we'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Philip Shenon. His new book "A Cruel and Shocking Act" explores the work of the Warren Commission, which investigated the Kennedy assassination.

I want to talk about this fascinating part of the story, which is Lee Harvey Oswald's visit to Mexico a few weeks before the assassination. The Warren Commission was aware of his visit there. They knew that he'd visited the Cuban Embassy. Oswald himself, you know, had expressed Marxist sympathies for years. But the FBI and the CIA withheld a lot of information. Let's talk about the CIA, for example. Did they monitor Oswald's movements in Mexico?

SHENON: Well, it's remarkable to discover that the CIA may have had Oswald under pretty aggressive surveillance in Mexico City. There were reports years later that there were photographs of Oswald in Mexico City that the CIA had taken. There were tape recordings of his telephone calls in Mexico City. And all of that evidence would later disappear.

Oswald was there for nearly six days. He apparently has encounters with Cuban spies and Cuban diplomats and Soviet spies and Mexicans who were sympathetic to Castro's revolution who had real reason to hope that President Kennedy's administration would be ended.

And the FBI and the CIA seemed determined not to find those people that Oswald was dealing with. And there's a lot of - the question becomes was Oswald in this time period, just several weeks before the assassination, told by anybody or encouraged by anybody to do what he would do in Dallas?

DAVIES: Right. And one of the things that the commission did not know was that the U.S. government had already repeatedly attempted to have Fidel Castro assassinated.

SHENON: Well, I mean, among the things that the - and perhaps the most important thing that the CIA withheld from the Warren Commission was the fact that for years the CIA had been trying to kill Castro, and that Castro, you know, might've had a motivation in killing John Kennedy because John Kennedy had very clearly been trying to kill him.

And if there's anything that gets Warren Commission staffers agitated, it's the fact that that information was withheld from them. Because it would've raised a million other questions about what exactly happened in Mexico City, and was Oswald in contact with Cubans or people who were sympathetic to Castro who might have wanted revenge against Kennedy for what Kennedy was trying to do to the Cuban dictator.

DAVIES: Bottom line, do you believe or do you think it's likely that Oswald acted at the direction or encouragement of the Cubans or the Soviets? Based on what you know.

SHENON: I think we'll never really have the answer to that because those questions should've been asked 49 years ago but they weren't. I do think there is a real question as to who else knew about Oswald's plans in the week before, weeks before the assassination and whether or not anybody knowing of Oswald's open boasts about killing President Kennedy encouraged him to do that and perhaps even offered the suggestion that they would help if he could ever get out of the United States again.

This is not my crazy conspiracy theory. This is a theory offered by one of the staff investigators on the Warren Commission. This is a theory they developed within the commission staff, that something happened in Mexico City. Oswald was promised help if he could ever get back to Mexico, perhaps to be spirited off to Cuba. And that explained why perhaps Oswald was heading to Mexico in the hours after President Kennedy's assassination. This theory, and it was only a theory, doesn't go into the Warren Commission's final report because of the view that the commission doesn't want to encourage speculation.

DAVIES: So whether or not Oswald was acting at the behest of the Cubans, there was enough information that should've raised a red flag about it.

SHENON: Absolutely. Oswald in Mexico City meets with a Soviet diplomat who is in fact a KGB officer whose responsibilities included political violence, including assassination. And the CIA knows that. They know that this meeting has occurred. They know that this KGB officer is involved in political violence.

Now, it may have been an entirely innocent meeting and the KGB officer did have regular diplomatic duties, but just the fact of that meeting you would think would be enough to see just that Oswald might be a danger to political leaders in the United States, including President Kennedy, then in the final stages of planning for his trip to Dallas.

DAVIES: When the Warren Commission, you know, found Oswald acted alone, was that accepted by, you know, important public figures like President Johnson, like Robert Kennedy, the president's brother, like all of the members of the commission?

SHENON: Well, it is astonishing to discover that President Johnson at the end of his life did not accept the findings of the Warren Commission. Johnson thought that Castro killed President Kennedy. Robert Kennedy's role in all this is very troubling because he repeatedly said in the public record that he accepted the Warren Commission findings and he believed Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone.

And that appears never to have been the truth. Kennedy's namesake, Robert Kennedy Jr., just this year, earlier this year, announced that his father thought the Warren Commission was wrong and that his brother, President Kennedy, had been killed either by the Cubans or by the mafia or even by some group of rogue CIA agents.

And Senator Richard Russell, who was a member of the Warren Commission and at the time the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he also did not believe the Warren Commission report even though he signed it.

DAVIES: And the interesting thing about Kennedy is he had information that would've been helpful to them - i.e., that the U.S. government had been trying to kill Castro and he knew all about those plots. He chose not to share that with them.

SHENON: Robert Kennedy's role is very troubling. Kennedy, other than President Johnson, was the highest ranking official in the government not required to give testimony to the Warren Commission. He sends the Warren Commission a brief note in which he says and suggests that he has no evidence of a conspiracy when in fact he had a tremendous amount of suspicion about a conspiracy.

And why he withheld that information may be related to the fact that Robert Kennedy was very much aware of the CIA's efforts to kill Castro. Robert Kennedy had been very much at the center of efforts to overthrow Castro. It would've been information that he probably was not eager to have on the public record, and so therefore he never told the Warren Commission what he really believed.

DAVIES: Well, Philip Shenon, I want to thank you so much for spending some time with us.

SHENON: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Philip Shenon's book is "A Cruel and Shocking Act." Coming up, David Bianculli remembers the four days of TV coverage of the assassination and its aftermath. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: Our TV critic David Bianculli has been watching most of the TV coverage keyed to the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. He also teaches about the original 1963 coverage in his TV history classes at Rowan University. He's written about it in books, and remembers watching those four days of unprecedented live television when he was a 10-year-old kid. Fifty years later, here's what he has to say about it.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: All this month, there's been so much TV programming devoted to JFK - documentaries, biographies, made-for-TV movie dramas - that I almost feel guilty adding to the media mix. But the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy and the four days of television that followed deserves all that attention.

It wasn't just one of the most important moments of TV history. It was the most important moment, more than the moon landing in 1969, more than 9/11 in 2001, more than anything. Period. If you think back to those first morning hours of 9/11, you probably remember turning on the television and staying there and watching in amazement and grief and fear as one dramatic event after another spilled out in real time on live TV.

It's the closest our current generation has gotten to the feeling of those four days in 1963. But back then, on television, it was unprecedented. When Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, that news bulletin and all that followed was delivered by radio. Television and TV news didn't start until World War II was over, and even then, it was a largely crude affair.

Edward R. Murrow's "See it Now" news magazine was a glorious exception, but nightly TV news was a small-scale affair. "CBS News," with Walter Cronkite at the helm, was the first evening network newscast to expand from 15 to 30 minutes. And that happened only two months before Kennedy was shot and killed. Some TV news footage back then showing citizens of Dallas in the hours after the shooting has them gathering in the streets around car radios, listening to the latest shocking news.

But, at the same time, in people's homes, television was covering a major breaking news event, non-stop for the first time. For four days, Americans flocked to television and never let go. When JFK's funeral's procession was televised that weekend, it was watched in 93 percent of all homes that were equipped with TV sets, the largest viewing audience ever recorded to that point.

And that first day, when Walter Cronkite on CBS reported the news that Kennedy had died, his wording and his pause between sentences to remove his glasses and sigh, resulted in one of the most iconic moments in TV news history. When Terry interviewed Walter Cronkite on FRESH AIR in 1993, she asked him about that very moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

TERRY GROSS, HOST: When you went on to say that Kennedy was dead, your eyes teared. And that's something that we've seen replayed so many times on, you know, every anniversary of the death and, I mean, it's become one of these historic moments of broadcasting. Were you concerned about getting emotional on the air? Did you try to be as emotionless and stoic as possible? And were you concerned when you realized that your eye was tearing?

WALTER CRONKITE: Well, I wasn't concerned about my eye tearing. I was concerned about my voice choking and not being able to speak. And that concerned me quite a lot. The tearing didn't matter. I didn't really think about it, except the concern that I wouldn't be able to get the words out.

GROSS: How close did you come to not being able to get them out?

CRONKITE: Pretty close, I think. I remember a moment of real terror that I was going to choke up and fall apart, as it were.

BIANCULLI: That news event, like so many others from the '60s, now seems to belong almost exclusively to Walter Cronkite, who, at the time, earned the title of the Most Trusted Man in America. But all three networks - there only were three then: CBS, NBC, and ABC - stayed on the story for all four days. And only NBC was broadcasting live when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy's alleged assassin.

And no one at the time televised the famous eight-millimeter film footage taken by Abraham Zapruder, the only photographic record of the assassination itself. In fact - and it's now a somewhat stunning fact - that footage wouldn't be nationally televised until 1974, 11 years later. And it would be shown for the first time on a late night ABC special hosted by, believe it or not, Geraldo Rivera.

I was in grade school and had just turned 10 years old that day in 1963 when JFK was shot. Our teachers told us what had happened and dismissed class for the day. I walked the four blocks home by myself, and found my mother asleep. I called my dad, who told me to wheel our only TV set into my bedroom and lock the door until he got home from work.

My parents were both Kennedy freaks. Years earlier, I'd been allowed to stay up to watch both the debates and Election Night. But my mom was very ill then, and my dad didn't want her to face the news without him. So I locked the TV in my room, turned it on and watched, alone, and kept changing channels and watching some more until my dad and sister came home.

Then we all watched, for days, and grieved together. When Ruby shot Oswald we were watching. When John-John saluted his father's casket, we were watching. Just like, at that point, almost everyone else in the country. Mythologist Joseph Campbell called those four days of TV coverage a deeply significant rite of passage.

The nation mourned together by watching TV, and from that point on, TV, not radio, was the dominant medium for breaking news. CNN and other 24-hour news networks were decades away, but those dark days in 1963 provided the template. So, 50 years later, how has TV progressed? Technologically, of course, there's no contest.

One of the many JFK specials this month was an installment of the PBS science series "Nova," which used the latest forensic, ballistic, and computer technology to conclude, ultimately, that Oswald was the lone gunman. "Nova" had done the same thing 25 years earlier, proving the same thing with now-dated resources. And also proving, if nothing else, that television loves an anniversary.

For the 50th anniversary, in addition to that new "Nova" entry, the best retrospectives have included "48 Hours" on CBS, "The '60s" on CNN, and "American Experience" on PBS. But in another respect, TV news hasn't matured much at all. Yes, we have lots of prime time news shows and 24-hour cable news networks, but who today is the equivalent of Walter Cronkite? Who today is the most trusted news anchor in America?

There's no obvious answer to that question. And that, in terms of the evolution of TV news, is certainly not progress. At least not to me.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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