Small screen

History by appeasement

The History Channel apologizes for 'The Guilty Men' with 'Beyond Conspiracy'

Forget The People's Court, with its petty squabbles over aging Chevy Impalas and double-dipping husbands. Even as we click restlessly from Law & Order to CSI: Miami, history is being rewritten in the fickle court of public opinion, aided and abetted by that most elastic of genres, the documentary. Thanks to some rather careless parenting, my son is convinced that John F. Kennedy was the victim of a crazed, lone gunman.

Last Thursday I let him watch The Kennedy Assassination: Beyond Conspiracy, hosted by Peter Jennings, America's voice of reason now that Dan Rather has been defrocked. The show used ballistics, interviews with a surviving Dallas cop and federal agents, and 3-D computer animation to demonstrate that Lee Harvey Oswald was "a lonely loner" who craved recognition. Fate or dumb luck, depending on your disposition, brought this three-time loser to a job at the Texas School Book Depository just in time for the Kennedy motorcade (one wonders if a vocal Communist sympathizer who defected to the Soviet Union could get a job at any business with "Texas" in the title today).

The evidence placing Oswald in the window with the gun comes together nicely, and the explanation for the strange trajectory of the so-called magic bullet is plausible (although certainly not airtight). But the show's dismissal of mob or Castro involvement relies on the ultimate caveat in the U.S. judicial system: If you can't prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, you must throw the indictment out.

Interestingly, the show takes on LBJ-involvement theories through Oliver Stone's influential 1991 film, JFK, in which Kevin Costner portrayed New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, perhaps the most thorough conspiracy theorist of all time. It's a brilliant move, because LBJ (who, for the record, is my favorite president) and the government are taken off the stand in favor of Stone, who is tried and found guilty of distorting history.

Peter Jennings wouldn't pass the buck on Johnson, you say; he'd leave no stone unturned. Unless, of course, Beyond Conspiracy is the implicit apology demanded by the surviving members of the Johnson camp (including intrepid reporter and former LBJ press secretary Bill Moyers), who were enraged by 2003's The Guilty Men, which also aired on the History Channel. The Guilty Men, based on the book Blood, Money & Power: How LBJ Killed JFK, by Barr McClellan, was a compelling collection of loosely related facts and tantalizing what-ifs that are the meat of conspiracy theories.

In addition to disappeared sources and deceased conspirators, who are notoriously tight-lipped, McLellan's argument faces a larger obstacle in the age of television: He sounds like a wack job. In a November 2003 interview with (gulp!), McLellan said, "I represented `Texas attorney Edward A.` Clark personally in his efforts to get his bonus for the assassination ... It was very difficult because I admired Kennedy but was in the middle of his killers." If he was your son, and he were trying to convince you that he was your son, you'd doubt him.

So, despite the explanation at the beginning of Beyond Conspiracy that we need a conspiracy theory to cope with Kennedy's assassination, I wouldn't be surprised if some of the three-quarters of Americans who believe it was not the act of a lone gunman are wavering a little in their conviction. I've got an antidote for that, though: American Tabloid, by James Ellroy. The screen adaptation will star Leonardo DiCaprio as a cavalier, vacuous, rutting JFK, and Topher Grace as a pompous, power-hungry Robert Kennedy. We're sure to get the verdict we want.

By Elaine Wolff

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