The post-assassination Washington revealed in these two books brings to mind ancient Rome. The capital's chambers and private clubs were filled with dark whispers. The most powerful elements of government maneuvered to make sure their deepest secrets would not be revealed. Royal blood had been spilled and the new regime was determined that the public must never know why.
In the end, Shenon and Willens do little to further enlighten the public about the who, what or why of the Kennedy assassination. A growing historical consensus now sees JFK as presiding over a bitterly divided government, with Kennedy and his peace-minded inner circle on one side and a war-hungry Cold War establishment on the other. Even humdrum Kennedy historian Robert Dallek has now signed on to this view, with a new book that argues JFK's biggest enemies were not Communist leaders but his own generals and espionage chiefs. This is a sobering conclusion, of course, because it provides a possible explanation for the bloody regime change in Dallas.
These dark waters are simply too ominous for authors like Shenon and Willens to explore. Despite his willingness to expose the Warren Commission's tortured process, Shenon cannot bring himself to condemn its conclusions. At the end of the day, he remains a product of the New York Times -- a newspaper that rushed to embrace the Warren Report months before it was even completed and, as Abramson's wordy screed attests, is still more interested in ridiculing and marginalizing even the most credible conspiracy researchers than in getting at the truth. Mainstream journalists know that -- even 50 years (!) later -- they don't dare go beyond the safe confines of "we'll never know," or they won't be appearing on "Meet the Press" any time soon.
Shenon writes that he worked for five years on his Warren Commission book -- and yet the sum of these efforts is to bring him back to the beginning, where the commission left the investigation. In the end, he doesn't know quite what to make of JFK's murder. His confusion becomes clear in his acknowledgments where he lists the books that he believes are "the essential library" on the Kennedy case -- the books that "will still be read generations from now." Shenon's list is a contradictory hodgepodge, lumping together books from the conspiracy camp (like my own " Brothers ," Jefferson Morley's " Our Man in Mexico " and Gaeton Fonzi's " The Last Investigation ") with hardcore lone gunman titles (like Gerald Posner's " Case Closed " and Vincent Bugliosi's " Reclaiming History "). This weirdly polarized reading list underlines Shenon's failure to resolve his own thinking on the case.
[See the author's list of essential JFK sources below the article.]
In contrast to the vacillating Shenon, Willens at least has the courage of his convictions. He's a Warren Commission apologist, pure and simple. And yet in a recent conversation, he sounded somewhat less certain, as we discussed new revelations that his own political patron, Robert Kennedy, never believed the Warren Report and was determined to find the truth on his own.
Fifty years later, Willens still can't offer a credible motive for why Oswald supposedly killed Kennedy. In his book, he reveals that the commission assigned staff lawyer Wesley Liebeler to write a memo on Oswald's "Possible Personal Motive" -- but the panel found Liebler's effort so unconvincing that it was rejected. In the end, the Warren Commission decided against offering a definitive motive for the murder, leaving the country forever puzzled by the young man who insisted he was a "patsy."
After painstakingly documenting how the country's security agencies played the Warren Commission, Shenon and Willens both explain away this monumental deception by claiming that the country's intelligence apparatus was simply trying to hide its embarrassing failure to protect the president. But there's another, more disturbing conclusion that is left hanging in the air. If the CIA was just trying to hide embarrassing mistakes back in the 1960s -- security lapses that have long since been exposed -- what is the agency still trying to conceal?