During forty-two years of controversy over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the legal profession has played an instrumental role. All seven members of the Warren Commission, which investigated the 1963 assassination, were lawyers. There were twenty-seven people on the commission’s staff (including Norman Redlich, a Nation contributor since 1951), twenty-two of whom were aspiring or practicing attorneys. The combined efforts of these lawyers produced an imperfect report in September 1964, although its fundamental findings have never been seriously impeached.
But what the legal profession giveth, less scrupulous members of the bar taketh away. Since 1964 four other lawyers have been chiefly responsible for putting the Warren Report into undeserved disrepute. During a conference in November sponsored primarily by the Washington-based Assassination Archives and Research Center (AARC)–headed, not coincidentally, by a lawyer–three of these four lawyers made rare public appearances or were otherwise represented in spirit.
The paterfamilias of disingenuousness, Mark Lane, was noticeably absent. An obscure New York attorney at the time of the assassination, Lane single-handedly set the standard for dishonest criticism. In 1964 he spread innuendo about an ostensibly sinister delay in the Warren Commission’s investigation as he went barnstorming around the country giving what was then known as The Speech. Two years later Lane published a book titled Rush to Judgment, having conveniently forgotten his earlier accusation. Carey McWilliams, editor of The Nation during those years, steadfastly refused, to his everlasting credit, to propagate Lane’s basic allegation that the government was indifferent to the truth. Little did McWilliams (or anyone else) know then that the KGB was finding Lane’s work so useful that it was secretly underwriting his “research” and travel in the amount of $12,500 (in 2005 dollars).
The Soviet intelligence service was engaged in a scheme to implicate the CIA, the FBI and the far right in the assassination and the subsequent murder of the accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, but had little to show for its efforts until New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison inserted himself into the case in 1967. Owing to a clever piece of disinformation implanted in a left-wing Roman newspaper, Paese Sera, in March 1967, Garrison became consumed by the notion that Clay Shaw, a prominent businessman he had charged with participating in an alleged conspiracy that killed JFK, was actually “an employee of the CIA…an agency man in Rome trying to bring Fascism back to Italy,” as he put it in his 1988 memoir. Within a matter of months Garrison had succeeded in making the KGB’s wildest fantasy come true: An elected public official in America was propagating Moscow’s line. Not even Lane had dared suggest that official Washington was complicit in the assassination itself.
Garrison, having died in 1992, did not attend the AARC conference, but he was represented in spirit by Joan Mellen, a Temple University English professor who has just published a hagiography of the DA, whom Oliver Stone tried to rehabilitate in his 1991 film JFK. Mellen’s reception was decidedly tepid, for Garrison, like Joe McCarthy, has always represented a fault line. Just as McCarthy was disavowed by many anticommunists because of his beyond-the-pale tactics, conspiracy “buffs,” as Calvin Trillin memorably labeled them in a 1967 New Yorker article, have always been hopelessly divided over Garrison. Even buffs inclined to believe the DA’s grand theory of a military-industrial-intelligence complex find it hard to square that with his persecution of Clay Shaw. The most vociferous critics among the buffs have never forgiven Garrison for setting back the movement almost irreparably. A jury declared Shaw not guilty in 1969 after a mere fifty-four minutes of deliberation, and if Shaw hadn’t died prematurely in 1974 at the age of 62, Garrison would likely have found himself at the wrong end of an impressive civil judgment for misuse and abuse of his prosecutorial powers.