David Talbot talks about Brothers: A Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.
In a riveting, well-researched narrative, acclaimed journalist Talbot tells just how alienated the Kennedy administration was from its own national security apparatus. He contends that Robert Kennedy planned an investigation into his brother's assassination.
David Talbot is an author, journalist, media entrepreneur, and book publisher. He is founder and former editor-in-chief of Salon.com, and is author of the bestsellers Season of the Witch and Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, and the illustrated pulp history Devil Dog: The Amazing True Story of the Man Who Saved America. His newest book is The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government.
Please welcome David Talbot.Thank you very much for that introduction. Sound it like my FBI file. Well, I I hadsome prepared remarks tonight, but I am going to put them aside and just read to youVincent Bugliosi's entire 1600 page book and answer it point by point if you'll just bearwith me for the next several weeks. No seriously.I would like to I would like to begin with just a few remarks and then to impose on youby reading a bit from the book if I could and then answering any questions you mighthave and then just going out and enjoying this evening before its its gone thisbeautiful night. All of you staring dreamy passed. Well, they say, "History is a neverending argument." And if that's the case, my book "Brothers", makes two mainarguments, I believe. One is that Bobby Kennedy was the country's first assassinationconspiracy theorist. And number two, and this is turning out to be the most controversialaspect of my book from the at least some of the early reviews. Is that the Kennedy'swere heroes. And they they were heroes for the simple reason that they kept us out ofwar. As I say, this has become controversial because in the last 20 years or more we'vebeen going through our revisionists interpretation of the Kennedy Presidency. It didn'tstart with Seymour Hersh's, "Dark Side of Camelot" but of course that best best sellingbook definitely it was part of this backlash against the Kennedy's. That book portrayedPresident Kennedy as a decadent prince, reckless, someone who put the country at risk.We now have journalists as prominent as Chris Hitchens who dismissively refer to JFK as avulgar hoodlum. And even in academia the picture of JFK as a cold war militant hastaken firmly hold. But I hope my book is a part of a third wave of the scholarship thatchallenges this revisional look at JFK. My book concentrates on the tumultuous inner lifethe Kennedy Presidency. It was the Presidency that I think was the governmental war withitself. I call it Rome on the Potomac in the era of sinister menace hung over the KennedyPresidency as JFK, I believe tried to lead the country out of the cold war before his time.This provoked a sharp backlash from very powerful forces in the US. We know -remember President Eisenhower's famous farewell address to the nation which he warned usof the encroaching power of the military industrial complex. Kennedy soon found outhow powerful these forces were at the Bay of Pigs which was the first great crisis in hisadministration, the failed invasion of Cuba that the CIA had orchestrated and told him into use language from today's CIA world. It was a slam dunk. It turned out not to be ofcourse it was a disaster. And Kennedy later feeling sandbag by the CIA and furious thatthe intelligence they've given him that shattered the CIA into a 1000 pieces and scatteredto the winds. The National Security establishment was equally enraged to Kennedy.I think I, if if my book does one thing, I hope it it creates a sense of what theKennedy's were up against. Because most books don't evoke this kind of poisonousatmosphere that prevailed in Washington in those years. When you read the oral historiesand or do interviews with people who are still alive in this world; the intelligenceworld, the military world, you get a sense of the of the vitriol, the hatred that they hadof the Kennedy's. Curtis LeMay the notorious head of the Air Force, referred them ascockroaches, you should have been crushed. JFK and in turn thought of LeMay was amad man. LeMay of course thought you could actually fight and win nuclear war and hewas determined to do this while United States had nuclear superiority in the early 60s. atone point he stand determined that Georgetown dinner party turning to this woman whohappened be the wife of the US senator and saying, we are going to have a nuclear warwith Soviet Union before the end of the year and if you want you and your children andgrandchildren to survive you should take them out west to Tumbleweed Country and thatwas her only chance of surviving.John Kennedy was a very different man. He was determined - he knew what the nuclearstakes were and he was determined to keep the country from falling into that precipice. Inhis famous speech at American University in June 1963, I think we see the visionaryKennedy at his best, speech written for him by Theodore Sorensen, his eloquent speechwriter and we can't even imagine a leader today using these words and at the height of thecold war imagine the revolutionary message of this speech in which he says, "We mustempathize with our enemy, no matter how repelling the value systems of governmentsthat we oppose the soviet system, communist system we are all people and we " and heends with this, "We all inhabit the same small planet, we all breath the same air, we allcherish our children's future and we are all mortal".The national security elite just did not know what to do with the man like this. They wereconcerned about his private life, they thought they were snooping on his private life, - oneaffair that I go into in particular which I knew them was his relationship with womannamed Mary Meyer who was the divorced wife of a former CIA Official named CordMeyer, they had known each other since they were in prep school and they began a veryI believe a serious relationship while Jack was in the White House. They Mary Meyerwas pre hippy hippy a bohemian spirit, a woman who was determined to turnon the Washington power structure, using the powers of LSD and her own - I think charms.I think once the CIA found out about this relationship which they did it was just one moreone more a cloud hanging over this presidency.I think what they thought of Jack Kennedy essentially was this that he was a morallycompromised, physically debilitated and intellectually dangerous president. Theatmosphere the militants atmosphere in Washington became so severe that at one pointKennedy who frequently referred to the possibility of his presidency ending violentlysomehow in a coup assassination and I think he probably did this more than any otherpresident I can think of in American history with the possible exception of AbrahamLincoln, but at one point he goes to friends in Hollywood and implores them to make afilm version of the book "Seven days in May" which was a bestseller by Fletcher Knebelabout political about military coup that comes close to toppling a presidency. Knebelhad been inspired to write this after interviewing Curtis LeMay and hearing the kind oftalk about JFK that he was prone - prone to.The pressures on Kennedy were constant to go to war in Berlin, in Laos and Vietnam, butabove all on Cuba. Cuba could very could very well become the Iraq of its day. In factthere is a fascinating national intelligence estimate produced by CIA analysts about such ascenario that was produced in 1962 that I came across and it eerily reads just like Iraqtoday what it says is, if the United States was to invade not like the Bay of Pigs but an allout military invasion we would quickly sweep aside Castro's forces and March on toHavana triumphantly but we would soon become bog down in lengthy occupation of theisland, there would be terrorists attacks on our troops respond our troops would respondover respond, civilians would be killed, the civilian population would turn against us, webecome increasingly isolated within the world because of our unilateral military action itsounds very familiar. Well, I think John Kennedy was no George W. Bush, he realizedthat was a possibility distinct possibility he realized what the stakes were he wasdetermined not to get bog down militarily like that in Cuba and he was determined to runthe nuclear holocaust which was a distinct possibility throughThe Kennedy's were constantly trying to stay on top of this world, the shattery world, theCIA's secret war on Castro and it was this particular world that Bobby Kennedy cast hissuspicions immediately on the afternoon of November 22nd. He knew that the CIA andthe mafia is kind of Frankenstein monster had already come together in a dark alliance tokill Castro, he thought he would stop that, but that alliance is continued and we knowfrom this conversations that day, exactly where he was looking, he was looking at theCIA, the mafia and the Cuban exile community. It's a very dramatic moment in Americanhistory. At one point aids comes to that afternoon say he has to surround his house inVirginia with security, with Federal Marshals because they don't trust the FBI or thesecret service at that point because they think who is ever killed President Kennedy iscoming for Bobby Kennedy next. Despite the dangers that always existed for BobbyKennedy from that moment on until his own death in 1968, he was determined from thatmoment on to find out who the killers of his Brother were and to reopen the case. Hestruggled with great grief and depression the sense of guilt that he should have preventedthe assassination of his brother. But after initial burst of energy and sinking into a deepdepression he struggles out of this and he comes back to political life, because he knowsthe only way that he can find justice for his brother is to reclaim the White House that theKennedy's have lost. He runs for Senate from New York in 1964 and then for thePresident - say in 1968 an enormous act of courage. Not only he is challenging the sittingPresident over a war that was started or at least escalated under his Brother, but he knowsthat he is taking his life in his hands. He knows that whoever has killed his brother thoseforces are still very much alert and threatened by Bobby's campaign. But he is deeplymoved by the wounds of the country's suffering, civil rights, Vietnam war, this endlesswar like we have today, the country had turned against the war the public that thegovernment seem to determine to plot on.I came across this amazing speech that Bobby gave in Sacramento of shopping mallwhere he was surrounded as usual by his clutching swarms of people used to - morereligious experience than a political experience his campaign. He would be clod out, hewould be bleeding and scratched at the end of it, but I I when I hear these words I thinkof our country today and and the people who were dying and suffering in Iraq. WhatBobby said that the Sacramento this with was this, "Which of these brave young mandying in the rice paddies of Vietnam might have written the symphony, which of themmight have cured cancer or played in the world series, which of them might havebuilt a bridge or taught a small child to read? It's ours our responsibility to let these men live."That's the kind of I think the message that American leaders need to deliver today, andjust as boldly as Bobby did.After Bobby was killed, the Band of Brothers as he called them the men who had servedthe Kennedy brothers so loyally and a number of whom he had called on to help himinvestigate secretly his brother's murder began to drift away. Their heart was cut fromthem at this point, they weren't able to pursue to take up Bobby's mission and pursue thecase either his own assassination or JFK's and if I could I would like to read you a fairlybrief section from the book about one of these man particularly pointing story KennyO'Donnell who some of you know that name who is the Kennedy loyalist from the earlydays in Boston and then became chief of staff in the Kennedy White House. So if you willjust bear with me I will read that passage with my glasses. Enjoy the view of here for a minute.So this takes place after the deaths of both Kennedy's well it begins before the death ofBobby and you see - where it goes from there. Kenny O'Donnell and his fellow Irishmafia war horse, Dave Powers were eye witnesses to history on November 22nd 1963riding immediately behind the president's limousine in the secret service backup car, thetwo men saw it all that day. Before the motorcade began JFK tentative as always to politicaldetails had asked them to take seats in the follow-up car, so they could closelyobserve reactions to him and Jacky from the crowds. The two men could never forgetwhat they saw that afternoon. As the shots rang out, powers blurred "Kenny, I think thePresident has been shot." O'Donnell quickly made a sign of the cross. As both men staredintently at the man they had loved and served ever since he was a scrawny youngcongressional candidate, a final shot who took the side of his head off. O'Donnell butlater recall, "We say pieces of bone and brain tissue and bit of his reddish hair flyingthrough the air. The impact lifted him and shook him limply as he was raged doll. Andthen he dropped out of our sights, scrolled across the backseat of the car. I said today if heis dead". O'Donnell and Powers both World War II veterans distinctly heard at least twoshots coming from the grassy knoll area in front of the motorcade but when they latertold this to the FBI, they were informed that there must be wrong. If they did if they did notchange their story it was impressed on the man, it could be very damaging to the country.So O'Donnell did all through his account to fit the official version testifying before theWarren Commission, that the shot had come from the right rear the direction of theschool book depository.Powers however could not be fully shaken from his story. Even though one of the WarrenCommission employees who took his statement kept interrupting him, Powers insistedthat he had the impression that the noise appeared to come from the front as well as frombehind which is probably why David Powers was never invited to testify before theWarren Commission as the more emendable O'Donnell was. Five years after theassassination, O'Donnell confessed to his friend Boston Congressmen and future speakerto the House, Tip O'Neil; what he had dutifully hidden from the public. He heard twoshots from the fence on the grassy knoll. O'Neil who was dining with O'Donnell and afew other people at Jimmy's harbor site restaurant in in Boston was stunned. "That'snot what you told the Warren Commission", he said. "You are right" replied O'Donnell."I told the FBI what I'd heard but they said it couldn't have happened that way and that Imust have been imagining things. So I testified the way they wanted me to. I just wentdidn't want to stir up any more pain and trouble for the family." "I can't believe that",said O'Neil, "I wouldn't have done that in a million years, I would have told the truth.""Tip, you have to understand" said O'Donnell, "the family, every body wanted this thingbehind them." Its clear form O'Neil's account and one given by David Powers whosuggested that Hoover himself pressured O'Donnell to change his account but the FBIplayed a key role in this fateful decision and the fateful distortion of the record. But it'sequally obvious that O'Donnell was also responding to signals from the Kennedy familyand that could only mean his close friend Bobby, the man whom his life and career hadcompletely been completely intertwined with every since they were Harvard roommates. The intensely loyal O'Donnell who was as close as brother to Bobby would neverhave changed his story without first checking with Kennedy. And Bobby had made itclear that he was not ready to publicly question the official story about the assassination.Whatever his reasons for hiding the truth about Dallas, O'Donnell's decision weighedheavily on him. The Kennedy's have been his life, tough, taciturn, utterly dedicated, heput in slavish hours at the White House. But he laughed at the notion, was a sacrifice."Tough job my ass, it was the best job I ever had", he would say. But now the man he hadserved was gone. He wished the bullets had hit him instead, he told his wife. And insteadof helping bringing the president's killers to justice, he was misleading the country. Theassassination was the end of his life, his son Kenny Jr. told me. He never was the sameagain. None of the men around Kennedy were but especially him.O'Donnell confided what he really witnessed and really passed it to his son as well. Hesaid there was fire from two different directions, recall the younger O'Donnell and hisfather would bitterly complain about his experience with the Warren Commission. I'll tellyou, that's right now, he told them. They didn't want to know. O'Donnell called theenquiry the most pointless investigation, I've ever seen. Pulling out the records of histestimony to show Kenny Jr. he would point to a passage with disgust and say, "Look,this is ridiculous. They weren't even looking for an answer to this." O'Donnell might alsohad been disgusted with his own performance before the Commission. In a month afterDallas, O'Donnell would devote himself to helping Jackie. The two had clung to eachother like old soldiers ever since the assassination. As they flew back to Washington thatday, both were stained with Jack's blood. Kenny and Bobby found (indiscernible) bygathering friends at Jackie's Georgetown House and entertaining her with old storiesabout Jack. But O'Donnell could not put Dallas behind him, what he and David Powerswitnessed that day, continued to work inside them. O'Donnell experienced ranchingdoubts of nausea for six months after Dallas. Powers began suffering violent headaches.The pain was focused in the same part of his scull where he had seen the bullet blow offthe top of his friend's head. He couldn't get the sickening sound out of his own head likea grape fruit splattering against the side of a wall. O'Donnell began drinking heavily,when friends warned him to go easy on the stuff, the man nicknamed the cobra would fixthem with a cold glare and tell them go to hell and mind your own business, but helistened when Jackie and Bobby sat him down and talked to him. There (indiscernible) hisdaughter Helen. He seemed to step forward into human company again but KennyO'Donnell never fully recovered he just lived the rest of his life with a heavy heart of hisson, he went twice to democratic nomination for Governor of Massachusetts but hispolitical talent was as behind the scenes man, not as a campaigner and he lost both times.Bobby's assassination was the final blow. Kenny Jr. was with his father the night heheard his father just spoke to RFK on the phone about the California primary results, itsover his told them after hearing "The history had repeated itself" that's all he said recalledKenny Jr. that was the absolute end.When O'Donnell died in Boston hospital in September 1977 at age 53 his familyrequested that the cause of death be withheld but the press reported he had succumbed toa liver ailment. There was no more Bobby to tell them to put down the bottle. Hismemorial service was held at St. Mathews Cathedral where he (indiscernible) Jack'scasket 14 years before walking slowly up Connecticut Avenue from the White House. Butthe Irish wake held afterwards at the Mayflower Hotel a Boston politician reminiscedabout his fallen friend. Without the Kennedy he said, "O'Donnell was the music without the heart."Thanks. I just want to leave you with this because again this is the part of the book that Iam being challenged by some historians about, but I feel, you know, very deeply about itand there was a moment when I was interviewing Ted Sorenson the eloquent speechwriter who really left it I think he indiscernible) and the vision of the Kennedy Presidencyis so high and Sorenson is still living and still deeply pained to talk about those days withintrusive journalists like myself but at one point he is wrestling with his idea. He said, "Iknow that Jack Kennedy is dead lived for a purpose I just can't believe he died forpurpose." He said, "It would give me great consolation if I knew this dear friend of 11years this man I serviced so closely had gone to Dallas knowing what the stakes were,knowing that he was confronting these dark forces and that they killed him for what hebelieved in what he was trying to do with the nation."The truth is I think Ted in his heart does know that's the case because after Bobby died hedelivered a beautiful eulogy for Bobby Kennedy at the law firm where he works still tothe state of New York and he was he was challenging his idea that it was already takinghold in the media that the Kennedy's were cursed and he said there is no curse upon theKennedy's they have met their share of the ill fate because they had more than theircourage and conviction required to try and tempt fate. They died heroic deaths becausethey lived heroic lives. If there is one thing I would like my book to accomplish its itsconveying in that sense with the Kennedy Presidency.Thank you very much