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The Kennedy Assassination and Pursuing 'What It Stopped'

11/22/2013 07:39 pm ET | Updated Aug 01, 2014

It's impossible to know for sure whether the Warren Commission Report was correct, or whether the House Select Committee on Assassinations was correct. We'll never know precisely what happened 50 years ago today in Dallas, conspiracy or not, as President Kennedy's motorcade traveled down Elm Street toward the triple underpass.

That said, there's nothing wrong with speculating -- with having a hunch about how and why it happened; whether the plot might've been one lone nut or many conspirators working in tandem. But anyone who says they know for sure should be greeted with incredulity.

In his book, titled Kennedy, Ted Sorensen, speechwriter and special counsel to President Kennedy, wrote, "I must ask to be excused from repeating the details of that tragedy. How and why it happened are of little consequence compared to what it stopped."

Too often in these past 50 years, our all-too-human impulse is to pursue the murder mystery. The "how and why" almost always takes precedent over "what it stopped."

Nevertheless, like so many others, I spent time looking into the details of the assassination. Eventually, I thought I had attained a modest sense of what happened. I thought maybe that it was the Mafia seeking to regain a financial stake in Cuba, and so, fueled by a sense of pre-RICO invincibility, it targeted President Kennedy who stood in the way of liberating the island from Fidel Castro and returning it back to the unfettered cash geyser it had been under the Batista regime. Oswald, who had almost certainly been recruited into the anti-Castro movement, had been sent to the Soviet Union as a defector purely for show to make it appear as if he was a communist in order to later infiltrate Cuba and become part of the arsenal of assassination possibilities against Castro. Instead, the plot against Castro was redeployed to target the chief executive of the United States.

Whatever.

In the process of reading too many volumes about the assassination, I stumbled onto some of the more crackpot theories, several of which you've probably heard about.

There was the book by Dan Robertson, Definitive Proof: The Secret Service Murder of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, claiming that Secret Service Agent William Greer accidentally shot the president. Definitive proof? Hooey.

There was The Last Investigation, by the late Gaeton Fonzi, in which the author, a former staffer on the House Select Committee, ghoulishly determined that the slain president's head was being held together with a mysterious metal clamp for some reason after the president's body had been secretly absconded from Air Force One and replaced with a lookalike. Also hooey.

There was the dum-dum bullet theory, claiming the president was shot in the head with a rubber bullet, there was the doctored Zapruder film theory, there was the Kennedy-is-still-alive theory and, of course, the space aliens killed the president theory.

And there was the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink conspiracy theory dramatized by Oliver Stone in JFK. While, as a movie, it remains one of my all-time favorites, the metatheory presented in the movie was as ridiculously vast as it was totally implausible, involving a cast of hundreds of conspirators, and, in many places, outright falsehoods about Jim Garrison's investigation and prosecution of Clay Shaw.

But what compelled me to learn more about what might've happened in Dallas was no different than so many others. How could a lone, mixed up weirdo with a bizarre past do this to the President of the United States -- and to us? There were so many unexplained loose ends and unanswered questions. Something wasn't adding up. It was like a real-life murder mystery with the highest imaginable stakes. It was irresistible.

However, what ultimately changed my perception of both the Kennedy presidency and his assassination was chance meeting with Ted Sorensen. While he refused to take public credit for his speechwriting, Mr. Sorensen was responsible for President Kennedy's most memorable speeches, including the inspirational American University commencement address, a personal favorite of mine. He co-wrote the president's immortal 1961 inaugural, which included the "Ask not what your country can do for you..." line. He also wrote the president's televised remarks informing the nation about the quarantine of Cuba in response to the installation of Soviet missiles there. As the story goes, he was simply unable to author a back-up speech calling for air-strikes.

As a writer myself, I naturally jumped at the chance to visit with him and his wife at his Manhattan apartment.

Ted Sorensen in the Oval Office with President Kennedy.

Ted Sorensen in the Oval Office with President Kennedy.

We talked business for most of the meeting. But then, as the serious conversation began to wind down for the afternoon, the topic of Washington, DC came up and I mentioned that my Dad was once the acting inspector general of the Treasury Department; his office looked out over the east lawn of the White House. Matter-of-factly, I noted that after I was born, I lived with my parents at the River House, an apartment complex across the highway from the Pentagon.

Mr. Sorensen's face lit up and he smiled, "That's where I lived when I worked for the president."

My mind raced, "The president... Kennedy. He's talking about John F. Kennedy. Of course he is. He worked for President Kennedy." For some reason, until that moment, it hadn't really sunk in.

Not only was the meeting with Mr. Sorensen a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which I will always be grateful, but there I was, sitting in the living room of perhaps the closest adviser to President Kennedy, second only to Bobby. If that wasn't enough, this brief stanza in our conversation added a previously absent dimension of tangibility, of human reality to the Kennedy era and the assassination. I shared something in common, in a non-professional sense, with a man who was one of Kennedy's most prominent voices -- a man who, more than nearly anyone else, possessed a deep understanding of the president's mind, motivations and goals -- a man who was one of the chief architects of the Kennedy vision that had inspired so many Americans.

And he was in the White House on that terrible day. He had endured the sudden death of his president and the agenda they, together, had crafted.

Since that day in New York City, I really haven't cared about who killed President Kennedy. Instead, I tend to think about what the Kennedy administration might've achieved had it been able to fully pursue its agenda.

Because I wasn't born until eight years after the assassination, I never really had the personal connection and insight of older Americans who lived through it. Now, having spent time with Mr. Sorensen, I almost exclusively contemplate what he and others in the president's inner circle must've felt on this day and the days that followed 50 years ago and how utterly soul-crushing it must have been, not only because of the death of this man they knew, but for the death of what they could have achieved under his leadership.

If nothing else, the very continuity and steadiness of the presidency was lost. In its wake, 11 years of comparative darkness ensued. From 1963 through 1974, America was dragged through a war, corruption and more senseless assassinations, culminating in a crisis within the White House itself. As a nation we still haven't quite overcome the cynicism that bled out of that dark ride.

It's cold comfort to think that had Kennedy lived, we might've sidestepped much of the darkness and death, as well as the subsequent cynicism, since after all the promise of the too-brief Kennedy presidency represented the opposite of what ended up happening: inspirational leadership with the idealism of "peace for all time" as its primary aim. We lost the opportunity to see it through to its logical conclusion. November 22, 1963 disrupted and indeed cut down the natural order of things.

But perhaps now, 50 years later, we can begin to set aside the often morbid obsession with the "how and why" of the assassination and instead share a renewed pursuit of "what it stopped."

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