Milt Lee was a barber then, and not a lot of barbers get to josh with presidents of the United States.
But Lee also was a labor organizer and a Democratic Party activist who had toiled for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in Arizona. So he was in the escort committee when Kennedy spoke at a New York hotel on Nov. 20, 1963. Naturally, the subject of hair came up.
"He had a horrible cowlick," said Lee, who for 30 years was president and executive director of Mesa United Way. "In those days hair styling came in, and he said to me, ‘Milt, what do you think of my new hair style?’ "I said, ‘It’s great, Mr. president! I hope you have a union barber!’"
Two days later that famed head of tousled brown hair lay on a table in a Dallas hospital, matted with blood and brain matter. The president was dead, and a nation’s heart had been blown away. It has been 40 years already, 40 years this coming Saturday. An eternity to those who weren’t even born then — to them the assassination of John F. Kennedy is as abstract as stories about Charlemagne.
But to older Americans that Friday — Nov. 22, 1963 — will forever be synonymous with tears.
NEVER GOT OVER IT
It wasn’t merely that a politician, or even a president, had been murdered. Marshall Trimble of Scottsdale, Arizona’s official historian and also a balladeer of some repute, said there was something special about John F. Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected to the White House.
"I’m not real political but I like personality," Trimble said. "He had so much of a charismatic personality. You had to like the spirit that was there." To Trimble, a 21-year-old folk musician at the time, Kennedy and his "New Frontier" administration represented hope, an exuberant confidence in the good of humanity and the future.
"I’ve never really gotten over the assassination," Trimble said. "That was my first year as a schoolteacher. I had the duty of announcing it to my class. That leaves an indelible memory on you."
In some ways the nation never really got over it, either. While Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, continued many of his domestic initiatives, at least one local expert thinks the assassination led to another searing national trauma — Vietnam.
Philip Vandermeer, an associate professor of history at Arizona State University, said historians are split on whether the Vietnam quagmire — and the deadly turmoil it caused on campuses and in cities across the country — would have occurred had Kennedy lived.
"You can find people who argue that Kennedy was responsible for getting us into the war," Vandermeer said, because he expanded the number of military "advisers" in Vietnam, a course that Johnson greatly enlarged upon.
"Ultimately, I don’t buy that ," Vandermeer said. Kennedy was cautious and pragmatic in foreign policy, and in the summer of 1963 he had ordered a complete evaluation of Vietnam. Eventually, Vandermeer said, Kennedy likely would have accepted a negotiated settlement of the conflict.
"That is an area where I do think there is some significant consequence to the Kennedy assassination," he said.
Beyond that, Vandermeer said, the nation lost a leader whose talk about "duty and idealism" was a powerful stimulant after the inward-looking 1950s. "It was something very few people could or ever have matched," he said. "It’s an extraordinary ability to do that."
Trimble said by the time of Kennedy’s death, it was apparent that Arizona’s Barry Goldwater had a good chance of running against him for the White House in 1964. Trimble said Goldwater told him that he and Kennedy had planned to actually appear together on the campaign trail, allowing voters to see their different philosophies up close.
"The public would have had a clear choice, maybe the most clear choice in the century, between two men who liked and respected one another," Trimble said. As it was, Johnson crushed Goldwater after a smear-filled 1964 campaign, and the stage was set for the rest of the tumultuous ’60s.
One of the Arizona Democrats who worked with Lee on Kennedy’s 1960 campaign was William Mahoney, who at one time served as the Maricopa County attorney. After Kennedy’s election, Mahoney was rewarded with an ambassadorship to Ghana. The family’s association with the Kennedys had a permanent effect on Mahoney’s son, Richard, a former Arizona secretary of state who ran unsuccessfully for governor last year as an independent. The younger Mahoney became not merely a Kennedy devotee but, later, a Kennedy scholar.
And in researching the famous clan, he could not avoid what many still regard as the 20th century’s greatest unsolved mystery: Who killed John F. Kennedy, and why?
The U.S. government’s official answer to the question stood for years in the form of the Warren Commission report, which concluded Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in shooting Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally from a window in the Texas School Book Depository.
From the outset, however, that report was assailed by skeptics who questioned the autopsy, the ballistics evidence and any number of what they say are mysterious circumstances regarding the murder and its aftermath. In 1979, a special committee of the U.S. House of Representatives looked into the matter again and concluded a conspiracy probably was involved. But in 1988, the Justice Department said there was no "persuasive evidence" of a plot, and the government officially ended its investigation.
Richard Mahoney could not be reached for comment, but his book "Sons and Brothers" traces a convoluted tale involving the Mafia, the CIA, exiled enemies of Cuba’s Fidel Castro and others. The Warren Report is "fundamentally wrong," Mahoney said in a discussion on CNN after the book was published.
"It was a mob hit. . . . The achievement was not to kill JFK but to get away with it — to set up the CIA and the FBI after the fact as partners in the crime."
As conspiracy theories go, Mahoney’s is not unusual. The Internet is crawling with speculation over the murder, much of it by amateur sleuths still poring over the evidence and the millions of words written about the crime.
One such is Ed Dorsch Jr. of Nottingham, Md., whose day job is as an analyst with a major banking firm. By night, he probes the murder of JFK.
He said he accepted the Warren Report until 1990, when an article about the assassination triggered his curiosity. Since then he has studied hundreds of books, articles and files from the National Archives. He runs a Web site called The Kennedy Assassination for the Novice (http://pages.prodigy.net/
Dorsch is not dogmatic about his theory. The truth, he says, probably will never be known. But he believes the murder plot bubbled up from deep wells of corruption that touched the Mafia, the CIA and some of America’s most powerful business and political leaders — not excluding Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Many of the same figures, he says, were involved in Watergate nine years later.
Dorsch blames compliant news media for not aggressively investigating the crime.
"They have never treated this like they should have to live up to their ‘freedom of the press’ responsibilities," he told the Tribune in an e-mail.
A NATIONS LOSS
Trimble, too, said he has long suspected a conspiracy and a cover-up.
"I’ve always felt it was linked to Cuba and linked to the Mob," he said. "There were just too many things that were ignored by the Warren Commission. It’s cynical, but I can’t help it."
Vandermeer leans the other way. "The problem with conspiracy theories is you can never disprove them," he said. He admits there seem to be problems with the Warren Report’s evidence, but thinks a widespread plot would have been too difficult to conceive, execute and conceal.
"I think the idea of assassinating a president by a mob, the possibility that this would backfire — the potential danger is so extraordinary that it would seem to me one would have have to be more than nuts to do that," Vandermeer said.
Lee said he was on a plane returning to Phoenix, just two days after bantering with the president, when the pilot announced JFK had been shot. When the plane landed, Lee learned his friend was dead. He and his wife could barely drive home through the tears.
He thinks the Warren Commission found the truth. "The Kennedy family would not have let this go had the commission not gotten it correctly," he said.
Mahoney’s answer on that point is that John Kennedy’s younger brother, Bobby, knew the truth about the murder and felt at least partly responsible for it. As U.S. attorney general, Bobby Kennedy had aggressively pursued some of the very Mafia bosses who helped his brother win the 1960 election.
Beyond that, Mahoney believes Bobby Kennedy knew an exhaustive probe would peel the lid off his brother’s wholesome image as a bright, shining knight in America’s new "Camelot." John Kennedy’s numerous trysts — including his dalliance with Marilyn Monroe and with a woman who also had been the mistress of a Mafia boss — would be exposed, as would the family’s Mafia connections.
Beyond the historical import of the crime, and beyond the question of who killed JFK, Trimble still gets emotional over the human tragedy of that autumn day.
"The whole nation just suddenly was saddened," Trimble said. "I think what hit a lot of us even more were little John and Carolyn and the young Jackie. Not only did we have somebody taken from us — the president belongs to everybody — but we saw the personal loss of children who would really never know their father."
Assassination of President John F. Kennedy:
Nov. 22, 1963 11:37 a.m.: Kennedy arrives in Dallas as part of a political trip designed to mend fences among feuding Texas Democrats as the 1964 campaign season approaches. His wife, Jackie, accompanies him, as do Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird. The president, vice president, their wives and Texas Gov. John Connally take a motorcade through Dallas; the top of Kennedy’s limousine is removed to give the crowd, estimated at 200,000, a better view of the president.
12:30 p.m.: Kennedy is fatally shot and Connally, sitting ahead of him in the limousine, is badly wounded as the car moves through Dealy Plaza on the western edge of downtown Dallas.
12:32 p.m.: Lee Harvey Oswald, a clerk at the Texas School Book Depository, is reportedly seen in the second-floor lunchroom. About 35 minutes before the motorcade passed, he had been seen on the sixth floor.
1 p.m.: Kennedy is pronounced dead at Parkland Memorial Hospital.
1:12 p.m.: Police find a barricade of boxes, three spent cartridges and a paper bag in the southeast corner window on the sixth floor of the book depository building. A few minutes later they find a rifle stuffed between boxes near the staircase. The evidence is linked to Oswald.
1:18 p.m.: Police learn that Dallas police officer J.D. Tippit has been shot in the Oak Cliff section of the city south of downtown.
1:50 p.m.: Oswald is arrested at the Texas Theatre after a witness who saw the Tippit shooting directs police there. Oswald is quickly linked to both fatal shootings.
2:38 p.m.: Aboard Air Force One, with Jackie by his side, Johnson is sworn in as president.
Nov. 24, 1963
On live national television, Oswald is shot and killed by Jack Ruby while being transferred between jails in Dallas. Ruby is convicted of murder and sentenced to death but later wins an appeal. Ruby dies of cancer in 1967 while awaiting a new trial.
Nov. 25, 1963
America comes to a standstill on a national day of mourning for Kennedy’s funeral, the first such event ever to be shown on live television. One indelible image from the day: 3-year-old John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin.
Nov. 29, 1963
Johnson establishes a commission led by Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren to investigate the assassination.
Sept. 24, 1964
The Warren Commission issues a report concluding Oswald acted alone in killing Kennedy. The findings are challenged by numerous investigators who believe evidence points to a conspiracy.
Jan. 2, 1979
The U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations supports the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Oswald fired the fatal shots, but, based on audio evidence from the scene, also says someone fired at Kennedy from a nearby grassy knoll. The committee says Kennedy "was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy."
The Justice Department closes its investigation of the assassination and, based on re-evaluation of audio evidence, concludes there was no "persuasive evidence" of a conspiracy.