COLUMN THIRTY-SIX, AUGUST 1, 1998
(Copyright © 1998 Al Aronowitz)
DEATH FROM THE DESERT
[In Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground (due for publication September 1) author Lionel Rolfe writes about many topics, including his take on the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, which is the subject of the following excerpt. The nephew of famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Rolfe has written for and worked at various publications such as the Los Angeles Free Press, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily News, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle and Psychology Today.]
I must now admit something I never told anyone before. On Nov. 22, 1963, when John Kennedy made his historic trip to Dallas, I caught every bit of it on the radio. Here was this popular, liberal president, going to Dallas, into the heart of darkest Texas. I was then in my most radical phase-a poor student at City College, full of revolutionary fervor. The need to overthrow an oppressive society seemed absolutely imperative. And because I was a radical, and not just a liberal, I thought that our dashing new president was a cop-out, just as much an instrument of a rotten, imperialist structure as the worst Republican. My first thought when the dry bullet sounds popped off in Dallas was that these were the opening salvoes of the revolution.
In retrospect I'm ashamed that this was my first reaction. But it was.
I was on my way to friends when it happened, and I rushed to get there and be with them. We had all been affected by Camelot, even if Kennedy was only a liberal and not a radical. There's no doubt his presidency was engendering a special mood. Camelot gave us all a sense that America was on the move---that the years of dreary Republican oppression, stupidity and decline were over. Kennedy signified hope, a quality always sorely lacking when Republicans ruled the roost.
My friends had a television, and we stayed glued to the tube. I had felt that optimism of Camelot, although I also militantly subscribed to the belief that capitalism could not be saved by liberal reform, that the whole superstructure needed to be swept away. A dynamic, exciting leader like Kennedy was in a way even worse than one of those dull, mediocre men of the status quo, like, say, a Nixon. We also always told each other that a Nixon was more likely to cause a revolution than a clever, co-opting liberal figure like Kennedy, but all of us were at least secretly glad Kennedy, not Nixon, was in office.
Yet when the announcer said Kennedy had been shot, an exhilarating thought passed through me. The Tyrant was dead. The phony liberal who would lead to no good had been shot. As soon as I thought that, I felt bad that my mind had even entertained such thoughts. Long live the Tyrant!
The John Kennedy assassination was a defining moment for me, and for my generation. Maybe I had not been a fan of Kennedy's because his politics were far right of my own. But we all knew something had gone terribly wrong with the country beginning with that
The Warren Commission's explanation of how President John F. Kennedy was killed just wasn't believable
moment in Dallas. And over the years, as a writer and reporter, I dealt directly with the story on several occasions. That made me feel all the closer to the event itself.
Many years later as I curled up on the large bed with my yellowing newspapers that the birds had beaked away on, I pondered---sometimes with a shiver---my closeness to the events.
That's why the Oliver Stone movie about the John F. Kennedy assassination was so personal a thing for me. I came home and reread that issue of the Newhall Signal and also a copy of New Times Magazine in which I had written pieces about the Robert Kennedy assassination.
During the '60s I spent enough years as a small town police reporter and general assignment reporter to know that the Warren Commission's explanation of how President John F. Kennedy was killed just wasn't believable.
I was an obsessed doubter of the official version almost from the beginning. Obsessed, because like so many people for whom the nickel finally drops about the JFK assassination, I had quickly come to the next inevitable conclusion---if you can kill a president by conspiracy and get away with it, that means you have successfully staged a coup d'e´tat. And if you have staged a strange kind of silent coup in which you simply take power but don't announce it as such, life goes on but with a lot of unease. Perhaps every president since the Kennedy assassination has been illegitimate.
Stone's movie was about New Orleans District Attorney James Garrison's trial of Clay Shaw, whom he believed was part of the conspiracy to kill Kennedy. One of the reasons I had never believed the shots came from the Book Depository Building was that I had heard an ABC reporter saying without hesitation "The shots are coming from the grassy knoll!" There was no mention of the Book Depository Building in the opposite direction, where the lone crazed assassin Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly did his evil deed.
I had worked with the Garrison people on the Shaw trial because of my involvement with Colonel William Gale, named by Garrison as part of the conspiracy.
On a June evening in 1968 when Robert Kennedy, John's brother, was killed, I sat listening to a man on a couch in the front room of a suburban tract home within easy driving distance from downtown Los Angeles. In six hours it would be midnight. Fifteen minutes after midnight presidential aspirant Robert Kennedy would be gunned down in the Ambassador Hotel near downtown Los Angeles.
The fellow I was interviewing was telling me about how Kennedy was part of the "Jewish-Communist conspiracy." As he talked he was fondling a gun with a mammoth-sized silencer. When he got angry he would brandish the gun, so much that I got quite nervous.
This was Colonel Gale, a former top aide of General Douglas MacArthur. Gale later became better known as the Reverend William Gale, co-founder of the anti-Semitic Identity religion, which became the official faith of the Rev. Butler of Hayden Lake, Idaho.
At that time, I didn't know much about Gale. I was just a young reporter interviewing a congressional candidate. He was running against the incumbent Edwin Reinecke, who later became lieutenant governor under Ronald Reagan, and ultimately was the first Republican to go to jail in the Watergate case. When extensively questioned about the matter, Reinecke had admitted to me that he had many nagging doubts about the official version of the Kennedy murder, and so the Signal played that up big. Soon enough, the Signal was running articles and pictures meant to discredit the Warren Report.
In 1968 Gale was not yet known as the mastermind of the Posse Comitatus. There were rumors of links to paramilitary groups, but mostly he portrayed himself as just another stockbroker working in Glendale who was also an investor in high desert real estate. Nothing was too far out in his initial campaign. He emphasized his military record. He had joined the Army at 16 and at 26 was the youngest lieutenant colonel in the army. He later became one of three officers selected by General MacArthur during World War II to direct guerrilla operations in the Philippines. He called himself a "constitutionalist." When asked about a group he had formed called the California Rangers, Gale denied that it was a paramilitary group. He said it was "volunteer civil defense group" comprised of former Army officer friends of his.
A few days before I interviewed Gale, Garrison tied Gale into the Kennedy assassination. Gale's name was linked to a mysterious former KKKer named G. Clinton Wheat, who had served prison time on a murder rap, and was on the run from a Garrison subpoena. When they caught up with Wheat, he had been hiding out in a cabin in the Sierra in Shasta County. (Gale would later move to the same area and run his Posse Comitatus there.) Wheat was supposed to have owned the house at 233 S. Lafayette Park Place near McArthur Park in Los Angeles where Gale and a few others had discussed the conspiracy to kill John Kennedy, according to Garrison. Gale told me that he was an acquaintance of Wheat, but denied everything else, although he did provide me "off the record" a thumbnail sketch of his acquaintance. Later, Garrison executive assistant James Alcock told me that Gale was definitely a very good friend of Wheat.
Not surprisingly, Gale suggested that Jim Garrison was probably an agent of Castro. And with what was obviously meant to be an ironic touch, he allowed to me as to how he personally had liked Kennedy, even if he didn't agree with his politics, and speculated that the assassination "looked like an inside job." Gale attacked Reinecke for having confessed his doubts about the Kennedy assassination to me.
"It isn't a congressman's job to investigate things like this. That's why there are organizations like the FBI. If the agencies have investigated it, that's it, unless there's good reason to believe there's hanky panky."
Gale had showed me his shiny new Land Rover, which in a few hours he was going to drive to "the Midwest" to visit relatives he hadn't seen in years if he lost the election to Reinecke---which, of course, he did. He talked a lot about his hero General Edwin Walker, and former Alabama Governor George Wallace, whom he dismissed "as a coward, a politician who would sell out to the niggers."
He complained because his name had been dragged into news stories about Garrison's trial of Clay Shaw for conspiracy "by reporters with Jewish names." I left before the sun sank behind the dry California hills, because I didn't want to stay at the man's house after dark.
And the morning after, I read about how Robert Kennedy had been shot---and remembered vividly Gale and his Land Rover and his gun with a silencer, and thought thoughts too horrible to articulate. A couple of days before I had taken a photo of Kennedy joyously, without much caution, pressing the flesh. My camera lens came within three feet of his face-and I captured a powerful picture that we used in our Robert Kennedy assassination issue at the Newhall Signal June 7.
Several years passed. My boss at the Signal, Jon Newhall and I went off into different directions---he edited a couple of underground newspapers and college radio station news services during much of the '70s, which often ran news about the latest evidence to emerge on the assassination front. I went more and more into freelance journalism and writing books. In the December 27, 1974, issue of New Times, a news weekly then coming out of
the Robert Kennedy
New York that viewed itself as kind of a left-wing Time magazine, Jon and I wrote an article that centered on the attempts by Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi and County Supervisor Baxter Ward to reopen the Robert Kennedy assassination of 1968. I used to argue with a friend of mine, Bart Everett, an editor at the Los Angeles Times, about whether Robert Kennedy had been the victim of a lone assassin. Bart and his paper believed that. I felt that Noguchi and Ward were onto something when they suggested that Kennedy was not killed by the bullets coming from Sirhan Sirhan's gun in front of him, but rather by the bullets of someone else who shot Kennedy from the rear. Bart remained convinced by the party line, which maintained that Robert Kennedy was killed by a lone assassin.
About the time that I was writing my New Times piece, another assassination movie, Parallax View, was making the rounds. Friends kept telling me to go see it. It was frightening---in the movie Warren Beatty plays a hard-bitten reporter who gets killed for his efforts to uncover the true story of the assassination of an RFK-type figure. Neither Jon or I were dodging bullets. No one had taken shots at us, nor were the tentacles of a right wing, quasi-governmental assassination bureau onto us, which was the case with Warren Beatty in the movie.
But during the time I worked on the article, I used to go drink coffee and read the newspaper at Tiny Naylor's at the corner of Laurel Canyon and Ventura Boulevard in Studio City. There I met a man who overheard the conversation I was having with my wife about the story. The man looked seedy, his glasses were scotch-taped, his clothes were shabby, but his talk was big. He regaled us for more than three hours with his incredible exploits in wartime intelligence during the Second World War in the Pacific, and his later exploits with Hollywood producers and Las Vegas gangsters.
He was probably a con man, certainly a salesman. He was selling a machine called a Psychological Stress Evaluator, manufactured by the Dektor Corporation under contract to the CIA. The machine could supposedly analyze a tape recording and tell if someone was telling the truth or not. The fellow steered me around to the subject of my article, which he had overheard me discussing. He asked if I had sent the story on to New Times yet, and for some reason something inside me compelled me to say yes, even though it was still at home in the middle of composition on my desk.
He said we would continue our conversation the next day. I showed up and we talked again, except this time I was more wary, especially as he kept asking me if the story had gotten to the editors yet, and what they had said about it.
I was not too forthcoming with him, and after this I did some research. Indeed there had been a Psychologial Stress Evaluator, which was a fraud that the CIA had financed, and then dropped. Now former CIA agents were making a few bucks selling it where they could. In other words, the PSE was a sort of reward, a franchise, to old CIA operatives. The machine was also being sold to foreign police departments, where it was used to intimidate suspects. I learned that anyone involved with the machine most likely had agency connections---but, in essence, my man, like the others, was just a salesman with a contraption he wanted you to buy or talk about or write about.
It wasn't until years later that I came to believe that Gale knew about what was going to happen that night to Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador. I knew that he knew that I didn't believe him, that I thought that Garrison was onto something with him. In truth, I remember he did not even try very hard to personally convince me of the truth of his alibis. He just mouthed the words that I had to write. He expressed this in his tone of voice and with his body language. In the ensuing years I've come to believe I was kind of lucky to have gotten away from Gale's home with my life.
If Gale were still alive, I would love to have seen Garrison's evidence against him brought into court. But since Gale (and Garrison, for that matter) died half a decade or so ago, that can never be done.
I used to think that surely there were others who are still alive who should be brought to trial.
But as the years have passed, and we move closer and closer to the end of the 20th Century, I'm not so sure of that anymore. After awhile, no one remembers anything.
But that, of course, is not really true. Things are remembered for a very long time, sometimes, and whatever the earthquakes our times passed through after the '60s, we'll be sorting those out well into the next century. ##
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