Margaret O'Connor

Margaret O'Connor

Margaret O’Connor is a semi-professional musician who performs regularly around Canberra. She’s fascinated by history and archaeology, and loves growing her own food and implementing sustainable living practices.
Margaret O'Connor
Margaret’s blog is margaret's space

IT WAS NOT long before the emergence of a cottage industry in Camelot era style commentary, fuelled the publication of literally thousands of books – biographies, footnoted, not footnoted, well researched, poorly researched, cheap, worthy, gossipy – you name it.

One of the earliest was the elegantly written bromance A Thousand Days: John F Kennedy and the White House by Arthur Schlesinger, Special Assistant to JFK during his Presidency and one of the young guns of his White House administration. Published in 1965, shortly after the release of the Warren Commission findings, it was the definitive tome on JFK’s life and administration for its time. Amongst the crop of well-regarded JFK biographies published over the last 60 years, it still attracts complimentary reviews and appears on lists of the best.

I imagine sales of A Thousand Days would have been brisk anywhere where JFK was well loved – such as the Irish diaspora. Certainly, my uncle bought it as a Christmas present for my grandmother. It was later passed down to the next generation of my family in the manner accorded to something akin to a family heirloom. Books would have also flown off the shelves in the ‘Old Country’ as well, where JFK had made his triumphant 1963 visit and the star-struck Irish thought he was a ‘Rock Star, Hollywood. But yet ours; he was Irish Catholic’…a ‘gorgeous guy’, with a ‘gorgeous wife’, and ‘perfect kids, just like a fairy tale’ and where, according to a Fitzgerald of Limerick, they ‘cried the rain down’ when they heard the news of the assassination.

Title United States President John Kennedy’s motorcade in Patrick Street, Cork, Ireland in June 1963.
Credit: Robert L. Knudsen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Whilst A Thousand Days’ borderline hagiographical style grates a bit, it is full of egotistical but fascinating eyewitness observations from someone who was right at the heart of the administration. Many authors have written about JFK’s sensationally bad health but Schlesinger deserves credit for documenting this from very early. He was graphic, for example, about the impact on JFK of his horrendous health issues, summed up by the astonishing quote from his brother ‘at least one half of the days (JFK) spent on this earth…were days of intense physical pain.’

For anyone doubting the outrageously classy First Family’s massive contribution to national culture and the arts, Schlesinger describes Jackie Kennedy’s efforts to restore the White House as a major project through the establishment of the Fine Arts Committee, culminating in the passing of legislative protections for its cultural value in 1961. But his description of her stay in the White House as First Lady as being a ‘time of the greatest happiness’ sits uneasily alongside later claims and allegations of JFK’s multiple affairs. Schlesinger avoids these claims and allegations like the plague, strangely, seeing he was part of JFK’s inner circle (or so he is at pains to emphasize).

First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s tea for the Special Committee for White House Paintings.
Credit: Robert LeRoy Knudsen, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Burbling along in the background questions continued to fester, providing a fabulous resource for commentary, books and authors. Whilst some dined out on the established Warren Commission narrative very early on others vigorously dissented from it: Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgement (1966), Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas (1967), Edward Epstein’s Inquest (1966), Richard Popkin’s The Second Oswald (1966), and Sylvia Meagher’s Accessories after the Fact (1967). And then there was that court case. In 1967, New Orleans Prosecutor Jim Garrison arrested and charged local businessman Clay Shaw with conspiring to assassinate JFK, a court case made famous by Oliver Stone in the 1991 film JFK. It remains the only criminal charge brought about on JFK’s assassination.

Notwithstanding this, the official narrative was conspicuously upheld elsewhere. The American television network CBS, which like other TV networks had comprehensively covered the Warren Commission findings when they were released, delivered a ‘stalwart defence of the Warren Commission’s conclusions’ in a 1967 broadcast. According to James Di Eugenio, CBS ignored producers who wanted to air a debate between believers and doubters and by slapping down any criticism of the Warren Commission, effectively prevented the case surrounding the assassination from ever receiving the full airing that it deserved.

It was the late 1960s, soon to become the early 1970s, and dissent, disquiet, and official investigations proved irrepressible. In 1974 and 1975 investigative journalist Seymour Hersch wrote a series of explosive New York Time articles about activities and abuses by the CIA and the FBI, in the context of the Watergate revelations. In January 1975, the Church Committee was established, a US Senate Select Committee which investigated abuses by a range of security agencies. A sub-committee, headed up by Senator Richard Schweiker and Senator Gary Hart, examined the issue of how intelligence agencies had aided the Warren Commission. President Gerald Ford also established the President’s Commission on CIA Activities in the United States, headed up by his Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller. Its scope was limited but nonetheless touched on some aspects of the JFK assassination.

This is where the Zapruder film re-enters the story. The film was instrumental in the establishment of another official inquiry into the events in Dallas, the most significant since the Warren Commission. For those who have never watched it, the dreadful footage captures the motorcade emerging from the other side of foliage, JFK clutching his throat, Jackie turning towards him inquiringly asking him what’s wrong, then the fatal head shot.

Three frames preceding the fatal head shot – Zapruder Film © 1967 (Renewed 1995) The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza

So much is it part of our cultural wallpaper that it’s easy to think that it has always been available to the public. But the day after the assassination, Zapruder had sold his film to Life magazine, which would keep the film under wraps for the most part, later releasing copies to the Warren Commission and to Jim Garrison for the Clay Shaw court case. (Garrison would allow investigator Mark Lane to make 100 copies which were distributed to colleges and universities.)

The first time a large proportion of the American public saw it was in March 1975 when it was aired on an episode of television show Goodnight America. In this fascinating snapshot of modern American history, the host, Geraldo Rivera, interviewing Robert Groden and Dick Gregory (early doubters of the official Warren Commission narrative), can be heard commenting cynically on the Rockefeller Commission, and referring to the film as being the most shocking thing he had ever seen.

Such was the horror generated by the footage that it created the impetus for the 1976 establishment of House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) to investigate the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. Largely ignored by the mainstream media, its Final Report and rather disjointed grab bag of findings and conclusions were released on 29 March 1979.

Probably the most controversial being:

The Committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. The Committee is unable to identify the other gunman or the extent of the conspiracy..’

The findings also included a critique of the early FBI investigation into JFK’s assassination, stating that whilst it had conducted a ‘thorough and professional investigation into the responsibility of Lee Harvey Oswald’ it was pointedly underwhelmed with other aspects of the agency’s work, finding that it ‘failed to investigate adequately the possibility of a conspiracy to assassinate the President’ and ‘was deficient in its sharing of information with other agencies and departments.’

The Committee also found that:

‘Agencies and departments of the U.S. Government performed with varying degrees of competency in the fulfilment of their duties. President Kennedy did not receive adequate protection. A thorough and reliable investigation into the responsibility of Lee Harvey Oswald for the assassination was conducted. The investigation into the possibility of conspiracy in the assassination was inadequate.’

However, writers and investigators including John Armstrong in Volume 4 of Probe magazine continue to critique various aspects of the FBI’s investigation, such as its treatment of evidence in the hours following the assassination.


President John F. Kennedy delivers an address before the crowd gathered at Redmond Place in Wexford, Ireland, during a welcoming ceremony in his honor. Credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 4 here

Featured photo: JFK’s Tombstone and eternal flame Arlington National Cemetery. Credit: R.Hood Photography, via Wikimedia Commons