The Warren Commission Report as The Great American Novel

Some years ago, during a telephone interview, I finally succeeded in badgering Jim Garrison into naming the Name. For years Garrison had been telling people he had the whole case cold: he knew who gave the orders, who fired the shots and from where. Still, though he had talked a lot about the Big Guys behind the plot— intelligence agencies, the military-industrial complex and the like—he had never publicly named the name of the man he believed fired the fatal head shot from the grassy knoll.

I won’t tell you that name, because Garrison didn’t give me any evidence for singling out this person for historic infamy. On another day, I felt, he might have picked another name out of the hat Still, for one guilty moment I had the land of thrill that assassination buffs live for. I had the Name everyone else was looking for and no one else had. Of course, it wasn’t an entirely unknown name. Garrison told me the person had been questioned extensively by Warren Commission investigators, and when I looked him up in the Warren Commission testimony, I found he plays a kind of Rosencrantz-and-Guildenstern-level role in the Warren Report, that of a peripheral figure in a key place: he was a live-in manager and janitor at Jack Ruby’s sleazy strip joint, the Carousel Club. There’s no doubt that the commission investigators were interested in his story—the transcript of his testimony runs more than 200 pages—but mostly because he was a source who might shed some light on the peculiarities of Jack

Ruby’s character (investigators repeatedly pressed the Name on whether Ruby had any sexual interest in his beloved dog Sheba). Though reading the testimony didn’t give me much intimation of an assassination revelation, it was a revelation of another kind. In telling his life story, of how he wound up in the Carousel Club in 1963, the Name was telling a story of an American life—of an America—far different from the one I’d known in my suburban hometown. It was a story of guy who made his living in the carnival world; he worked as a barker with small-time freak-show acts like “the two-headed baby” and “the snake girl,” he told the Warren Commission. He bummed around looking for roustabout jobs, met his first wife at a Salvation Army mission. When she left him in the summer of 1963, he hitchhiked all the way from the West Coast to Dallas looking for her. Picked up some work at the Texas state fair in a carny sideshow called “How Hollywood Makes Movies,” which featured some of Jack Ruby’s strippers.

Made some connections and soon found himself living in the back room of the Carousel Club in the midst of Ruby’s strange ménage, which included strippers, burlesque comics, stage hypnotists and, of course, the dog Sheba. I remember reading this testimony, mesmerized by my sudden immersion in a carnival-sideshow underbelly of American life. (The 26 volumes of Warren Commission testimony are like a vast, inchoate Great American Novel in that respect.) I didn’t feel I was any closer to solving the Kennedy assassination, but I did feel I had learned more about the America that produced both Kennedy and his assassin than was conveyed by the bland, complacent sitcom image of the nation and its institutions that prevailed in November 1963.

The conspiracy theories reflected in JFK may not be persuasive, but they churn up a murky underside of America, Ron Rosenbaum

Stone, Oliver. JFK (Applause Books) . Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. Kindle Edition.

Higher Naivete

Now, you might think of this as, indeed, gullible. A former colleague of mine put the thing very, very well. He spoke about, and I like to claim this approach, the position of scholarship to which we call the higher naiveté. The way this works is, you start out, you don’t know anything, and you’re naïve. You believe everything. Next, you get a college education and you don’t believe anything, and then you reach the level of wisdom, the higher naiveté, and you know what to believe even though you can’t prove it. Okay, be warned; I’m a practitioner of the higher naiveté. So, I think the way to deal with legends is to regard them as different from essentially sophisticated historical statements, but as possibly deriving from facts, which have obviously been distorted and misunderstood, misused and so on. But it would be reckless, it seems to me, to just put them aside and not ask yourself the question, “Can there be something believable at the root of this?”

And just to give you some small defense of that approach, I always like to ask students, “Suppose we didn’t have a single historical record, no newspaper, no diaries. You know nothing totally reliable for what happened in the latter part of the eighteenth century in America.” Would we know anything about what happened? Of course, we would. We would know that there was a revolution; it was against Great Britain. I’m sure we would know that the French assisted in that. I am certain we would know that George Washington was the commander of our forces in our battle. Those are easy. There’s no getting around reading those things, and then it gets to be more interesting as we speculate. We would know as a fact that George Washington threw a silver dollar across the Rappahannock River, except that it’s impossible. So, we would dismiss that one. We would be told that he was very honest and told his father he chopped down a cherry tree, which would be baloney, but we would be told that too. But I think we would be told also very many true things, which came down to us. So, the hard job would be to select among these legendary things, to see what fact can be found, and it will never be easy or deadly certain. But that’s what I’m talking about here.

CLCV 205: Introduction to Ancient Greek History
Lecture 3 – The Dark Ages (cont.), Donald Kagan