They killed the symbol of Jim Garrison’s dreams, and after 25 years, he still cannot let it go.
That would be the practical thing to do--just let it go--but the former prosecutor-turned-judge still believes the CIA killed President John F. Kennedy, that top government officials helped to cover up the crime and that the American people need to know what really happened.
Garrison tried before and was labeled a lunatic and worse. For three years in the late 1960s, he was a topic of international debate, quizzed by Johnny Carson, grilled in network interviews, sought out by authors and cited in footnotes in all sorts of publications.
Then, disillusioned, he withdrew from public view for 18 years, except for a cameo appearance as a judge in “The Big Easy,” a steamy cops-and-robbers movie set in New Orleans.
As a district attorney here in 1969, Garrison put businessman Clay Shaw on trial for conspiracy to murder the President. The prosecution was turned into a nationally publicized farce. Garrison’s star witness died under mysterious circumstances, and another witness said under cross-examination that he fingerprinted his daughter each time she came home from school to make sure that a spy hadn’t taken her identity.
Third Book on Subject
Garrison’s first book, “Heritage of Stone,” attempted to do in print what he couldn’t do in the courtroom. Then came a novel, “The Star-Spangled Contract.” His third book, “On the Trail of the Assassins,” is a testimony to the tenacity with which he has pursued and developed his theory as new information became available.
His interest is driven by a deep, undying affection for Kennedy as a person and as a symbol. “He had ideals. He inspired dreams,” he said. Garrison still gets tears in his eyes when he reads some of Kennedy’s speeches.
Garrison was recently elected to a second 10-year term as a judge on Louisiana’s 4th Circuit Court of Appeal. His 68 years sit well on him. His 6-foot-7 frame is erect, and he dwarfs his massive desk when he leans forward to emphasize a point.
For the first time in 19 years, he has granted a lengthy interview on the subject of the JFK assassination and his investigation of it. He remained silent so long because his experience with news reporters soured him, he said.
“I’m not talking about the average reporter, but there are certain organs of the national media--The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC, CBS--that, once they adopted the official fiction, there was no variation. They were like the New York Rockettes,” he said.
Debunks Warren Report
The “official fiction” was the finding of the Warren Commission--that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed Kennedy, he said. Garrison maintains that Oswald was one of several “false sponsors,” people set up in advance to divert attention from the CIA. The mob was another “false sponsor,” he said.
To Garrison a conspiracy was obvious from the start, and it stung him when reporters began to regard him as a publicity-seeking opportunist or a buffoon.
“By that time, when I was saying, ‘Look, there is no mystery about this,’ they would just kind of roll their eyes,” he said.
“We went about as far as we could go before our wings were clipped, in reaching a point, in ’69, where I couldn’t say anything without being pictured as a fool or a madman.
“I continued to have my interest in the assassination investigation, but I returned the district attorney’s office to its primary function, about which we had no disagreement with anybody. It was a good office. In fact, in the election of 1968, I had the biggest vote I had ever had.”
In 1972, a federal grand jury accused Garrison of taking bribes to protect illegal pinball gambling. He represented himself at his trial and was found innocent, but the trouble contributed to his defeat when he ran for a fourth term. He says that vengeful federal authorities cooked up the case against him by using fraudulent tapes secretly recorded by an old Army buddy.
No Time for Campaign
“They got me,” he said. “They sure got me. When they set that trial, that federal trial, for a few months before the election, they sure got me.
“I found out it’s all well and good to try your own trial--I wouldn’t have it any other way--but when that case is over and you’ve only got six weeks or whatever it is to try and raise money and do the other things, there’s not enough time for a citywide election.
“So they got me. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, because I wouldn’t have found my way into the 4th Circuit (bench).”
Serving as an appellate court judge is the most satisfying thing he has done, he said. “I truly love it.”
The son and grandson of lawyers, Garrison went to a public high school here and entered the Army a year before Pearl Harbor. He flew light planes as an artillery spotter in Europe, and arrived at Dachau the day after troops supported by his artillery unit had liberated it.
He enrolled at Tulane University after the war and earned a law degree, and briefly tried to earn a spot on the football team. “It didn’t take long to realize that was not for me,” he said.
‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ Wars
Old-fashioned values shape Garrison’s views. He talks of truth, duty and honor, of “good wars,” such as the one against the Nazis, and “bad wars,” such as the one in Vietnam.
Kennedy was planning to pull the U.S. out of Vietnam, so the cold warriors in the CIA had to have him killed, he said.
By Garrison’s estimate, about 18 people were involved in the assassination--at least three riflemen, a couple of coordinators with radios, two spotters to distract a strategically placed police officer and divert a standby ambulance away from the site of the shooting, about six members of the Dallas police homicide squad and three or four others who handled the training, on-site planning and logistics.
Somebody had to authorize changing the parade route from Main Street to Elm Street, and somebody had to authorize leaving the bulletproof top off the President’s car, he said. Somebody, he said, had to call off the usual security check of buildings and rooftops along the new parade route.
The orders had to come from an upper level in the CIA, he said, but he would hazard no guess about the number of people involved in that decision.
Names and Pseudonyms
He never tried to identify the trigger men and never could understand reporters’ fixations on that subject, he said. “They (assassins) all have nom de plumes .”
After the assassination, people as high as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Chief Justice Earl Warren lent themselves to validating the official fiction, Garrison said.
“Let’s take the best-case scenario for Johnson: It was a terrible thing to happen, but it had happened, and what else could you do but put a lid on it for the good of the country?” he said.
“I think there was an awful lot of that. People will say, ‘How could Chief Justice Earl Warren have let himself be dragged in?’
“Put it in the words of a forceful man like Lyndon Johnson. Put his meaty hand on your shoulder and hear him saying, ‘Look, Mr. Chief Justice, this could be war. This could be misunderstood. The country has never needed you like it will now.’
“Then, coming down to: ‘It could be much more involved, but we’ve got to put the lid on for the good of the country, for the good of the people.’
“I think that was the magic phrase from there on. A lot of people who you would not call bad people and who were not villains responded, I think, with active participation in the cover-up as a consequence.”
The FBI and Secret Service became involved in the cover-up immediately, he said.
LBJ in the Dark
Garrison said there is no indication that Johnson knew about the assassination beforehand. “Quite the contrary, in fact. The conspirators would have followed one of the cardinal rules of their trade and told Johnson only what he needed to know.”
The proximity of Oswald’s office to the New Orleans offices of some of the country’s intelligence agencies started Garrison thinking, and those thoughts quickly formed themselves into his theory of a CIA conspiracy.
“I’m not particularly aggressive in seeking fights. Sometimes I wish I were more aggressive, but I just am who I am, and I can’t change.
“One of the things that I happen to have in my makeup is that I am just constitutionally unable to back up, if that makes any sense to you.
“I would never cross the street to get in a fight, but if somebody comes up, I can’t back up an inch.
Not a Fighter
“That, in a sense, tells you all about my role. If you were my manager and I were a professional prizefighter, after about my third fight you’d say, ‘Jim, I think you’ve got nice hands, good footwork and everything, but you’re really not a professional fighter.’ ”
Garrison refers to his rough treatment at the hands of the media and federal prosecutors as “that unpleasantness,” but he says it has left no scars.
“Please, understand me. I’m not trying to portray myself as another Clint Eastwood. I’m not trying to portray myself as a ‘make my day’ fellow, but I found that I couldn’t care less what other people thought about it.
“People have asked me from time to time if I felt vindicated by later developments. Watergate was a later development; Irangate was a later development--other things which showed the shadow of intelligence (agencies) around the edge of things . . . the ‘off-the-shelf’ activity outside the scope of regular tables of organization.
“I’ve had to answer that I don’t feel vindicated, and have never felt the need of it.
“I still don’t have ulcers. I know I gave some to people at Langley (CIA headquarters). I hope so.”
Book Rejected 6 Times
Garrison’s manuscript for “On the Trail of the Assassins” was rejected 19 times in six years before Sheridan Square Press accepted it. The first rejection came from the publisher of his novel.
“It was a very warm letter, but the essence of what he said was that ‘We here do not believe the American people are interested in a murder that took place so long ago.”
He was less than enthusiastic about renewing contact with the media until New Orleans television reporters covered his autograph party.
“It was quite different than it was 20 years ago,” he said. “There was interest in what I said. I was not regarded as insane. They had read some of the book. Their questions were very good. That really is all I ask, and I never got that 19 years ago.
“Then, it was more along the lines, of: ‘Now, you’re supposed to be an intelligent man. What makes you think you’re right and the United States government is wrong?’ You phrase it like that, and it’s a ‘When did you stop beating your wife’ question. So I just stopped giving interviews. Now, it’s different.”
Holds No Hope
Garrison said he holds out no hope that the book might inspire an investigation of the intelligence agency and the role it might have played in the assassination.
“I might have hoped that when I was younger,” he said. “I do hope that it gets a wide enough readership that maybe some people will see through the false sponsorships, so they can see through the attempts to discredit John Kennedy.
“In the final analysis, I hope that it has provided information that someone--who knows? maybe even the government itself--may use to have a clearer awareness of what happened. I know that sounds awfully optimistic, but still, it is some of the truth that might otherwise have remained hidden.”