Declare victory and change the subject
(Incorporating "Charlie Drago and the Church Lady)
Draft, 15 August 2000
My first JFK "event" was "The Second Research Conference of The
Third Decade," held at the Omni Biltmore Hotel in Providence,. Rhode
Island, 18–20 June 1993. I was a "newbie"
back then, having been interested in the JFK assassination for only a year. I
knew virtually no one in the field. This was to be my introduction to the area
of study that was to hold my interest for years thereafter.
A friend had seen a small notice in the Providence Journal-Bulletin just weeks before the conference and told me about it. I sent in a very late abstract of a paper, and it was accepted. I entitled it "Conspiracy is NOT a fact" because I had seen some publicity declaring the starting point for the conference to be that conspiracy in the JFK assassination was historical fact. I had seen nothing in my first year to support that viewpoint, and wanted to say so publicly. But I was not prepared for the intensity of the True Believers that I encountered that weekend.
I could go on at length about unusual (to me) aspects of that conference, such as Jeanne d'Arc of Providence, who sold weird magazines in the lobby, or the rich young man from New York who very ostentatiously piloted his own plane into Providence, whipped in to the conference, gave a breathless talk in his dashing jumpsuit (lacking only the goggles) about finding condensation trails of bullets in the Zapruder film, and then whipped back out and home. I could also talk about the keynote speaker, a very nice journalist who later became my friend, who justified conspiracy to himself almost solely from his deep feelings about it. But I will restrict this essay to perhaps the most striking aspect of the conference, at least to me, the tactic used by conspiracists that might be called "declaring victory and changing the subject." I couldn't believe it the first time I heard it, which was at the very beginning of the conference, and I couldn't believe it when I heard it repeated endlessly during that weekend. But it was real, and I have heard it used by conspiracists many times since then. Perhaps you will share my disbelief as you read these lines.
Charlie Drago, host of the conference, started it. His talk was entitled "Radicalisms: A Manifesto for The New Conspirators." Its thrust was that "we" have not solved the assassination because we have not been aggressive enough in our research. We should engage in "hostile investigation," that term essentially meaning making war on anyone who might hold information that "we" want. We must be willing to lie, cheat, and steal to get what we need (although he didn't say it quite that way). His section on hostile investigations ended with the statement "Conspiracy in the murder of John Fitzgerald Kennedy is historical fact."
The only problem was that he didn't show how conspiracy was historical fact. Everybody just seemed to accept it, though. I wondered what I had missed. When I received the printed proceedings of the conference some months later, I pored through his talk, which ran to 20 single-spaced pages, and still couldn't find any proof or even anything presented as proof.
His next section was entitled "Radicalism 3—There's a stage leaving Dealey Plaza in ten minutes. Be on it." That means that "we" have worked too long and too hard on proving conspiracy. Now it's time to move to broader realms. Here is a sample of the associated text:
I am most pleased with the theme of our conference, "Taking the Critical Offensive."
It means that no longer must we toil at the "prove conspiracy" mill. We have strolled the physical and intellectual confines of Dealey Plaza long enough. This is not to underestimate the value of crime scene investigation to any murder case, but rather to underscore the tactical necessity for moving on.
As I write these words I am looking at two large bookcases burdened by approximately 250 Kennedy assassination-related volumes. In addition, I see endless looseleaf binders filled with unpublished manuscripts, newsletters, magazine articles and scholarly papers, all devoted to our investigation.
I modestly estimate that 95 percent of this material is dedicated to proving the existence of criminal conspiracy in the president's death.
Well, guess what? You've done it! Congratulations are in order.
Now can we please get on with the business at hand?
Sounds good, eh? But did you notice that once again the well-known proof was
not mentioned? I certainly did, and started to feel uncomfortable. Either I was
missing something really obvious that everyone else in the room knew about, or
Charlie was just using words for effect. For the rest of the weekend,
"historical fact" echoed through the conference, leaving me at wit's
By 1998, much of the JFK community had accepted the "historical fact" idea. For example, as Debra Conway, head of JFK Lancer, later wrote of its conference in Dallas that November, "the JFK researchers presented a tremendous amount of evidence and study on the conspiracy, cover-up, and assassination of President Kennedy. This created unanimity in our group that conspiracy is a historical fact and no longer should—or would—JFK assassination researchers feel on the defensive." [Emphasis added.]
At that conference, I talked with Debra about a regional JFK conference for southern New England that Lancer's magazine had mentioned earlier, and learned that it had gone moribund. I also learned that it was to have been run by Charlie Drago and George Michael Evica. I approached Charlie and stated my interest in possibly reviving the conference and making it part of my JFK class of Spring 1999. We agreed to work together as co-chairmen.
A month or so later, we met in Providence to begin planning the conference, and the matter of "historical fact" surfaced again. Ever curious, I asked repeatedly for his proof, and he replied that he would present it only during the conference and when the time was right. It would be so powerful as to destroy all those who held any opposing view, which clearly included me. "Hostile investigation" and "the critical offensive" suddenly became very personal. May the best co-chairman win, or something like that. But I was getting REALLY curious about that all-powerful but missing proof.
Let us pause for a moment, step back, and think about that mysterious proof. If there really were such a thing, wouldn't conspiracists have been shouting it from the rooftops for the whole world to hear? Wouldn't everybody in the JFK research community know it as Proof 101? Wouldn't JFK research conferences largely be a thing of the past? Why in the world would only Charlie Drago possess it, and why would he save it for the decisive moment of the conference? None of this made any sense to me. The total picture, as we say in science, didn't compute. The only reasonable answer was that there was no proof, only ominous words.
That February, about two months before our conference, Charlie gave a guest lecture to our JFK class. After his prepared remarks, he received numerous questions from the students and me. One of them was for his proof. This time there was no escape—it was put up or shut up. And out came the mysterious proof for all to see—conspiracy in the death of JFK is proved by the wound in the back of JFK's head (my notes of his answer). Follow-up questions revealed that this wound was never photographed; Charlie was relying on the memories of the medical personnel at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. But what about the autopsy report that describes the huge wound as being on the right rear side and extending up to the top of the head? Faked. What about the Zapruder film that shows the exit wound on the right side of the head and the rear of the head as definitely not blasted out? Also faked. What about the autopsy photos and X-rays, which do not reveal any such wound in the rear center of the head? All faked, too. End of discussion. The evidence is what it is—all faked.
Mentally, at least, I slumped down in my seat at these words. The reality of the situation became immediately clear, and it was as I had suspected—no, as I had reasoned that it must be—there was no proof. Charlie had not one iota of physical evidence for his proof that would crush us all—just memories from Dallas that had been fudged into a coherent back-of-the-head picture that never existed. The Emperor had no new clothes; the logician had no new proof. Describe it however you will, but the threat turned out to be empty when the moment of truth arrived. Worst of all, it wasn't even a good try. There are pieces of physical evidence that can be twisted into some semblance of proof if a dyed-in-the-wool conspiracist is willing to work hard enough, but misrepresented reminiscences don't even come close. It was a huge letdown for me, in the sense that a real contest would have at least been sporting.
So what happened at our conference in mid-April? Did the dragon roar fire and consume us? Hardly. The lamb appeared in his place, and was quiet and gentle throughout. Remarks were soft-spoken, muted, and shortened. The "proof" never materialized. The hallway was frequented during sessions deemed uninteresting. Afterward, the dragon roared once more from his den in Providence, but something was missing—it seemed more for showing the flag than for anything else. Many comments were received about how well the students had acquitted themselves, although there were the expected minority of dissenting voices.
Looking back on the whole episode, it is clear that Charlie, the others at the Providence conference, Debra, and the others at the Lancer conference (that "unanimous" group) had been simply declaring victory and changing the subject because they knew they had no proof. They were using empty words for effect. They had become stump speakers rallying the faithful from the heart rather than from the head. They were saying what they wished to be true rather than what they knew to be true, and figuring that if they repeated it often enough they would persuade others and themselves. In short, they were using rhetoric rather than reason.
Now how does the Church Lady fit into all this? As anyone knows who has watched Dana Carvey's wonderful character on Saturday Night Live, her punch line when condemning some infidel's excuse for bad behavior was "Well, isn't that conveeenient!" That's just what Charlie and fellow arch-conspiracists were doing—saying in essence "We have the ultimate proof but we're not going to tell you about it!" To this, one can only say "Well, isn't that conveeenient!"
In hindsight, it was easy to expose the tactic of declare victory and change the subject—it collapsed at the first serious challenge. But there are all sorts of other irrationalities within the JFK critical/conspiratorial movement that do not yield themselves so readily. Everyone who is genuinely interested in the truth of the assassination—which I assume includes people from every point of view—must vow to find the truth wherever it lies and to use every technique of genuine inquiry in as rigorous a fashion as humanly possible in that pursuit. Anything less would be unworthy of America and the memories of JFK.