David S. Lifton
David S. Lifton may be the best known of all JFK conspiracy writers. His wildly successful 1980 book Best Evidence has now gone through several printings in hard-cover and soft-cover, and can still be found in stores. It was on the best-seller list for months, and was an "featured alternate" of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The jacket of the 1980 Macmillan hard-cover edition has this to say about the book:
"More terrifying, more bizarre, and more startling than any fiction, David Lifton's reconstruction of the elaborate disguise and deception surrounding the killing of John F. Kennedy is a shocking new breakthrough, destined to become one of the most talked-about books of our time.
"For fifteen years, with the patience and dedication of a gifted detective, David Lifton has stalked the truth, from Dallas to Andrews Air Force Base to the Bethesda Naval Hospital. What he as uncovered in Best Evidence is a tragedy that in his view did not begin in the twisted mind of a lone assassin. His book provides evidence of a plot that may have reached into the highest levels of the United States government.
"Best Evidence is the most painstaking study ever written of the possible coverup of the JFK assassination. It contains facts, testimony, and statements by material witnesses never before disclosed. It leads us, inexorably, to the discovery of what really happened to America's most charismatic modern President. It is also the story of the author's courageous and lonely journey, an odyssey that slowly leads him to a final, terrible conclusion.
Those in authority who conducted the investigation into what happened in Dallas on November 22, 1963, leaned heavily on what they considered the "best evidence," evidence they could find credible, rather than on the search for new information. But David Lifton's Dostoyevskian obsession with the unanswered questions led him deeper and deeper into uncharted territory. It led him at last to what was truly the "best evidence"—the body of the President—which became, in the hands of the conspirators, the means by which they deceived the American people and the world."
The biographical sketch on the rear inside flap reads:
"David S. Lifton is a native New Yorker who has spent 14 years in Los Angeles, where much of this book was researched. He is a graduate of the Cornell University School of Engineering Physics and was a computer engineer on the Apollo space program. He has worked as a consultant for television and films on the Kennedy assassination and is a recognized authority on the subject."
These are the basics about David Lifton. The story has been considerably fleshed out by Roger Feinman, by using only materials from public sources. Here is a long biographical excerpt from Chapter 1 of Feinman's 1993 Between The Signal and The Noise, which is reproduced in its entirety here. As you read this excerpt, keep in mind that it was written by a person crusading against Lifton and his alleged improprieties in Best Evidence. Be sure to distinguish Feinman's opinions from his facts.
"In what must seem another lifetime, Mr. Lifton graduated from the Cornell University School of Engineering and Physics in 1962 (New York Times, January 12, 1981, Section C, p. 17). With his background in math, physics, and engineering, he had planned to become a scientist. ("'JFK': Lone-Assassin Debate; Four Doubters Have Pursued Truth For Decades," Sacramento Bee, January 7, 1992, p. F1) At the time of President Kennedy's assassination, he was 24 years old and pursuing an advanced degree in engineering at UCLA while working nights as a computer engineer at North American Aviation, then a prime contractor for the Apollo space program. ("His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End", Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Magazine, p. 20)
In 1966, he was drummed out of UCLA for neglecting his studies. (Ibid.) He allegedly quit his job with North American and asked his parents for financial support to pursue his assassination research. (Ibid.) He had no plans to write a book about the assassination, he claims that he just wanted to devote maybe half a year to studying the matter (Ibid.)
Lifton's study of the assassination only began with his purchase of a set of the Warren Commission volumes. He also obtained photocopies of the Commission's working papers, i.e., interoffice memos and letters to investigative agencies. ("His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End", Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Id.).
In a memoir of his experiences during the Sixties, Warren Hinckle, former editor of Ramparts magazine, remembers Lifton as "a pushy UCLA engineering student who was known as 'Blowup,' since his specialty was enlarging photographs of Dealey Plaza taken the morning of the assassination and finding figures lurking in the background. Lifton did not like to hear no for an answer and was persistent in insisting that one pick out the figure of a man among a forest of black and white dots in a twenty times enlargement of a Polaroid snapshot of Dealey Plaza he toted around like a billboard paster going to work." (Hinckle, Warren. If You Have a Lemon, Make Lemonade, G.P. Putnam's Sons; New York: 1974, p. 214)
Besides the expense he incurred in the reproduction of official documents and photographs, during the 1960's and 70's Mr. Lifton seems to have engaged in an extensive travel itinerary while pursuing his studies of the assassination. He went to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., at least three times, spending six weeks there the first trip, one month the second. He also visited Dallas, the scene of the assassination, and made additional trips to Florida, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington and Bethesda to interview witnesses. ("His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End", Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Id.; Lifton's own accounts of his travels in Best Evidence.)
He spent as much as $800 a month in long-distance phone tolls over the fifteen years preceding the publication of his book. ("David Lifton's Startling Study of JFK's Murder", The Washington Post, September 5, 1980, Style Section, p. C1) That comes to $9600 a year in long-distance bills alone, figure a rounded $10,000 a year to include local charges, or $150,000 in total for use of the telephone. Since man does not live by the telephone alone, one must assume that, during his fifteen year sojourn, Mr. Lifton somehow managed to absorb the same customary and usual expenses of most single people living in a major urban center—such as Los Angeles—for rent, utilities, food, clothing, his automobile, and a modicum of leisure activities. Add to these the incidental, but nonetheless sizable, expenses of his research, such as audio tape recorders; audio tapes; maintenance and repair; books, both local and out-of-town newspapers, magazines; reproduction costs associated with photographs, films, and microfilms, as well as thousands of pages of documents; more than several file cabinets, file folders, etc., and one can only puzzle over how he managed to make his own way during those years. His correspondence with Sylvia Meagher discloses that, at various times, he also had one or two girls transcribing audio tapes.
In retrospect, it seems ironic that Mr. Lifton would call it "a miracle that so much evidence in the case has been turned up by a group of freelancers working on a shoestring." ("For Conspiracists, Vindication Day; Government is Beginning to Acknowledge What Really Happened", The Washington Post, December 30, 1978, p. A4)
During the fifteen years preceding the publication of Best Evidence, Mr. Lifton wrote two articles for magazine publications, one for Ramparts in 1967, and one for New Times in 1978. In between these assignments, he served briefly as a consultant to the producers of the motion picture, Executive Action. Also in 1978, he appeared as a critic/commentator on WETA-TV's broadcasts of the House Select Committee on Assassinations hearings. Then, Macmillan gave him a $10,000 advance for the book. (The New York Times, January 12, 1981, Section C, p. 17) Before the publication of Best Evidence in late 1980, Mr. Lifton is not known to have held any job—regular or otherwise—following his departure from North American Aviation. His correspondence with Sylvia Meagher tells of long days and nights allegedly spent at the UCLA library, burning the candles at both ends in working on the case. Therefore, it appears that during the twelve years between the time he left North American and the time in 1978 when things began to pick up for him, he had only one published magazine article, one brief consultancy to a motion picture company, and no other ostensible source of income. It has been suggested that his parents subsidized him during all this time as he investigated the assassination of President Kennedy. If that is so, then Mr. Lifton is most fortunate to have had parents possessed of a generosity, indulgence and patience very rare in the middle-class milieu from which he sprang.
On a shoestring, Harold Weisberg mounted more than a dozen difficult FOIA lawsuits. Mr. Lifton offered no help, he merely gleaned the field that Weisberg sowed.
By the summer of 1975, nearly ten years after he began his study of the Warren Commission volumes, Mr. Lifton reportedly had not written a word of his manuscript. He is quoted as saying, "It was still in the form of file material, conclusions, memos, but not a manuscript." ("His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End", Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Magazine, p. 20) His longtime research assistant, Patricia Lambert would tell him, "David, you have to create a manuscript. You can't just have these thoughts, your files, your research and your concepts. You have to tackle the process of writing every day." (Ibid.) Mr. Lifton alleges in his Compuserve essays that he took "a major gamble" in writing his book without a publishing contract, although what he was risking by that time is unclear, as he appears not to have had another gainful pursuit.
Lifton states that he completed a manuscript by August 1976. When he did try to produce a book, however, it turned out that he could not find anyone interested in publishing it. (Ibid.) Indeed, twenty-three (23) publishers, apparently not realizing the quality of his investigative skills, rejected his first manuscript before he received a contract from Macmillan Company in 1978. (Ibid.) About that time, Mr. Lifton, while keeping his Los Angeles apartment, moved into his parents' house in Rockaway Beach, Queens, to rewrite his manuscript under the tutelage of his New York literary agent, Peter Shepherd.
It was Shepherd who, according to Lifton's "Acknowledgments," encouraged him to revise "an abstract evidentiary analysis" into "a personal narrative." He implies that they expected this revision to take no more than "several months." Lifton alludes to the availability of his files at his West Coast abode. Presumably, by working assiduously to recast what he had already written, Mr. Lifton might have fulfilled his original expectations if, that is, his evidentiary analysis was substantively complete and the only remaining issue was the form of his narrative. Instead, the project stretched out over four years. Lifton and Shepherd had "hundreds of meetings." Lifton credits Shepherd not only with conceiving the organizing principle of the book, but also with "guiding" him and editing his manuscript.
Living in the same room he grew up in, Lifton may well have recalled all the Erle Stanley Gardner mysteries he read as a child (ibid.), possibly harboring dreams of becoming a great lawyer in the manner of the protagonist, Perry Mason. We know that, as he slept in his childhood bedroom, he gave some thought to his contemporaries raising families and pursuing careers. (ibid.)
According to Mr. Lifton's "Compuserve essays" the first ten chapters of his book were submitted to his publisher in August 1978. A contract was consummated around that Christmas.
Today, at 54 years old, living in the same West Los Angeles apartment from which he conducted his research for Best Evidence, Mr. Lifton has spent his entire adult life on the Kennedy assassination to the exclusion of other experiences and accomplishments.…"
So where does the truth lie about David Lifton? As far as
I can tell, it lies very close to Feinman's portrayal of him. Shortly after I
posted Feinman's Between the Signal and the Noise on my web site for my
JFK class to use as a resource, Lifton began a strong campaign to try to
discredit me professionally and get me to remove the material from my site. He
wrote to the president of URI, the provost, the head of the College of Arts and
Sciences (mistakenly thinking I was in that college), and to the university's
legal counsel, threatening legal action if I did not remove Feinman's defamatory
material from my site and stop defaming him in my JFK class. The problem was
that I couldn't have been defaming him in class because I wasn't discussing him
at all, so outlandish were his theories about the assassination. As for
Feinman's alleged defamation in Between the Signal and the Noise, I
settled the matter by traveling to Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, and
viewing the letters between Lifton and Sylvia Meagher (in Hood's Meagher
archives) that Lifton was claiming that Feinman had so misrepresented. It didn't
take me long to determine that in every case, Feinman had been right and Lifton
wrong. That was the end of that.
Here is the essence of David Lifton, as far as I can tell. He has dedicated his adult life to the JFK assassination. His best-selling Best Evidence is his crowning achievement, and he has every right to be proud of the celebrity it brought him. But that was nearly 25 years ago, and there has been little since. He gets speaking engagements and occasionally invitations to JFK conferences. For a decade he has been working on a book abut Lee Harvey Oswald, whose appearance keeps getting postponed. Before Best Evidence he wrote articles about very strange assassination theories indeed, such as shooters camouflaged in the trees of Dealey Plaza and removed by cranes after dark, and the idea that a network of tunnels had been installed under the grassy knoll just before the assassination to allow the assassins to move freely underground, pop out and shoot the president, and then disappear back underground and make their escape. Ludicrous as these ideas seem, they are by no means qualitatively in a different league from those espoused in Best Evidence, including that the president's body could be secretly removed from its casket while everyone else on Air Force One was distracted by the swearing-in ceremony, that the body could somehow have been unloaded out the back of the aircraft while the nation was watching the front, that in something like an hour it could have been flown to Walter Reed Army Hospital, altered to have the pattern of wounds indicate back-to-front rather than the true front-to-back, shuttled over to Bethesda Memorial Naval Hospital and slipped inside without anybody noticing, and that the altered wounds fooled the autopsists and everyone since who has studied the photographs and X-rays. Couple this with notions of Kellerman and Greer (the two secret Service agents in the front seat of the president's limousine) having been imposters, and you are in a strange world indeed.
But David Lifton sees these ideas as great discoveries rather than the preposterous notions that they so obviously are. Furthermore, he doesn't seem to lose sleep over their barest of underpinnings—a few pieces of shaky evidence supporting them all. That there is abundant evidence to the contrary does not seem to concern him. He is breaking every rule in the evidential book, to say nothing of leaving common sense in the dust. For more on Best Evidence, see my critique of it (currently in preparation).
One last point that has been generally overlooked: David Lifton was not the first to publish a theory of body alteration. Fred T. Newcomb and Perry Adams beat him by five years. See their article in 1975 from Skeptic magazine. You will see no mention of this article, or of those authors' earlier book-length manuscript on the subject, in Best Evidence.