On the Trail of the Assassins – Jim Garrison

20200410_123739I decided to use the spare time at hand to reorganize my book case and other shelves upon which sit the other literature that I have come to love and appreciate.  While perusing the books, I found this book by former New Orleans District Attorney James “Jim” Garrison (1921-1992) who is remembered for bringing the only public trial in the murder of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). In 1992, Warner Brothers released Oliver Stone’s JFKwhich captured Garrison´s investigation on film. Kevin Costner took on the role of Garrison and delivered a compelling performance.  The film is great cinema but as one would expect, many liberties were taken by Stone and producers.  Reasons for the changes are beyond the scope of this review.  Stone´s film was based on a number of source including the late Jim Marrs’ (1943-2017) Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy which is regarded as one of the best books published on Kennedy’s death and Garrison’s memoir of his investigation.

If you have never watched JFK, I think it would best to read Garrison’s book and then watch the film.  I firmly believe it will have an even more powerful effect in spite of the liberties taken by the filmmmakers. However, with that being said, overall the film is true to the book but the real story is even more perplexing and disturbing.  Similar to the film, Garrison is at his desk with Assistant D.A. Frank Klein comes in to inform him about the Kennedy shooting.  The revelation that Oswald had spend the summer of 1963 in New Orleans caused Garrison to investigate any connections that the alleged gunman may have had in New Orleans.  The trail quickly leads to David Ferrie (1918-1967), a former priest and airline pilot who had become known in New Orleans for connections to a wide range of characters including organized crime figures. Within days, Ferrie is cleared by Garrison and life seems to go on until Garrison has an encounter with former Louisiana Senator Russell Long (1918-2003) who tells him “those fellows on the Warren Commission were dead wrong, there’s no way in the world that one man could have shot up Jack Kennedy that way.” Garrison soon obtains a copy of the Warren Commission Report and the full twenty-six volumes of exhibits and testimony.  And the rest as they say is history.

At the end of the book, Garrison reveals that some of the files he had locked away from the investigation were stolen and he was forced to go by memory when reconstructing some events.  It was no small feat for and must have been a painstakingly long process. Nonetheless, the book is an incredible recollection of events that changed American history.   What I found the most enjoyable in the book were the explanations of how leads were developed and relevant information was obtained.   Incredibly, Garrison operated with a small staff and they still had other cases to work on while keeping tabs of the Kennedy investigation.  Combined with a limited budget, the results from Garrison’s investigation are even more potent. Today we have the benefit of hindsight that allows us to see that Garrison was vindicated on many fronts but at the time, he could not have forseen just how deep a fully open and welcome investigation would have led.

Early in the investigation, most of his team’s work is done in private.  This veil of secrecy allowed the Garrison team to cultivate a staggering amount of information, not only on David Ferrie and Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963), but also on businessman Clay Shaw (1913-1974), who becomes the target of Garrison’s criminal investigation.  In the film, Shaw is played by Tommy Lee Jones who delivers a breathtaking performance alongside Joe Pesci, who stars as Ferrie. The information comes pouring in Garrison finds himself on the trail of the assassins. However, unknown to him, he had awakened the sleepign giant and the efforts by the FBI and Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) may or may not surprise some readers.  For reasons unknown, their interference with Garrison’s investigation is kept to a minimum in the film.   Regardless, the real story is simply mind-blowing and also produces a number of disturbing questions. Further, as Garrison explains the book, Shaw’s arrest brought upon him a new wave of agression from Washington that at first made no logical sense.   But as the story moves forward, the government’s response begins to take on a new light.  And a statment in 1979 by former C.I.A. Director Richard Helms (1913-2002) probably would not have come about had it not been for Garrison’s case.

Similar to the film, Garrison does go into detail about aspects of the crime that never made sense, including the parade route, Oswald’s actions that day and the murder of J.D. Tippit (1924-1963).  Today, there are scores of books that address what Garrison found and have expounded on those facts significantly.  However, reading the words of the man who was the driving force behind the refutation of the Commission’s report, gives way to feelings of nostaglia and satisfaction.   And undoubtedly, I am sure there was far information that Garrison could not readily recall that would have given the book an even bigger impact.  However with his death and the theft of certain files, some facts may possibly be lost forever.  But Garrison provides enough material for a good discussion of why the case against Oswald would not have held up in a court of law.

Shaw’s trial eventually becomes the subject of discussion and happened far differently from what we see on film.  Hollywood theatrics certainly played their role but a more accurate picture is presented here by Garrison as to how things played out in the courtroom. In particular, the testimony of Vernon Bundy is intriguing but receives scant attention in the film.  Garrison discusses the importance of Bundy’s statements to underscore Shaw’s actions and connections to those suspected of being part of his intelligence network.  And although the case did not result in a conviction, I do believe Garrison was certainly on the right track.  And as we see many years later, at the time, the full scale of where he was headed was unknown.

In the wake of the Shaw trial, Garrison found himself the target of an investigation by federal authories as part of alleged pinball machine scheme which sounds like something out of a television show.  The case fell apart and Garrison breaks down each part of it, highlighting the absurdity of the case.  Some readers may express bewilderment at the charges brought against Garrison and the case presented by federal prosecutors.  And it is hard to refute Garrison’s belief that the charges were retaliation for what he revealed about the United States Government during Clay Shaw’s trial.

As the book closes, Garrison provides a short summary of his thoughts about the case, working in New Orleans and the impact it had on his life. While there is nothing groundbreaking in this section, it is a fitting way to end an important story.  And whether you believe in the lone gunman theory or not, what is clear is that Garrison’s investigation became a threat to many in high places and could have brought to light dark secrets that had remained hidden to date.  As I read through this section, I was struck by the comments he makes on Shaw’s death.  I had never given it second thought before but after reading what Garrison says, I might take another look at it.  And for readers interested in Clay Shaw’s life, I strongly recommend Donald Carpenter’s Man of a Million Fragments: The True Story of Clay Shaw.   Many of the figures in the book are now deceased and although more than fifty years have passed since Kennedy’s death, the story is as important and disturbing now as it was then.  One day the truth will be known and when it is, Garrison’s legacy just might take on a new dimension.

ISBN-10: 0446362778
ISBN-13: 978-0446362771

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