“A Completely Muddleheaded, Confused, Angry Young Guy”: An Interview with James Reston Jr.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

James Reston is the author of 15 books, three plays, and numerous articles in national magazines. He was awarded the Prix Italia and the Dupont-Columbia Award for his 1983 90 minute radio documentary on National Public Radio, “Father Cares: the Last of Jonestown.” His pieces have appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Time, The New York Times Magazine, George, Esquire, American Theatre, Playboy, and Rolling Stone.

His most recent book, The Accidental Victim: JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Real Target in Dallas (Zola Books, purchase here), argues that Oswald’s aim on that fateful day in Dallas was to kill former Secretary of the Navy and Texas governor John Connally—not the President.

This November 22nd will mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination.

GC: The thing I want to start with is right in the title. You’ve called your book The Accidental Victim and you’ve proposed that Connally was the real target Oswald was gunning for that day at Dealey Plaza. One of the things that most stuck with me is that your thesis of why JFK was killed is a little more nuanced than that it was just a mistake, because you have that gap between the first and second shot: the first shot where you say Oswald was aiming for Connally and then that second when Kennedy was the only available target. Can you elaborate on what you thought was going on inside Oswald’s head in that moment?

JR: When you get into that area, of course, your opinion is as good as mine; I mean, we’re all speculating here. You’d like to think this is all science, but it’s history, and there are a lot of unknowns. It’s one of the aspects of this kind of speculation that everyone can be a murderer or assassin and think, “What’s the logical and rational processes they’re going through?” if indeed they are rational. But it’s really instructive to go to Dealey Plaza and to look at that window where he was, then to imagine that car going by him, because the motorcade had to come down this street called North Houston Street for just one block then slowly turn left onto Elm street and that’s right below where Oswald was. Unfortunately from—well I guess from everyone’s standpoint, the car had to get under a rather large tree that is also under that window. It meant by the time that the limousine actually emerged from that tree—if you’re thinking in terms of a line of sight from the rifle—the two bodies are basically lined up with one another. There’s a very small discrepancy between Connally’s body and Kennedy’s body.

So you know, whether Oswald at that point presented with that situation was still trying to discriminate between two targets, I have no idea. People say that he must have been a terrible shot if he was going for Connally and not for the President but in fact that first bullet nearly kills both of them with one shot. If it had been just a few millimeters to the left or right, it could have gone with one bullet through the President’s spinal cord and Connally’s heart. So I think you have to kind of back it up probably to the morning of November the 22nd and try to imagine what was in his mind when he actually picked up the rifle. When you get to the actual moment with all the adrenaline moving, it almost becomes a non-rational moment.

GC: To what degree do you hope this book will be an invitation to a conversation on what was going on in Lee Harvey Oswald’s head? You’ve said that historians of the JFK assassination haven’t really been attentive to what Oswald’s motive might have been. Is it more important for you to settle the debate of who killed Kennedy or to shift the discussion to the question of why Oswald killed Kennedy?

JR: Well it’s even before that question, of all that noise out there that has to do with second, third, fourth, tenth shooters who might have been out there. It’s an extraordinary thing that 75-85 percent of the American public still believes it was a conspiracy. It was my first point of entry into this that I really wanted to attack the conspiratorialists, to attack the conspiracy theories and to bring it back to the obvious lone killer in this thing. So when it’s brought back to the lone killer then indeed it’s the question of, “What is the motive?” So point one is to get rid of all the conspiracy theories, and then point two to get into I think the only flaw of the Warren Commission which was to just consign his motive to being intellectual. That he was a dedicated Marxist and that’s why he killed Kennedy or that he had grandiose notions about becoming a figure of history, or that in fact he really wanted to bring down the US government by bringing down its head—I think those are all very transparently unacceptable explanations for murder. So that’s point number two then; I’m bringing it down to the actual mindset and the impulse to murder.

GC: One of the things that was really fascinating to me about your account of his motive was, given the degree to which we talk these days about the civilian-military divide in this country, the suggestion that many writers don’t understand what an important piece it would have been of Oswald’s psychology that his discharge was switched from honorable to dishonorable.

JR: Well, you know this gets into a bit of personal stuff for me. I was in the military for three years as an enlisted man, you know, at a very young age, so that becomes a very, very profound experience for anybody who has it. Especially when you’re young. And the way in which it happens, whether it goes well or badly, is important. Then if it goes reasonably well and you get discharged with an honorable discharge, that becomes extremely important and it becomes a source of great pride. I think partially the reason that this has been ignored by historians of my generation is that most of the intellectuals of my generation avoided service. They were involved with their graduate work or they for sure didn’t want to go to Vietnam. Many got married early to take advantage of marriage deferment. So what historians who never had a military experience tend to go for are the political explanations and political motives, what the Warren Commission went for. Intellectuals can understand the politics of ideology. So I think that’s where my insight comes into this whole thing: that the unfair summary change in his discharge was a huge blow to Oswald. And he understood instinctively that as he was trying to go back to the United States, having attempted to defect to the Soviet Union and having a 9th grade education, the change in that discharge was going to be monumental in terms of his ability to find work because it was really the only thing of any value he had accomplished in his life. So the emotional baggage, if you will, that that change had for him connected I think very much to his emotional makeup.

GC: Given how important the mythos of the Kennedy administration has been both on the right and on the left in American politics, do you think it’s going to be possible to durably depoliticize the discussion about Kennedy’s assassination?

JR: Well this does connect to the heart of the Kennedy mythology. I think one of the reasons that the figure about conspiracy belief is so high is it has something to do with the martyrdom of Kennedy—that if Kennedy was killed because a foreign government wanted to get him for his political stances, or a Mafia organization wanted to get him because he was giving them trouble, it gives you a big evil empire behind this terrible horrendous act. So I think it’s a very comfortable position for the American people to have to imagine this vast empire out there that actually killed him. If it’s reduced down to this muddle headed character of a limited man who is full of obsession and grudges it seems to some people, I think, to trivialize or downsize the grandeur of the martyrdom. And I think that is going to be a difficult transition, but I really do feel like with this book—I have to say with some pride—that transition is starting. I mean, it was always my hope that the serious writers and historians in this thing would take the occasion of the anniversary to discard the conspiracy theories and get the bedrock history correct. And I’m beginning to see other writers come out after the whole conspiracy nonsense.

GC: In that regard, was it important to you to try to steep yourself in this really epically extensive conspiracy literature? Did you feel the need to try and get into that mindset?

JR: No, no, not at all. I completely ignored all of that because, you know, it just made absolutely no sense. Again, this goes back to my military career. Having been trained in the recruitment of foreign agents, if you’re a foreign government that is going to recruit someone to do an extremely dangerous thing—what I was trained for was the finding out of information of some sort, but much less if a foreign government is trying to recruit someone to assassinate a foreign leader—you’ve got to have a professional. And similarly, if it’s a big Mafia organization, they have tons of people who can be contract killers who are far, far more skilled than Lee Harvey Oswald was. So when you have a starting point of a completely muddleheaded, confused, angry young guy who goes out and gets a rifle through the mail and is using the lowest possible grade of ammunition—I mean it’s just impossible, inconceivable that any major outside organization would have hired such a character as that. So with that firmly fixed in my mind, I didn’t feel that I needed to steep myself in these theories.

GC: And what’s your take on the way that, beyond the assassination, the public still views Kennedy today as a political figure? There was a headline in Politico the other day that Kennedy still ranks as Americans’ number one reported preference among presidents. Do you think the administration Kennedy actually ran justifies that kind of beloved status, or do you think it’s more colored by that martyrdom?

JR: Well I think you have to separate greatness as a politician and romance. I mean, this is a romantic story—Kennedy’s is—and it has all the elements of great romance and tragedy. Great looking guy; the beautiful wife; these great crises domestically, in particular civil rights, where he performs very well; and then this huge crisis of Cuba, where he also performs brilliantly right at the cusp of the annihilation of the human race; and then at the end of it this tragic martyrdom.

Well, that perfectly comports with the standards of great literature. It’s hugely romantic, and I think that’s what people are reacting to. Very, very secondarily does anyone except the political scientists get into how terrible he was in congress, that there was nothing going on in the relationship between the White House and Congress and how by comparison to Lyndon Johnson he couldn’t crack heads and twist arms and so forth. That doesn’t capture people’s imagination. So that would be my answer to that—people are really thinking romantically when they are asked about the greatness of the president

GC: Just as a concluding question, you say that when you went to go look at Kennedy’s back-brace, the brace that held him up during those five seconds between the first and second shot, that you had come closer than you intended to again with the quintessence of tragedy. What did you mean by that? What is so essentially tragic about Kennedy’s death that it really touches upon the very essence of tragedy?

JR: Well this has to do with the tactile part of history, actually seeing the device that in my view killed him. Had it not been for that back-brace, he would in my opinion have survived, because I think that first shot would have blown him forward and he would have flailed around in the car the way that Connally did. It was the fact that not only was he winched in there, he was almost mummified with an additional Ace bandage that held him up for five seconds for that second shot—that’s hugely tragic. And you can sit in an ivory tower or library somewhere and speculate about that, but I have always felt as a writer that if I could actually see the artifacts of history, or certainly if I could go to the places where history took place, it gives you a far more vivid understanding of what actually happened. So it was a very emotional moment for me to have them bring out this box, this sterile box, and put on the white gloves and take the top off this thing and then reveal this device that at that point I was fairly certain had been responsible for his ultimate death. It was just that—as I write—that closeness, but also to bring it down to a piece of cloth and shoelaces and straps and an Ace bandage, just was—I don’t know, it almost made me faint.

GC: Do you think this will be your last foray into assassination studies?

JR: Yes.

Grayson Clary (’14) is an Ethics, Politics, and Economics major in Jonathan Edwards College.

James Reston Jr.’s new book, The Accidental Victim: JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Real Target in Dallas, is published by Zola Books and can be purchased here.

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