Thursday, February 26, 2015

Where are the deathbed confessions?

Years pass. I'm about to qualify for Medicare. The World War II "Greatest Generation" is passing from sight, along with all memory of why Franklin Roosevelt was that generation's favorite person. This month would have seen the 100th birthday of my poet journalist father, Herb Brin. (If you are a lover of verse, you should check out his internationally acclaimed books, prefaced by Elie Weisel.)

And yet, while pondering all of that, I was struck by a sudden thought. That it's time for some death-bed confessions from the 1960s.

If you (like me) were a child of that intense and convoluted era, you lived immersed in conspiracy theories. Just 1968 alone - the most exhausting year that any of us can remember - featured almost monthly assassinations or other dire events, that we all swiftly attributed to dark and nefariously scheming forces.

Of course, the grand-daddy of all Sixties Era conspiracy-theory magnets was the killing - in 1963 - of President John F. Kennedy.

Maybe it's my ornery, contrarian nature -- always looking at the "yes...but" alternative to group think -- but I always found the official, Warren Commission story far more plausible than any of the conspiracies I've seen waved around, for most of my life. Is it really so implausible that a crazy, frail-egoed loner, who was an expert marksman and who had already tried to use a scoped rifle against a public figure, might have been tempted to go after a president he already despised, whose open motorcade was pre-scheduled to pass right under the very building where the loony worked?  And this is somehow less plausible than...

...than the notion that hundreds of skilled officers of the U.S. would betray their oaths and duty in order to slay their commander-in-chief, over an iffy supposition that he might have made a speech suggesting he was maybe rethinking our commitment to the Vietnam War? (The jibbering-dumbass Oliver Stone "theory.") And that they would coordinate with each other perfectly, showing split second competence never seen in any other government operation...

...then keep it perfectly secret for half a century, despite knowing that the first whistle-blower would get books and talk shows while the rest would then hang for treason? A real case of the Prisoner's Dilemma! 

(Note, every one of these flaws applies to nonsense cults like the left's "Loose Change" conspiracy and the Right's "Black Helicopters." Puh-lease. See elsewhere how I dissect the problem of the "henchmen effect." And how our democracy will depend on drawing out the subordinates of Blofeld-like Bond villains, with welcome signs and whistleblower rewards.)

All right, there are some aspects of  "JFK-conspiracy" that do have a patina of plausibility. The "mob" was pissed at the Kennedy boys for many reasons, from failing to recover their Havana casinos to not returning favors for sex. One could picture them egging on Lee Harvey Oswald. Hey, nothing ventured, right? Then arranging to silence Oswald, so he could never say "the mafia made me do it!" I can even picture one added gunman on a knoll, as a backup-supplement. But one major imperatve of real-life conspiracies is diametrically opposite to the Hollywood image -- keep the number of henchmen small! Indeed, it will be even more vital in the future.

== Conspiracies dissolve with age ==

Only now consider this -- that the JFK conspirators, if any, would now be at least eighty years old! So why, over that last decade or so, have we seen no death-bed confessions?

Come on, you're an old fart mafiosi, or communist agent, or radical right Bircher-Klansman, or corrupted U.S. agent... and you've been sitting on this huge secret for decades. You have all the proof, hidden in multiple copies all over the place... it's the reason they let you live, up to this point! Only now, hey, what've you got to lose?

Seriously! It's a chance for one last moment in the sun. To get that book deal and those talk show appearances. To be immortalized, even if it is in infamy.

The law? What's the law gonna do to a quivering old fart?  Your old bosses? Mostly or all dead now. Their minions? Most of the remaining ones are too young to be implicated in events of 1963, and hence have much less intensity! What're they going to do -- threaten your kids, in order to keep you silent?  Bull, that would put themselves at great risk, over a matter that simply does not require silence, anymore. You'll at most irk them. Inconvenience them.

Good!  Screw em.  Better yet, use modern tools and record them threatening you over this! Double hero. Double whammy.

Again, the logic is unassailable. Come into the light, you witnesses to history! Allee allee outs in free! Come on and tell us. We'll be amazed by your cleverness. We'll tsk over your sins. We'll croon over your conversion and repentance. You'll get all the movie deals and talk shows.

And if no one comes forth? Well, I call that one more nugget on the scale that says: "Oswald did it." Sorry.

== About  Lyndon Baines Johnson ==

While we're on the topic. And in the wake of the recent movie "Selma." I just have to say...

...what the hell is it with everyone hating on LBJ?

I mean, sure, he was far from my favorite person. In fact, a more directly and visibly unlovable public figure would be hard to come by. Except Nixon, of course. Having to come right after the most lovable (if flawed) JFK, and having foolishly gambled that the mighty U.S. military could swiftly turn around Kennedy's "domino" of Vietnam, Johnson was in many ways doomed.

And yet, does he really deserve to be the villain, time and time again? Is it possible to re-evaluate the Hollywood and book shivvings that he has received, in light of actual outcomes?

Recall that John F. Kennedy made speeches calling for a Civil Rights Bill and for Medicare and other reforms... and most political observers at the time deemed his odds of getting them through Congress as close to nil. Little better than Obama's chance of getting an infrastructure bill, to repair the nation's bridges, past a 100% obstructionist and idea-free GOP Congress -- yes that little.

Johnson, in contrast, used the national trauma over Kennedy's death - leveraging it with his own notorious arm-twisting skills - to get approval of  every single legislative item that JFK wanted.

Consider that. Oliver Stone portrayed the villainous Johnson hating Kennedy and usurping him. But it is a rare murderous-usurper who then dedicates his absolute devotion to achieving every single one of his predecessor's goals. Sure, it can happen. It probably has happened, on occasion, across human history. But it sure ain't the simplest hypothesis.

What is the simplest hypothesis?  Why, that LBJ was loyal. That he desperately wanted progress in the same areas as JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, that he was so dedicated to JFK's policies that he pushed hard to fulfill Kennedy's arrogantly macho fantasy of a military solution on the ground, in Vietnam.

Look at how tired LBJ was, after those strenuous few years. His adamant refusal to be re-nominated. It doesn't fit the image of a power-grabbing tyrant.

There is another - opposite extreme - image of LBJ. In a new book "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society," historian and author Julian Zelizer  calls him a "great president," but Zelizer also points out that many of his greatest accomplishments on civil rights were aided by a confluence of interests with the civil rights movement.

Debunking Myths of Lyndon Johnson's Legacy: "LBJ, by early 1965, was fully on board with voting rights," Zelizer said. "He was working on it behind the scenes; he had his people negotiating with members of Congress before the Selma marches ever happened. He wasn't prepared to send a bill -- and the movie's right -- King wanted it earlier. But it portrays him as indifferent; it portrays him as obsessed with surveillance on Martin Luther King. And that was not LBJ at that period."  

I am reminded of what Frederick Douglass said about Abraham Lincoln: "Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical and determined."

Are we truly so much less mature a people, today, that we cannot, too, take into account actual outcomes, in comparison to the difficulty of a historic task, and in that context, cut solidly progressive (if politically pragmatic) men and women a little slack?

Look, we don't have to adore him. No hypocrite, he did not ask to be loved, or even liked.  But many of LBJ's outcomes merited our respect. He moved us forward in major ways. Anyway, maybe it is just plain churlishness for shallow-headed Hollywood-ites to keep hatin' on a fellow who has no defenders and cannot speak back for himself. One who did far more than they have -- or ever will -- to help make a better world.


Louis Shalako said...

Conspiracy theories sell books and movies. As I recall, Mr. Oswald was a U.S. Marine and a competent marksman.

He smuggled the gun into the Texas Book Depository wrapped in a blanket.

He braced the gun on the window ledge. He fired three shots, I think.

Anonymous said...

I knew a guy who knew Oswald in the military. When they showed Oswald on TV, he thought, "Of course that guy did it. He was always crazy and ranting anti-American stuff. Everyone in the unit hated him." I paraphrase, but that was the gist.

I will take his word over some grand conspiracy theory.

David Brin said...

Hey, I never said there weren't conspiracies! In an open society they will tend to be SMALLER than Hollywood portrays (with its lavish use of disposable henchmen.) Indeed, want a perfect (if somewhat paranoid-but-consistent) example?

You only need a cabal of four, to explain the unalloyed and perfect record of destruction to the United States of America that happened -- in every single metric of national health -- across the span of the Bush Administration.

Cheney, Rupert Murdoch, Bush himself... and his case handler in Riyadh.... probably Uncle Bandie. Only those four needed to KNOW that the real objective was this country's deterioration in every quantifiable metric, including military readiness.
(Someone cite the famous Tom Tomorrow cartoon that is (amazingly) not cynical enough?)

Henchmen-in-the-know? Who needed them? You had raving neocons like Wolfowitz, Nitze, Perle, Adelman etc., who actually believed the Straussian-Imperial looniness that they were yattering! No, the parsimonious explanation for 2001-2009 is that there were just four conspirators. When they are that well-placed, it can be enough.

Tony Fisk said...

I find it worth one twitch of an eyebrow that, following the death of King Abdullah, Kingdom Holdings sold its shares in News Limited.

David Brin said...

The princes come from a family with very high IQ... but romantic tendencies that historically have spoiled clear thinking. Recent events whould have them pondering whether the game plan -- to undermine the US and the west through corrupt elites, so that the Abbasid-Ummayid empire can be restored -- is a good idea to pursue.

Alan Cooper said...

Did that guy Zelizer even see the 'Selma' movie? There's no way that LBJ was portrayed as "indifferent", just cautious, and in the Hoover scene he seems more interested in finding out what the guy is up to (and has on *him* too) than with using anything against MLK.

Tacitus said...

Mark Felt (Deep Throat) would appear to be the archetype of a man with secrets "decloaking" near the end of his life. Of course he was thought to be something of a hero. The reality seemed a little more petty, less heroic. But breaking silence after all those years.

I have always found your Saudi-Bush conspiracy theory to be malignant nonsense but of course I do you the courtesy of occasionally turning it over in my head to see if my opinions on it need to be revised.


Andy said...

I was gonna call you out for ignoring Johnson's racism, particularly his "I’ll have those n*****s voting Democratic for the next 200 years" quote, but then I did a little research and after reading the top comment on this thread by x--Banks--x I don't know what to think:

Without a doubt he got stuff done... but whether that was politically or morally motivated, it's hard to say.

NoOne said...

Sorry to be off topic but Leonard Nimoy passed away today. RIP and a salute to an iconic TV presence of the late 20th century. RIP.

David Brin said...

Yes, it was good to have Leonard Nimoy among us. I won't say Rest in Peace, because frankly, although I am a scientific dubious agnostic, I do hope he is not "resting," but off on his next cool adventure. Maybe even where no one has been, before.

Oh, what a tricky guy -- getting all the world's nerds to hold up a rabbinical hand sign.... probably well into the future.


Tacitus, I try to remember to make clear that my "theories" are not zero-sum. I can put forward some that I - myself - deem to be only 10% or 30% likely, but which fit the known facts well enough to merit inclusion on our shelf of possibilities to keep in mind.

In fact, I am stunned that others don't do this! WHY do people glom onto a single "explanation" for events that are still murky and ill-explained? It's all-or-nothing on the JFK assassination! It's all-or-nothing on each individual theory for the Fermi Paradox. ("I know why there's no sign of ET!")

Bah. In SETI it is my role to catalogue them all! And that habit extends to other areas.

When it comes to the anomaly of the Bush Administrations, there is a freak statistical fluke to explain -- that EVERY major metric of US national health that is unambiguous and attributable to policy plummeted under Sr. and Junior. Including conservative desiderata like military readiness, morale, fiscal prudence, entrepreneurship, small business startups, our international prestige you name it.

Which of us is narrowminded, my friend? I don't claim it "proved" that the Bush family is in cahoots with a foreign monarchy bent on our destruction. Indeed, were my house at stake, in a wager, I'd demand 4:1 odds! On the other hand...

... there are NO other theories that are perfectly consistent with the known facts. Not stupidity. Not raving political dogmatism. None of the standard models for the Bush era plausibly correlate with such a perfect record of destruction.

If I have another model... one that may not be right, but that is more consistent with the facts and that NO ONE ELSE dares to speak aloud... are you telling me "posh, shut up"?

Anonymous said...

Bush Senior was there in Dallas that day in 1963. He was not "officially" in the CIA at that point, but likely pretty far into the recruitment phase. -AJM

locumranch said...

As to whether or not grand conspiracies exist, it really depends on how narrowly you choose to define the term, doesn't it?

The term 'conspiracy' comes to us from the Latin 'conspirare' meaning (literally) "a breathing together" or (figuratively) "an act of harmony, agreement or unanimity", the assumption that all conspiracies require some degree of 'secrecy' being a fairly modern accretion.

In the original (non-secretive) sense, the term 'conspiracy' applies to practically all human cooperative actions, including the democratic process, most religions, government in any form, the social contract, unionisation, the civil rights movement and traffic laws (etc).

However, if you prefer to use the term 'conspiracy' in a secretive sense (one that conflates any conspiracy with that of a 'Secret Conspiracy'), then you're making illogical assumptions about the significance of a word (secret) that either means 'hidden, concealed, privileged (or) unexpressed'.

Let us then count the different types of 'secret':
(1) There are the deeply hidden secrets known to only one or two, mostly associated with severe consequence, which tend to be taken to the grave;
(2) There are secrets of privilege, known mostly to a select class, that are guarded for personal advantage (IE. Insider trading, LIBOR, How government really works, etc);
(3) There are OPEN secrets, known by most, like the prevalence of marital infidelity, Rock Hudson's gayness or JFK's illness, which are (were) considered too impolite to discuss;
(4) There are the Unexpressed Truths (pseudo-secrets) that cannot be discussed openly due to threat of ostracism, like race & punishment, the immorality of Islam, or the association between homosexuality & HIV; and
(5) There are the Big Lies, truths which many of us would prefer to deny, like our personal mortality, the perfidy (and/or brutality) of human nature, or that 'might makes right'.

Even fantasy (narrative) is a conspiracy of sorts, foisted on the gullible, in an attempt to convince others & ourselves that (1) Love is a tangible object, (2) we are all special individuals *just like everyone else*, (3) real life is just like Disney, (4) Leonard Nimoy (Spock) was a 'real' alien rather than a professional pretender, or (5) a Star Trek future is a human *birthright*.

These lies will also pass because (1) 'SOMETHING there is that doesn't love a conspiracy, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun, And makes gaps even two can pass abreast', (2) The Truth Will Out and (3) a conspiracy of lies makes good neighbors.


Jumper said...

Oliver Stone got one thing right:
Don't listen to the ramblings of speed freaks. You'll just lose track of reality.

Anonymous said...

I hate to break it to you David but "Loose Change" is hardly a lefty conspiracy theory. In fact it is the opposite. Right wing nutjob Alex Jones executive produced the thing, which should be all the evidence you need. For a long time the loony extreme right has expounded that theory. There are certainly those on the fringe left who buy into it but they are generally the same very limited subset which buys into "chemtrails" and the anti-vax movement. In other words to a certain extent there really isn't single ideology that buys this stuff but it is definitely a product of the right wing, not the left.


Alfred Differ said...

David Smelser mentioned forward-looking inflation predictions on the previous thread...

I probably should have been more precise, but when I do that I wind up writing long posts that come off as pontificating. 8)

When I mention falsifiability, I'm referring to Popper's view on what a Science is. Arguing that someone's claim is false is only a tiny part of the picture. There must also be a clear way to define what counts as objective data, valid hypothesis generation, and testing methods. A Science is a combination of a study and a technique for establishing claims that can actually be tested for failures that leave no wiggle room for the survival of the underlying theory. Popper goes into this in a lot of detail in his early work and anyone who likes his philosophy can see how Economics fails to qualify. That doesn't mean non-science studies are somehow inferior, though. It just means we shouldn't pretend they are sciences and place unreasonable trust in their results.

The inflation prediction did indeed fail, but take a good look at the prediction they made and you'll find it didn't really get tested because it wasn't sharp enough to be tested. Our host talks about this kind of stuff when he talks about prediction registries and getting people to put up or shut up. Good registry entries take a bit of work to craft in order to be measurable. The inflation prediction was mostly political hot-air intended to scare people. One shouldn't get non-fuzzy when doing that unless one is very confident in their numbers. 8)

Alfred Differ said...

Is it me or do many of locumranch's posts start or depend heavily upon term definitions he includes near the start of the post?

I consider myself a fluent English speaker (even if I am an American), but one thing I've learned over the years is to mistrust the etymology lesson when someone arguing a point uses it as a defense. Origins are useful at times, but more often it is the web of analogies that connect to a word that matter when trying to clear confusion. A word means more of what the analogy web says than what etymology says until you get into technical jargon.

David Brin said...


Jumper said...

And omitted at least one class of secrets: those largely perceived as inconsequential. It's "secret" right now what i just had for dinner, (no one but me knows!) but no one really cares.

DP said...

As Machiavelli noted in his discourses, large, long term conspiracies are almost impossible to carry out:

"When the number of accomplices in a conspiracy exceeds three or four, it is almost impossible for it not to be discovered, either through treason, imprudence or carelessness....It is thus that so many conspiracies have been revealed and crushed in their incipient stage; so that it may be regarded almost as a miracle when so important a secret is preserved by a number of conspirators for any length of time."

All grand conspiracy theories fall apart when touched by Occam's Razor.

End of story.

DP said...

Andy, as for Johnson's racism is best to remember the words of historian Will Durant:

"A man's vices are of his times, a man's virtues are his own"

Yep, LBJ used the n-word (and a lot of other dirty words - he was a crude and vulgar man). But he rose above all that with his push to pass the Civil Rights Act.

LBJ is almost a tragic figure from Greek mythology.

As was Nixon, Dr. Brin.

Yep, Tricky Dick was unlikable and a first class bastard, but he could have been one of our greatest presidents, if not for his demons of personal insecurity leading to Watergate.

He ended JFK's Vietnam fiasco with America basically the victor (*), signed a nuclear arms treaty with the Soviets which helped end the Cold War (and the threat of nuclear annihilation), created the EPA by presidential fiat at a time when rivers used to catch fire, and opened the door to China - perhaps the greatest foreign policy achievement in US history.

(* - South Vietnam did not fall to Viet Cong guerrillas, the VC were decimated by the Tet offensive and never recovered to play a major role on the battlefield. SVN fell to a classic armored blitz from the North - an offensive that would have been easily crushed by US air power. But a weakened Ford Presidency after Nixon's resignation and the Watergate scandal left a Congress and American people who wanted nothing more to do with Vietnam.

Anonymous said...


Have you ever heard of the book "Dr. Feelgood" by Richard Lertzman and William J. Bines? It examines an element of the JFK conspiracies that is never mentioned for some reason --
Kennedy was an IV meth addict for most of his presidency, and for those in the know the man was a liability. No long before that fateful day in Dallas JFK experienced a psychotic break at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City -- running nude through the halls of the hotel babbling about national secrets and LSD. The Doctor they brought in to treat him had to strap him down to a chair in order to administer anti-psychotic medication. This is the leader of the free world, the man with the ability to launch all the nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, and he was an unstable meth head. The authors of Dr. Feelgood suggest that if there WAS any behind-the-scenes effort to take out JFK it had less to do with his ideas about Viet Nam and more to do with his drug habit. Of course this would still require the unlikely co-ordination you describe in your post, so perhaps it is a moot point, but I find it curious why no one of either side of this argument seems to factor in the President's meth addiction.

smitpa said...

Has no one noticed we have not "won" a war in 70 years. Asymmetric warfare has been a huge success for our enemies. Some one pisses us off we go in and blow away 10% percent of their civilians and we loose the political war. Had we been able to hunt down bin Ladin in the first place everyone would have been far better off. We really need a better strategy. If there is a "conspiracy" its that were still trying to use the same methods that won us WW2 in an guerilla war. And no I have no idea how to fight a 21st century war simply that what we're trying to do is working about as well as marching rows of infantry at each other.

Winterboy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Winterboy said...

Mr. Brin, you're smart and articulate, but this blog is seriously hard to take seriously.

You write, "Is it really so implausible that a crazy, frail-egoed loner...?

Not if that's what the evidence demonstrates, but nothing you propose was actually verified by the Warren Commission. It never determined that Oswald was crazy, for example, and didn't claim proof he was (testimony indicated the opposite). Oswald was not even close to an expert shooter; his scores are included in Commission documents. His rifle was never linked to General Walker's shooting, and Walker himself discounted it. And those who know Oswald said that he admired JFK (check a few for yourself: Warren Commission Hearings, vol.2, p.399; vol.8, p.153; vol.9, p.48; vol.9, p.148; vol.9, p.255; vol.10, p.60).

You also write, "And this is somehow less plausible than than the notion that hundreds of skilled officers of the U.S. would betray their oaths and duty in order to slay their commander-in-chief..."

That is a ridiculous notion, and one I haven't seen before. Hundreds of officers, upset about a peace speech, engaged in a massive, flawless military maneuver? I don't think the movie promotes that theory, either (even it it did, it's only a movie). In your own comments after this blog you outline what is the general consensus. I very loosely paraphrase: "You only need a cabal of four, a shooter or two, and a few henchmen not in the know."

Your deathbed confessions theory is illogical, imo. Deathbed confessions are triggered by conscience, and actions like this, almost by definition, don't involve people of conscience. Google CIA deathbed confessions, and you won't find any, except for a UFO nut, or two. If lack of deathbed confessions is proof of no conspiracy, then the CIA has not assassinated world leaders, overthrown governments, or performed population and individual drug/mind experiments. We know they did, thanks to uncovered documents and FOIA lawsuits -- never deathbed confessions. And all those actions DID involve hundreds of players, which a domestic assassination most certainly would not, so such confessions should be rolling in.

At any rate, if I had been one of a tiny group of plotters, I'd wouldn't forever shame my family name, children, grandchildren, by confessing on my way out that I helped kill a beloved American President. No matter how badly my since-developed conscience bothered me.

Someone famously said, "The only way to believe the Warren Report is to not read it." I've read the Warren Report and the supporting volumes and I agree. It's more plausible to me, because the Commission's own evidence indicates it, that Oswald had help. Two subsequent government investigations reported the same -- as have have a dozen members of those investigatory teams, some still living.

Finally, the 1960s I remember were full of secret domestic and international conspiracies. REAL ones, targeting Americans, world leaders and governments, etc, and involving people in top law enforcement and intelligence agencies -- even the Johnson and Nixon White Houses. They happen, even in America. It's not insane to think it might have happened to JFK.

Winterboy said...

P.S. The most ironic post in this thread? From an Anonymous commenter who knew a guy who knew Oswald who said something like... etc. And commenter concludes, "and I'll take that over some grand conspiracy theory."

Wish I could so easily believe in lousy evidence.