WHO KILLED JFK? Joe Kennedy did it — because the kid had gone liberal on him. It’s my favorite Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory, and it’s presented in a wonderful novel, Winter Kills, by Richard Condon. Condon is best known as the author of The Manchurian Candidate, the presidential assassination conspiracy novel made into an unforgettable movie starring Frank Sinatra, with Laurence Harvey as the brainwashed shooter. That book came out in 1959, and when JFK was killed four years later, Condon became the world’s most famous writer of political thrillers.
Winter Kills didn’t come out until 1974, 11 years after that day in Dallas. In the novel, President Tom Kegan is shot from the sixth floor of the TV center warehouse when his motorcade moved through Hunt Plaza in Philadelphia on February 22, 1960. An assassin is quickly apprehended, but the president’s younger brother Nick soon learns that a second sniper confessed on his deathbed, and that a third had been shooting from a grassy knoll. As he digs deeper, he learns about the secret deals his brother had made with the rich and powerful men who really run the country.
Finally, after many twists and turns of the plot, he uncovers the shocking truth and confronts his father. “Pa” tells him he put his son in the White House as “a cold-assed business proposition just like everything else in life. [...] What they hell do you think American politics is all about, kidoo?” But after the first year “it went to his head. [...] He peed all over his quotas. He decided to teach the niggers to read. He began to think we were all living in a democracy. He double-crossed me while he double-crossed himself.” So “I let him trade in the Presidency for a sainthood,” Pa explains. “I gave him open-end immortality in exchange for spitting in my eye. That was more that fair, wasn’t it?”
In The New York Times Book Review, Leo Braudy called Winter Kills “a triumph of satire and knowledge, with a delicacy of style and a command of tone that puts Condon once again into the first rank of American novelists” — among whom he listed Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, William Burroughs, and Ken Kesey, all practitioners along with Condon of what he called “the style of paranoid surrealism.” “By mingling historical reality with his own fabulous invention,” Braudy concluded, “Condon savagely satirizes a world in which fiction and reality are mingled to manipulate, exploit and kill.”
The theory that “Joe Kennedy did it” inadvertently took on a new twist last year when David Nasaw’s terrific biography The Patriarch was published. One of the most fascinating things in that book was the story of how Joe Kennedy had opposed the Cold War at its outset, campaigning in 1947 against the Truman Doctrine, which committed the country to fight communism everywhere in the world. For Joe Kennedy, the clash between the United States and the USSR was an ordinary great-power rivalry, not an apocalyptic battle between freedom and slavery. Sixteen years later, JFK, in his inaugural address, promised to “pay any price, bear any burden” in defending freedom against slavery around the world. Historian Jackson Lears, reviewing The Patriarch in the London Review of Books, noted, “this was the kind of rhetoric that had sickened the elder Kennedy when it came from Truman.” (Nasaw says Joe was bursting with pride after that speech — but of course that only makes Nasaw part of the cover-up.)
There is at least one flaw in the “Joe did it” theory: the elder Kennedy had been crippled by a stroke more than a year before the assassination, and left “a drooling, speechless, wheelchair bound, utterly dependent shell of a man,” who could say only one word: “No!” But let’s not quibble — he could have issued the orders before his stroke, couldn’t he?
Winter Kills was made into a not-very-good movie in 1979 starring Jeff Bridges as the good-looking brother of the dead president. The powerful, murderous father was played by John Huston — reprising his unforgettable role in Chinatown. Vincent Canby thought Huston was great,
playing with witty, benign self-assurance a rude, incredibly wealthy character [...]. It seemed then that Mr. Huston, a man of robust humor with a profound appreciation for the seriously absurd, was born to collaborate with a writer of Mr. Condon's very particular, manic imagination.
There was a conspiracy of sorts around the film — one of the two producers, Leonard J. Goldberg, was murdered in the middle of production, reportedly by the mafia in retaliation for failure to pay his debts, and the other producer, Robert Sterling (not the actor) was later sentenced to 40 years in prison for marijuana smuggling.
What did Richard Condon really think about the Kennedy assassination? He answered that question in an essay in The Nation a month after that day in Dallas: “Lee Oswald,” he wrote,
seemed motivated only by his resentment against the most successful man in the world, resentment against [...] a man who made no effort to conceal his superiority. [...] When he came laughing into Dallas, and the newspapers printed a map that showed he would drive right past where Lee Oswald worked for a lousy fifty bucks a week, it was more than this classical resentment could bear.
Jon Wiener writes regularly for LARB on history, politics, and books, and thanks Stanley Kutler for reminding him about Winter Kills.