He got the wrong guy

Press aide doubted JFK was Oswald’s target

Nov. 22, 1963 was the day of the most sig­nif­i­cant mur­der of the 20th cen­tu­ry, and every anniver­sary of that fate­ful day in Dallas brings anoth­er round of Camelot nos­tal­gia and renewed inter­est in the assas­si­na­tion of President John F. Kennedy.

With this month mark­ing the 60th year since the young states­man was killed as he was rid­ing through Dealey Plaza in an open con­vert­ible with his wife Jackie by his side, there are TV doc­u­men­taries, pod­casts, a new book by a Secret Service agent who claims to have found evi­dence that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone, and, in poor taste, ban­ners that have flown in down­town Dallas pro­claim­ing “JFK was here” to pro­mote a new attrac­tion at the Sixth Floor Museum in the old Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald wait­ed with his rifle for the pres­i­den­tial motorcade.

The best oppor­tu­ni­ty we may have had to know whether Oswald had accom­plices died with the sus­pect, who was gunned down by a night­club own­er two days lat­er as he was being moved from one jail to another.

Sixty years on, there are many ideas about who killed Kennedy. One man who was an acquain­tance of mine ear­ly in my career as a com­mu­ni­ty jour­nal­ist, Malcolm Kilduff, went to his grave in 2003 believ­ing Oswald was the lone gun­man – but that Kennedy wasn’t his target.

At the time I knew Kilduff, he was edi­tor of the week­ly Beattyville Enterprise in Lee County, Kentucky, which is next to Estill County, where, at the age of 23, I was the only full-time reporter for anoth­er week­ly, the Citizen Voice & Times. Two decades ear­li­er, how­ev­er, Kilduff had been deputy press sec­re­tary for Kennedy and had announced his death to the world. He also served President Lyndon B. Johnson before com­ing to Kentucky to run the news­pa­per in his wife’s hometown.

When my pub­lish­er, Guy Hatfield, intro­duced me to his friend Kilduff, I thought he was putting me on because I was green and gullible, but it was true.

Rosemary, his wife, had been work­ing for a sen­a­tor in Washington, and Kilduff for the Kennedy admin­is­tra­tion. The gruff New Yorker liked to tell the sto­ry about get­ting a phone call one week­end from some­one claim­ing to be the pres­i­dent and telling the caller, “Yes, well I’m Francis Scott Key, and I wrote ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” But it was no prank; it was the pres­i­dent, who jok­ing­ly referred to Mac Kilduff there­after as “Macduff” after Duncan’s brave and loy­al sol­dier in William Shakespeare’s “MacBeth.”

Kilduff had been with Kennedy in Dallas that day because his boss, Pierre Salinger, was in Japan, and it fell to the deputy press sec­re­tary to make the announce­ment to the press.

In Kentucky, Kilduff was always being invit­ed to tell his sto­ry, and I inter­viewed him mul­ti­ple times over the years.

The last time I remem­ber inter­view­ing him was over cof­fee at the Purple Cow in Beattyville for Lexington’s ACE Magazine in 1992, which was the year before the 30th anniver­sary and the year Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” was released.

The movie starred Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison, a New Orleans dis­trict attor­ney whose bizarre inves­ti­ga­tion paint­ed a con­spir­a­cy tapes­try that impli­cat­ed every­one from the Mafia to the CIA, the U.S. mil­i­tary and the vice pres­i­dent in the assassination. 

It was, Garrison’s char­ac­ter said, “a coup d’etat with Lyndon Johnson wait­ing in the wings.”

It was absolute rub­bish, Mac told me. 

He was there. He saw and heard what hap­pened. He stud­ied the evidence. 

The Warren Commission’s con­clu­sion was valid, he said.  It was Oswald alone who killed Kennedy. But it was Texas Gov. John Connally, not Kennedy, that Oswald meant to murder.

Oswald, a Marine sharp­shoot­er and a Communist, was dis­hon­or­ably dis­charged from the mil­i­tary after had tried to renounce his U.S. cit­i­zen­ship and defect­ed to the USSR. He lived there for 32 months and was sent back to the United States, where he lived in Dallas with his Russian wife.

Oswald was court-mar­tialed as a desert­er, Kilduff said, and his dis­charge order was signed by Connally, who was at that time the sec­re­tary of the Navy. The Marine Corps is part of the U.S. Department of the Navy.

Connally had the author­i­ty to grant Oswald a new tri­al, but refused to do so, Kilduff told me.

Oswald had writ­ten Connally a series of threat­en­ing let­ters, and Kilduff thought he was car­ry­ing out his threats that day.

Oswald worked in the Texas School Book Depository ware­house from which the shots were fired, and knew where the motor­cade would go because its route had been print­ed in the newspapers.

Kilduff vivid­ly remem­bered the events as they unfolded.

“I was rid­ing in the third car of the motor­cade,” in the front seat with Merriman Smith of United Press International, he said in the 1992 inter­view. As they passed the build­ing, Kilduff asked Smith, “What in the name of God is a school book depository?” 

As they turned onto Elm Street, Kilduff heard the first shot. Then the sec­ond and the third. He turned and looked at the build­ing from which the sound came, then saw Secret Service agents run­ning toward the president’s car. One of the shots struck Connally in the chest and would have gone through the governor’s heart had he not turned to look at Kennedy.

Oswald had bench-test­ed the mail-order Italian rifle and knew the shots drift­ed down­ward and to the left, Kilduff said. 

As the motor­cade descend­ed the hill, it picked up speed, caus­ing Oswald to miss, he said.

“I have always felt that Kennedy was not his tar­get,” Kilduff con­fid­ed. “In my opin­ion, he was out to get Connally, and had the motor­cade not sped up, he would have got­ten Connally on the first shot. As it was, he adjust­ed and got him on the sec­ond shot.”

Kilduff despaired of the con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry sto­ries that he thought were non­sense and that dis­hon­ored Kennedy.

“It’s self-per­pet­u­at­ing. It keeps going on and on, and it won’t stop in our life­time,” he told me. “I wish they’d just let him lie in peace.”

Today Mac Kilduff lies in peace. After Rosemary’s death, he moved into a retire­ment home, and lat­er a nurs­ing home because of seri­ous health issues. He died in 2003 at the age of 75, and I learned about his pass­ing when I read his obit­u­ary in The New York Times while I was edi­tor of The Jessamine Journal in Nicholasville. 

I had­n’t talked with him since that last inter­view more than 10 years ear­li­er, and I’ve long regret­ted that. 

I wish I could sit with him again at the Purple Cow in Beattyville and have a cup of cof­fee and anoth­er long talk because I still have a thou­sand ques­tions for him — not ques­tions about Kennedy’s death, but about his life.

I believe that how a man lives his life is more inter­est­ing than how it ends.

— Sponsored content —

You might also enjoy...