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.