Chapter 12, Part 2:
Come to Me with Your Problems. Bring Your Manuscript

Between the Signal and the Noise
by Roger Feinman

David Lifton’s Search for Zapruder Film Evidence

Mr. Lifton went to extraordinary lengths during his early career to gather evidence for his theory that the Zapruder film had been altered. In late 1968, associates of Lifton obtained a copy of the copy of the Zapruder film that Jim Garrison had subpoenaed from Life Magazine for the trial of Clay Shaw in New Orleans. (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, March 17, 1969) Scratches on that copy from repeated projection, as well as petty squabbles among some of the West Coast researchers over possession of the film, impeded Mr. Lifton’s research.

In June 1970, he engaged in a plan to induce LIFE to afford him access in Los Angeles to a first–generation duplicate of the original Zapruder film, as well as transparencies. An inspection of the original in New York City was also arranged, but apparently never realized. The cooperation of a Hollywood film producer was secured in trumping up a phony bid to purchase the film from LIFE. The producer gave Lifton and his cohorts access to an office and letterhead stationery. (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, June 17, 1970)

On Monday, June 22, 1970, LIFE flew two copies of the film and many slides to Los Angeles by courier for the producer’s inspection. Mr. Lifton and his associates headed for the producer’s office. By pre–arrangement with Lifton, the producer was absent from his office when the courier arrived, but he placed a phone call to his office timed to coincide with the courier’s arrival, in order to excuse himself and introduce Mr. Lifton and company as his representatives in the proposed transaction.

As Mr. Lifton examined the 16 millimeter copy of the Zapruder film LIFE had sent, the courier left the room for several minutes. One of Mr. Lifton’s associates then whipped out a camera and began shooting pictures of the transparencies arrayed on a light box.

When Mr. Lifton and his associates left the producer’s office, a 16 millimeter reel of the Zapruder film left also, and a reel of electrical extension cord wrapped in tissue was left in its box. (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, June 25, 1970)

“Selective Amnesia”

It merits attention that Mr. Lifton goes to considerable lengths in Best Evidence to conceal his early preoccupation with the theory of Zapruder film alteration, and his 1970 stunt to find evidence for it. In a lengthy footnote in Chapter 24, he describes an examination of a 35 mm print of the film at Time–Life’s Los Angeles offices in 1971, implying that he first discovered theretofore unknown splices during that inspection. He says that, only then, did he begin to explore “the possibility that the Zapruder film itself had been altered” before it went to either Time/Life or the Warren Commission, yet another example of Mr. Lifton’s rewriting the history of his activities in a book marketed as non–fiction. Mr. Lifton proposes in his book a theory that the “blob” seen on the right–front of the President’s head during the fatal wounding sequence of the film is fake. One of my colleagues has suggested that Lifton suffers from “selective amnesia.” He suggests that Mr. Lifton and his readers take a look at the WFAA–TV interview with Zapruder on the afternoon of the assassination in the commercially sold video tape, The Day the Nation Cried. There, Zapruder describes what he saw while looking through his viewfinder, including the wound at the right–front of the head.

Surreal Illusion

The imagery of people and objects associated with the assassination being moved around by unseen forces as pawns in a game of chess occurs several times in Lifton’s correspondence with Meagher. It may well be the organizing principle of Mr. Lifton’s work on the assassination. I do not emphasize this point, but mention it in passing as a possible channel to the depth of abstraction in his pattern of thought about the case. One may discern in the Marx Brothers–like reconstruction of casket movements in Best Evidence a degree of difficulty in reconciling neat abstractions with real–world constraints.

Understandably, while Mr. Lifton writes about the toll that his assassination research took on his personal life, educational and career development, he nonetheless omits to mention in his book that, by January 1966, as his infatuation with the theme of surreal illusion in the assassination grew, he became temporarily incapacitated from his normal and customary pursuits. (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, March 21, 1969; Author’s conversations with Sylvia Meagher; and conversation with Raymond Marcus, early 1989.) In the unexpurgated, real–life version of Best Evidence, the chips did not merely fall into place over time, some of them fell off the game board to the floor and had to be picked up.

The Cat Among the Pigeons

Camouflage of the President’s wounds is the motif of Best Evidence, not the interposition of multiple disguises upon the scene of the assassination which preoccupied Mr. Lifton during the late Sixties. Still, in presenting his deconstruction of a medical forgery, it is Mr. Lifton himself who guardedly camouflages his preconceptions and political ideology. This is the second major cause of his book’s downfall. The conspiracy theory in Best Evidence is, indeed, a hypothesis structured on a political theory of sorts that germinated during the height of the Vietnam conflict — that Lyndon Johnson was involved [“I am of the opinion and hold the theory that LBJ and Rusk were involved before the fact, heavily involved, in the plot to kill JFK.” (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, August 12, 1968); “The JFK assassination was a high level plot, possibly involving personalities such as LBJ, Rusk, and Dulles.” (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, August 7, 1969)], and that the Secret Service was intimately associated with its execution [“I believe that some of the agents on that follow–up car are involved …” (Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, June 27, 1970)]. It is this political theory that guided Lifton’s search for evidence, notwithstanding that his publicity handlers tutored him to respond otherwise to interviewers.

[T]oday, it is more important to me to communicate correctly and optimally the theme that the motive for the assassination was to change our foreign policy (and specifically, Vietnam) and that high level hands were secretly manipulating the course of the ship of state in effecting the assassination and the subsequent policy change, than to hinge my case (or even appear to) on proving precisely whose hands they were, or even appearing to seek personal vengeance.— Politically speaking, a high level plot is a high level plot, whether it is officials A, B, C, or D, E, F who are involved.…

(Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, August 7, 1969)

If a high level conspiracy is in operation, they either have or have not forseen [sic] the fact that they will have to be prepared to alter movie film of various type, as well as still pictures — should the disguise being perpetrated on Dealey Plaza to conceal the way the crime is happening fail in any matter. (Emphasis in the original)

Whether that disguise fails because a driver is forced to bring the car to a halt, to get in the fatal shot, or whether the disguise fails in more literal fashion because, lets [sic] say some fellow is actually picked up with head and shoulders above the fence on the grassy knoll shooting — you either are or are not prepared to deal with the problem of the cinematic eyewitness who sees too much. Unlike the recollections of a witness, you don’t have to berate the cinematic witness. You just clandestinely take possession of the appropriately [sic] film can or roll of film AFTER IT HAS BEEN PROCESSED LEGITIMATELY THE FIRST TIME, do the appropriate art work, re photograph and create the appropriate duplicate, and then pawn off the duplicate on the unsuspecting owner. In the process, you have created your own false eyewitness, as a matter of fact, and some nifty evidence to support your own conclusions in all future investigations.

(Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, June 27, 1970) (Emphasis in the original)

If one addresses oneself to a study of the Report, one will tend to think in terms of a frame of reference where there are “accessories after the fact,” those responsible for the non–correlation between the Report and the Hearings and Exhibits. If, however, one addresses oneself to the crime, one cannot possibly explain it in that frame of reference. The conspiracy that killed Kennedy doesn’t phoney [sic] the evidence to help the Warren Commission sell the lone assassin theory, but rather to protect itself.

Finally, — if there is a choice to be made — it is better to risk having half the world wondering whether one man could have fired all the shots in 6–8 seconds, rather than wondering whether or not Secret Service agents are involved in a plot to remove the President of the United States from office.

One casts aspersions on the conclusions of the Warren Report; the other … on the legitimacy of the incumbent United States government, by demonstrating that the assassination, itself, was an “inside job.”

If “Marxist” Oswald had help, it is politically “harmless” if there is speculation as to who the “other shooter” might be, and speculation about a multiple–shooter communist plot (if O’s cover holds). But if the Secret Service is involved in a plot, then the question of who the other shooter is becomes irrelevant, for the ball game is then over.

(Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, June 27, 1970)

Lifton elaborated a view that surpassed obsessive puzzlement over the mechanical details of the assassination — so impatiently humored by Meagher — in its frank effrontery to the entire structure of her dissent. Focusing on the Warren Commission cover–up, he suggested, only served to distract from the existence of a high–level plot. He insinuated that the critics had obstructed the search for truth:

[A]nti–WC literature has been so successful in projecting the image of a botched and dishonest investigation, and an EW [Earl Warren] coverup [sic], that any attempt to now argue for a massive plot involving high–level officialdom almost appears to be superfluous and unecessary [sic].

(Lifton, David. Letter to Sylvia Meagher, September 18, 1970)

This not only ran against the grain of Lifton’s earlier letters, which included harsh criticism of the Warren Commission, but seemed inimical to the focus of the mainstream critics. He seems to have been saying that the identity of the assassins was irrelevant, as were those who protected them in the official investigation, at the same time demonstrating an ambivalence toward the issue of Oswald’s guilt or innocence, and even towards the actual identities of the high–level conspirators. (I have concluded that this philosophy probably contributed strongly to Sylvia Meagher’s impression of his duplicity and her final decision to dismiss him from her inner circle.) [Note: See, generally, Chapter 14 of Best Evidence, in which Lifton admits to being no longer interested in the identity of the assassins.]

Moreover, the thread that ran through his theories seemed to betray a lack of confidence in the basic evidentiary presentation of the critics’ case, including the eyewitnesses to the assassination, that had been so crucial to the critics’ destruction of the Report. Did he presume the critics’ case to be somehow weak? If so, where was the deficiency? And, even more important, just what was Lifton’s apparently new objective? While I cannot pretend to see it clearly, I think what he was grappling with was the inconclusiveness and frustration of the controversy over the Warren Report, impatience to lay the crime at the door of Lyndon Johnson, and a desire to put his personal imprint on the case by imbuing with the theme of fraud every aspect of the assassination where the evidence appeared to contradict his predetermined view of its physical and political facts. Through deconstruction of the evidence, rather than trenchant political analysis that might (or might not) have led him more straightforwardly toward his perceived objective, Mr. Lifton seems at some point to have reached the conclusion that he could perform an “end run” around the difficulties in reconciling discrepant evidence, circumvent both the official case and the critics’ response, and strike a blow directly at the legitimacy of the government.

Tainted Evidence

If this appraisal is correct, it portrays a theory that does not assimilate and reconcile the evidence. Quite the contrary, it demands a belief that evidence is irrelevant since its substance has been corrupted. Tainted evidence, however, can never lead to the correct solution of a crime, which is why Best Evidence leads us nowhere. The Warren Commission, contrary to Lifton’s assertions, sought to denude the assassination of any political meaning. Best Evidence, which erroneously implies that the government’s proffered evidence affirms the official account, similarly denudes that evidence of its meaning. Furthermore, if this appraisal is deemed meritorious, it also reveals either a dismal unwillingness or an inability on Mr. Lifton’s part to weigh competing facts and make difficult value judgments, particularly as to the weight and credibility of the evidence before him, as well as to accept and expound on ambiguities in the record that cannot be rationally explained in view of its present state.

Lifton’s dialogue with Meagher touched subjects not central to the concern of Best Evidence (a point of interest relative to the alleged development of the author’s research and ideas), yet the book neatly fits the same conceptual framework of that era in Lifton’s career. The figure of Oswald is peripheral to the plot he pretends to reveal. The identity of the killers is an area completely ignored. Any resemblance that his plotters may bear to all persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental; all are exonerated. Mr. Lifton neither figuratively nor literally invites his readers to join him in the search for truth. No action is recommended. No moral to the story is revealed, no lessons for the future.

Best Evidence in its published form has nothing to do with laying responsibility at Lyndon Johnson’s door; in a sense, it is Lifton’s admission of his inability to do so. It is simply an exercise in perverse logic gussied up with scholarly–sounding phrases (e.g., “a synthesis that was most intellectually satisfying.”) It is not the body alteration per two–casket scenario that preceded Lifton’s view of the physical and medico legal evidence, but vice versa. The seemingly insoluble dilemma of that evidence dictated that he invent this ghost story.


  • Mr. Lifton seems not primarily concerned with Oswald’s guilt or innocence or (in the latter case) the undoing of a vicious injustice;
  • He seems not concerned with tracing the assassination conspiracy to its source;
  • Whatever may be his aspirations, the least one can say is that his work is fundamentally irrelevant to the objectives of the critics and mainly supplies diversion.

Regardless of whether these anecdotes and conceptual foundations had been included in the autobiographical thread of his book, I raise the questions: Had the reviewers and readers of Best Evidence the opportunity to consider this background, could they have concluded anything but that Mr. Lifton obdurately clings to theories for which he has no evidence, no matter how ridiculous they sound? That he selects the witnesses whom he wishes to believe in the interests of his system — and he believes them absolutely — whereupon all physical phenomena are then reordered and reconstituted to conform to his beliefs? Would not such revelations have impeached the credibility and immediately dampened the media hype that has surrounded this book? Would they not have had an impact upon a good faith publisher’s decision to print the book without the strictest scrutiny of its thesis?

And as for the critics, many of whom have embraced the Best Evidence thesis, does not the book’s complete omission of its rigid political superstructure taint its purportedly objective evidentiary substructure in a manner that bespeaks moral and intellectual cowardice and dishonesty?

I ask these questions rhetorically.

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Roger Feinman: Between the Signal and the Noise

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