Chapter 14:
In the Shadow of Dealey Plaza

Between the Signal and the Noise
by Roger Feinman

Some final thoughts on former critic and wanna–be academic/screenwriter/documentarian David Lifton and “Second Best Evidence” (Can we take him any more seriously than we did in the Sixties?)

I am on record as disapproving of Oliver Stone’s film, JFK, despite (or perhaps because of) its cinematic artistry in service of a false hero. Never before, however, has the critical community been so galvanized than by the power of this screen event. It is a propitious time to emphasize the virtue of unity. Mr. Lifton, however, stands away, persisting in the promotion of an idea whose time never was, leveling attacks against those whose single–minded commitments to the destruction of the Warren Report were and are beyond reproach.

There is no doubt that David Lifton has done a great deal of work in researching the assassination of President Kennedy. Notwithstanding the earnest inanity of his camouflage theories, his 1967 article for Ramparts and his unpublished analysis that same year of the Zapruder head–snap were articulate, albeit in my opinion the latter flowed out of a bias toward the “Parkland version” of the wounds, a subset of evidentiary facts fixed during the early days of the case that may yet turn out to be erroneous in whole or in part; in any event, Mr. Lifton appears to have abandoned it. After 1967, something of a change seems to have taken hold in him.

An Impediment to the Critics

His early work cannot overcome, nor his misspent youth excuse, however, the intellectual dishonesty that pervades Best Evidence. The book stands as an embarrassment and impediment to the critics who once spurned him. Whether that was its unconscious intent is beyond the ken of this author to pursue. One can only speculate what effect a renunciation of the book would have on the continued efficacy of the critical studies movement, and Lifton’s relationship to it. It would appear, however, that Mr. Lifton has placed himself in the same position as his old friend Liebeler: committed to a public position that he cannot support, whatever his private leanings.

Lifton maintains that he found his way out of the labyrinth. On the contrary, David Lifton is like the taxi driver who cannot admit that he does not know his way to his patron’s destination. He is lost, yet he meanders around to preserve the appearance of knowledge while the meter continues to tick at the passenger’s expense.

He became an entertainer, peddling his old “shtick” like Jack Benny or Bob Hope. The jokes no longer matter, it’s the familiarity that draws attention. For Mr. Lifton to take all the time he did to write his Compuserve essays for so minuscule an audience may indicate his present situation as he sees it, and that he really has little to do except to theorize, speak, and occasionally write about the Kennedy assassination. He is fighting for what he thinks his reputation should be. Instead of wielding facts to counter this writer’s specific criticisms of Best Evidence, his 34–page single–spaced diatribe never once addresses them in any meaningful way.

Is it a purity of purpose, tainted with self–interest, that drives him to pontificate about the truth, or are his the empty words of a well disguised, well–protected Pied Piper leading us farther and farther off the track? Is Mr. Lifton committed to truth and precision, or does he prefer to employ his own sordid inventions in the ordering of facts? Harold Weisberg came to the conclusion, after reading Mr. Lifton’s Compuserve drivel, that, “Truth in your mind, Dave, is like [the word] ‘love’ in the mouth of the whore.” (Weisberg, Harold. Letter to David Lifton, May 19, 1993)

Sylvia Meagher’s Opinion of David Lifton

It is appropriate to conclude this exploration of the meaning and intent of Best Evidence with the prophetic admonition that Sylvia Meagher gave to David Lifton after he first explained his theory of the “men in the trees.” She deserves the best last word, considering his indignities to her reputation. Given a slightly different history of their relationship and its dénouement, she may well have written the same to him had he disclosed his published theory to her:

[Y]our theory dissolves the line between reality and illusion and makes any hypothesis more acceptable which at least leaves one on relatively solid ground … [Y]ou have only a slender and tentative foundation for the elaborate structure you are projecting, against which many considerations of logic must be raised. Mainly, that there was no need for such a complicated and numerously manned an operation to achieve the objective …

[D]iscussion of your hypothesis even within the small group of people who are working with the same objective as yours has a demoralizing and divisive effect and should be avoided. If friends and co–workers feel such violent antipathy, the effect on those who are committed to the Warren Report can be easily imagined. Premature discussion or disclosure, in the absence of conclusive proof, will do incalculable harm and will expose all attempts to reopen the investigation to the cruelest ridicule and vicious denunciation.

(Meagher, Sylvia. Letter to David Lifton, November 2, 1965)

Somewhere along the line, though, David Lifton lost sight of the distinction between hypothesis, theory, evidence and proven fact.

More of the Same

It is clear that, whatever his mission, David Lifton is not finished. When Best Evidence was finally published, he felt a tremendous letdown. He would come home, there would be no messages on his answering machine, and he wouldn’t know what to do with himself the next day. He would ask himself, “What am I gonna do with the rest of my life?” (“His J.F.K. Obsession: For David Lifton, The Assassination is a Labyrinth Without End,” Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1988, Id.) He has apparently found the answer, and it is more of the same.

Perhaps it is Mr. Lifton’s exasperation with the ambiguities of the subject that has caused him to dwell consistently, if morbidly, on notions of faked evidence, disguises, and camouflage — all used to conceal the facts from what he insists were the honest and well–meaning official government investigations. But where has he led us, and what does it all amount to? As Harrison E. Salisbury has written of Mr. Lifton, “He has tried to count all the trees in the forest and prove that others have sometimes identified an ash as a maple or an oak as a willow.” (“JFK and Further Sinister Forces”, New York Times, February 22, 1981, Section 7, p. 11)

I do not make any money from the assassination controversy. I have no book or video to sell, neither have I any ambition to make the assassination my profession and business enterprise. Mr. Lifton may search to his heart’s content to find the seed of a motive that would discredit my criticism of his work. If he cannot find one, he may sully the reputations of the dead with whom I fondly and proudly shared a collegial association. He obviously knows little self–restraint in that regard.

[Note: Lifton does not shrink either from calumny against the living heroes of the critics’ struggles. In Chapter 20 of his book, he portrays Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, one of the world’s foremost forensic pathologists who, alone among them, has lent his weight and prestige to the cause of truth in this matter at considerable personal cost, as a man who couldn’t read X–rays; more a politician than a physician; and, someone for whom Lifton felt sorry. “‘Our’ expert,” he wrote, “left much to be desired.” Mr. Lifton did not refrain from undermining Dr. Wecht’s position even after availing himself of the hospitality of Wecht’s home and family, imposing upon Wecht for his time and advice. Recently, while circulating hard copies of his Compuserve essays to a number of critics and seeking succor in his campaign against this writer, Lifton also went to Wecht wearing sackcloth and ashes, claiming that he would have written the chapter differently. Best Evidence has been published in four editions, the latest paperback having been issued last Fall. Mr. Lifton had numerous opportunities to correct a gross and unforgivable injustice, yet he allowed each of them to pass. At the beginning of this manuscript, I also quote from a letter that Mr. Lifton recently wrote to the President of Emerson College, maliciously denouncing two other well–known critics as unsuitable to lecture college students on the assassination, clearly intending to queer their pitch in terms that I cannot even synopsize here without further compounding their harm.]

The Warren Commission and its Critics

At bottom, however, the immutable facts are these: Mr. Lifton professes to believe that the Warren Commission acted honestly and in good faith. He also professes to believe that the critics of the Warren Commission were ill–motivated and fundamentally in error. He reserves his venom for them, and not for the perpetrators of a monstrous frame–up. He further professes to believe that none of the known key participants in the creation and handling of the medical evidence acted less than honestly. He shouts “Conspiracy!”, but his message boils down to: “Well, something must have happened, and maybe someday they’ll tell us.”

It is these broad and basic truths that far transcend the interpersonal rivalries, the quibbles, the different shadings of emphasis and interpretation of the assassination evidence and motive among critics, to set David Lifton and the continuum of his activities in the case distinctly apart from the rest.

Whoever David Lifton is, to label him as “a critic” is nothing less than fraudulent. Rather, he plays into the hands of the very forces we are all opposing. It is therefore a source of deep regret that no voices among the critics have been raised against him. Not everyone or everything that incites the public or arouses interest in the case is inherently good and valuable.

In the course of promulgating his dogma, Mr. Lifton has persisted in either twisting or casting aside the painstaking work of his predecessors, choosing instead to fiddle at the edges, rather than to work within the substance of the evidence, while spinning ghost stories that conjure up memories of marshmallow roasts around a good campfire on a summer’s night. His commercially acceptable theory leaves his listeners entertained, enthralled and filled with wonderment, but by morning’s light the winding details of his saga vaguely meld into the sense memory of a good time had by all. That is hardly the full extent of his consequence, however, since it is clear to this writer that celebrity in the Media Age confers legitimacy, wherefore Mr. Lifton has gathered a faithful flock of passionate believers to his aimless cause. And therein lies the danger of a foolish idea run amok. David Lifton’s attempt to persuade the American public to buy this hideous, ghoulish, sick, perverted, twisted and insane fantasy of body–snatching, postmortem wound infliction, and alteration mocks the assassination researchers and critics of the government’s case. He clearly intends to resurrect the Best Evidence theory with further ideations that will continue to mock and debase serious criticism of the government’s posture and subvert our efforts to achieve a reversal of the official verdict.

The Perfect Public Spokesman

Here, then, is David Lifton: Is he the scholar and role model for the present and future generations of researchers that he aspires to be? Is he, in the words of the popular song, merely “still crazy after all these years?” Does he sail under false colors, seeming to explore for truth as he leads us far astray? Or is he little more than a commonplace liar, plagiarist, thief, con artist, extortionist, and fraud? I cannot decide, neither do I have any interest in passing judgment and affixing labels, but this much I do know and deeply care about: Whatever or whoever David Lifton may be, he is the perfect public spokesman for the assassination research community, only if we look at things from the perspective of both the government and the established news media.

His publisher said it checked his citations. It consulted lawyers, a forensic pathologist, and a neurosurgeon to examine the book for “potential factual errors,” none of whom has ever been identified. (The New York Times, January 2, 1981, Section C, p. 17) What did any of them know about the case that David Lifton did not tell them? Mr. Lifton remains his own best expert in support of a scheme that all the special effects laboratories in Hollywood could not effectuate. Curiously, Macmillan did not vouch for the book (ibid.), only for its own mechanical effort to verify isolated facts as though it had neglected to comprehend the insanity of the whole. Macmillan failed to make due inquiry before publishing Best Evidence. Other publishers have sought out responsible and authoritative experts in the Kennedy assassination for pre–publication critiques. If Macmillan did so, then the identity of its experts was and is unknown to Sylvia Meagher and Harold Weisberg. Certainly, it could not have been Lifton’s personal qualities which endeared him to Macmillan. Lifton proudly admits how he misrepresented himself as a law student so as to get witnesses to talk (BE, page 398). He also freely admits to surreptitiously taping his interstate telephone conversations.

Granted for the sake of this analysis (for I have no intention of personally verifying Mr. Lifton’s footnotes), his citations were correct, his thinking profound. He was “right” in everything but his conclusions. Developments since the publication of Best Evidence in 1980 ignored him, as he has them. And, just as America went to the moon without David Lifton, we too must now leave him standing still on the side of the road to our destination in the study of President Kennedy’s assassination.

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Roger Feinman: Between the Signal and the Noise

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