In an odd confluence of history and conspiracy theories, I happen to be in western Kentucky during this week's buildup to the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's murder. The purpose of the trip was to look into the case of the Breckinridge Land Committee, a group of heirs of former farmers whose land was taken by the U.S. government for the purpose of building Camp Breckinridge, where U.S. soldiers were trained for World War II.
It is a long, sad story, but the crux is that after taking 740 family farms that sprawled over a massive 36,000 acres of fertile and mineral-rich land in 1942, the land was eventually sold off in 1965 in large chunks to investors, not back to the farmers as promised. Additionally, and more curiously, the mineral rights were sold off, too. We are talking coal and oil reserves worth tens of millions of dollars. Today, the farmland -- studded with Monsanto corn -- boasts dozens of oil wells and coal mine shafts and a miles-long conveyor belt to bring all those minerals to the Ohio River. It's quite a scene, and sordid legacy.
Anyway, some of the heirs kindly took me around Union, Henderson and Webster counties to show me the land that used to be their families', and, of course, needing to stop for lunch one day, I was taken to a place called Peak Bros. Bar-B-Q where a letter from Lady Bird Johnson hangs on the wall. The letter commends Peak's for some delicious barbecue, and mentions how much the Texan President -- Lyndon B. Johnson -- enjoyed it.
The funny thing is that there's more to Lady Bird Johnson's legacy in western Kentucky than political fundraisers that seem to have led to her and her husband enjoying Peak's Bar-B-Que.
The story goes -- and witnessed testimony states -- that one day in the mid-1960s, a helicopter was seen spotted hovering over one of the Breckinridge fields by a worker repairing one of the oil rigs. The 'copter touches down and out walks Lady Bird Johnson who, according to lore, walks up to the rig worker and asks: "Can you show me which ones are my oil wells?" Turns out this guy had been at the political event earlier in the day and had seen Lady Bird there, so he knew it was her.
Texas oil lady and President's wife has oil wells in land sold off by U.S. government at cut rates? Hmmmm.
It's nearly impossible to overstate the significance of this anecdote, since the connection between Lady Bird Johnson, Austin TX oil companies, President Johnson, the U.S. government, land and mineral takeovers from poor farmers all seems to have added up to the conclusion that the mineral-rich land taken from the farmers had always been intended to be doled out via back-room deals to very powerful interests. And who was more powerful than Lyndon Johnson, the power-obsessed Dallas politician who may or may not have been part of the JKF murder and his self-made millionaire wife, Lady Bird?
Later that day, I stopped in to the Union County Public Library to look over some material relating to Camp Breckinridge, but I got immediately sidetracked by a display of books about JFK and the 50th anniversary of his death. On the shelf was a book by Barr McClellan, a former member of LBJ's legal team, called "Blood, Money & Power: How LBJ Killed JFK."
Naturally, having just seen the Lady Bird letter hanging in the barbecue restaurant, and having just listened to many Breckinridge land heirs woefully recount their suspicion that the fix for their oil and coal rights had doomed their chances of getting their land back, I had to leaf through it.
Without discussing the merits of McClellan's evidence, it's nonetheless eerie to consider that, despite the Warren Commission report in which lead investigator Arlen Specter concluded a single bullet killed John F. Kennedy, there's still too much that's shady about the entire explanation of how "two lone nuts" in Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby were at the center of this seminal event in American history. The more I read through the book as I sat in the heart of western Kentucky where the government got away with theft, the more difficult I found it to discount that, well, conspiracies are probably not only for the nutty.
Last week, Specter's son, Shanin Specter, wrote an essay that appeared in The Daily Beast defending the Warren Commission report and his father. The essay's arguments for The Single Bullet Theory are laid out in such a way as to suggest that anyone who believes there was a conspiracy to kill JFK is as much a nut as Oswald and Ruby.
Shanin Specter wrote:
I accompanied my father to speaking events back then, when he was District Attorney of Philadelphia, and was surprised by how vigorously he was questioned and how fundamentally he was disbelieved on this subject. He had a wonderful set of replies: he’d begin by letting the speaker talk himself out. Then he’d ask whether the questioner had read the Warren Report. Usually, but not always, the reply was “no.”
I met Arlen Specter many times over the 30 months that I was a political columnist for the Patriot-News in Harrisburg, a time between 2009 and 2011 when the senior Senator from Pennsylvania once again took center stage on the national scene at a seminal time in U.S. history. He was a fascinating figure, mostly because he was so politically adept at appearing to appease his political party backers and constituents, all while his true aim was to preserve his seat at the table. I do believe Specter was likely to have been pathological to the point where he would do or say anything necessary; that he was at first an opportunistic maverick who cold-bloodedly calculated political strategies that were ultimately about his own ability to be at the table, or in the back room, though I only knew him in the last three years of his life.
As a Republican whose prospects for re-election in 2010 were slim, Specter cast his lot with Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Ed Rendell and the Democrats by supporting the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and switching parties. It was a Machiavellian move even by Specter's supernatural ability to try and stay ahead of or change the political winds. But his last political maneuver was a failure. He was rebuked in the primary by Pennsylvania Democrats, who picked former Congressman Joe Sestak, who lost to Pat Toomey. Specter died in 2012, but his role in the JFK saga continues.
Just because Arlen Specter the prosecutor and political chameleon attempted to place the conspiracy theories about JFK's death in the same lot as conspiracies about the murders of Jesus and Lincoln does not diminish in any way the merits of the skepticism, or more, from those who refuse to believe that a powerful Dallas politician in a "City of Hate" where JFK was reviled and then murdered might have had something to do with that murder.
That's what Barr McClellan's book argues. Shanin Specter's defense of his father' work on the Warren Commission is understandable. Still, sitting in a library in a Kentucky county where the coal and oil assets have been worth tens of millions of dollars; oil fields where Lady Bird Johnson came calling after the mineral rights were stolen from 1,500 U.S. farmers, your mind starts to wander.
Barbecue. Oil. Texas. Power. Lady Bird. LBJ ... sometimes, it's a little to tough to swallow the company line.
Is a former political and sports columnist who worked great cities like Albany NY, Seattle, Baltimore and Harrisburg PA. She lives New York.