Sparking a conspiracy

Journalist Richard Dudman on truth, skeptics and the murder of a president

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By Richard Dudman, Special to the BDN

Richard Dudman, 95, who lives in Ellsworth, was a member of the Washington bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and later senior editorial contributor for the Bangor Daily News.

Covering President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Dallas turned out to be one of my most important assignments in my 70-year career as a newspaper reporter.

Richard Dudman, of Ellsworth.

What I didn’t realize was that my dispatches on the fatal day and the days after would be quoted again and again by skeptics trying to disprove the official conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, was the assassin.

One conspiracy theorist, a West Coast resident, ignored the time change and repeatedly got me out of bed after midnight to report his latest plot twist until I told him I no longer had my doubts about the case. If you Google “Richard Dudman Kennedy assassination,” you will find a long series of plot scenarios relying partly on things I wrote from that period of frantic confusion around the dying and dead president. They tell horror stories of suppressed evidence of a massive conspiracy, a coup that put Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson into the presidency, and a coverup that has concealed the “truth” for 50 years.

As a 45-year-old member of the Washington bureau of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, I was one of perhaps 100 reporters from around the country assigned to the story.

We all knew that the president would be heading into threatening territory. Less than a month earlier, a right-wing mob with boos and noisemakers had interrupted a speech by Adlai Stevenson II, U.S. representative to the United Nations, to honor United Nations Day, Oct. 24. As Stevenson left the auditorium, he was jostled and spat upon and hit on the head with a placard. Leaflets circulated in Dallas showed a picture of President Kennedy and the wording “Wanted for Treason.” No wonder some called Dallas a “climate of hate.”

JFK wanted in Dallas

At a reception the night before I left for Dallas, Sen. J. William Fulbright warned me jokingly: “Don’t stand too close to the president.”

In contrast to those ominous details, everything looked peaceful on that sunny autumn day, with crowds of excited admirers lining the motorcade route to see the young president and his pretty young wife in her pink outfit with pill-box hat. I could catch an occasional glimpse of the presidential party in the top-down limousine from my seat in the fourth of the four press buses.

Suddenly I heard shots fired. The motorcade halted. Many of the reporters swarmed out over Dealey Plaza trying to find out what had happened and see who had done the shooting.

Dealey Plaza

Dealey Plaza, 1963

I stayed with the bus, as the presidential limousine raced ahead and the motorcade got underway. We heard radio reports that the president had been shot and was being taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital. The buses stopped at the Trade Mart. I took a quick look inside. Members of the luncheon audience were eating their lunch, awaiting the arrival of the president, and seemed unaware of the shooting.

Of course, the hospital was the place to go. I flagged down a car, one of the many that had their car radios going with news of the shooting. “Take me to Parkland Memorial,” I ordered the driver. I guess my adrenalin was flowing hard.

Reporters were barred from the hospital’s front door. Around on the side, next to the emergency entrance where they had carried the dying president, I spotted the presidential limousine guarded by Secret Service officers. I approached as near as they would let me and saw a hole, or at least a blemish on the right side of the windshield. The officers would not let me go to the car for a closer examination. I reported the sighting, as did at least one other reporter.

When we were finally let inside, an official spokesman said that the president was dead. Three doctors described the wounds they had observed. They agreed that one of them, a hole in the president’s throat, was an entry wound. If so, that would have meant that the shot had come from ahead, not from behind, from the sixth floor of the Texas Schoolbook Depository building, as the developing conclusion held.

The next two days are a blur in my memory. I raced around town, checking the hospital and chasing down any clue to Lee Harvey Oswald’s background. But my bureau chief called me back to Washington. I filed what I thought would be my last story from Dallas, signed on for an early morning flight the next day and fell asleep exhausted.

I overslept and missed the flight. Hearing a radio report that Oswald was to be transferred from a cell in the police headquarters basement to the nearby county jail, I hustled over to take a look. As I reached the ramp leading down into the basement, I saw Oswald being conducted out. Suddenly a man stepped out from a crowd of reporters and shot Oswald.

This second killing stirred memories of Middle East assassinations in which the killer promptly was killed to halt disclosure of the plot. I joined the pack that was chasing all leads about Jack Ruby’s background.

I could have been mistaken about the hole in the windshield. It could have been caused by the impact of one of Oswald’s three shots. And the Parkland Memorial Hospital surgeons eventually agreed, after the FBI showed them an autopsy report from Washington, that the hole in the president’s throat was an exit, not an entry wound.

Ten months later, the lengthy Warren Commission report concluded that both issues, the bullet hole in the windshield and the initial statements that the throat hole was an entry wound, were mere speculation.

It stated that the abrasion on the windshield came from impact on the inside of the glass, thus from the rear, from one of the bullets that struck the president. As for the throat wound, the commission reported that the doctors originally believed that it could have been either an entry or exit wound but made no examination to determine which.

I accept the Warren Commission’s conclusions on both issues, the windshield hole or blemish and the entry or exit wound in the throat. But skeptics continue to dwell on both matters, arguing that they both support the notion that one or more shots were fired from a position in front of the limousine. They contend that this throws into doubt the commission’s conclusion that Oswald, acting alone, fired the deadly shots from the sixth-floor window behind the limousine. This feeds the suspicion that there was a massive conspiracy and government coverup.

My own belief, despite my doubts in those stressful days in Dallas, is that the fanciful conspiracy suspected by most critics would have had to involve the knowledge and participation of the Secret Service, the CIA, the White House staff, and, least probable of all, the president’s own brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

The case should be closed, but it never will be. There are too many loose ends to be pursued. And, finally, a single weird nobody hardly seems adequate as the sole perpetrator of one of the most significant murders in American history. Some people will always keep looking for a more complex and satisfying solution.

Bangor Daily News videos and photos by Brian Feulner. Web production by Pattie Reaves. Interactive graphics by Eric Zelz.