In the following essay, Joel Grant asks whether there was any opportunity to snatch the body of the slain president from the coffin aboard Air Force One, as Lifton claims happened. Grant also examines Lifton's handling of evidence.
In order to follow the page numbers, let me note that I am using the paperback edition of: Lifton, David: Best Evidence: Disguise and Deception in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy, New York: Carroll & Graf, 1988.
Turn to chapter 31, "The 'When and Where' Problem Reconsidered". Lifton establishes that the coffin was placed on AF1, on the ground in Dallas, at 2:18. The plane took off at 2:47.
Was the coffin unattended for any period between 2:18 and 2:47? The answer depended upon the movements of four people - Jacqueline Kennedy, Godfrey McHugh, Kenneth O'Donnell, and Larry O'Brien. Only these four mattered because Manchester's account made plain that, upon entering the airplane, everybody else went to the staff cabin, forward of the stateroom. (p. 677)The footnote here refers us to pp. 309-310 of the William Manchester's book The Death of a President: November 1963. Does Manchester's account in fact "make plain" that only these four people mattered and that these four people were in fact continuously absent from the area of the coffin?
Before we find out what Manchester actually wrote, as opposed to how Lifton interpreted what he wrote, let's move ahead a little in Lifton's account. Lifton, on the same page (677), after tracking McHugh's movements concludes:
The critical period was 2:18 to 2:32. [Lifton had determined that Godfrey McHugh was back by the coffin during and just prior to the swearing-in of LBJ] It appeared, from the public record, that the coffin was then unattended. Godfrey McHugh was in the forward part of the aircraft. Jacqueline Kennedy was in her bedroom. After entering the plane, she was escorted there by Ladybird Johnson, and the Johnsons then stayed with her and expressed their condolences. Manchester, based on his interview with Jacqueline, wrote that Johnson told her the judge wouldn't arrive for an hour.Now let's turn to Lifton's principal source, the source he cites in his text. The edition I am using is: Manchester, William: The Death of a President: November 1963, New York: Harper & Row, 1967. Lest the page numbers in your copy differ greatly from mine, I am referring to Chapter Five, "Go, Stranger." Let's take it step-by-step.
The result was that when they left, she stayed in the room. Kenneth O'Donnell and Larry O'Brien were called to the stateroom by Johnson.
1. Lifton says the question of whether or not the coffin was unattended depended upon the movements of Jackie, McHugh, O'Donnell, and O'Brien. He is citing, recall, pp. 309-310 of Manchester. Turning to those pages, it is easy to see that Lifton's interpretation of what Manchester wrote is seriously flawed. In these pages Manchester describes the difficulties attendant to getting the coffin into the plane. There were a bunch of men trying to "manhandle" the coffin up the stairs and into the back of the plane, where a partition and four seats had been removed to make room.
High Treason, p. 35.
Naming some names of the coffin-bearers we find: Chester "Ted" Clifton, Godfrey McHugh, Dave Powers, Ken O'Donnell, Roy Kellerman, Joe Ayres, Col. James Swindal. Jackie and her secretaries and lots of other people were watching. As they enter the plane, some of the people, including Jackie's secretaries, went forward in the airplane. What about the others? What about the Secret Service Agent standing there guarding the ramp up which the coffin had been laboriously hauled. (Special Agent Henry J. Rybka; see 25H787) What was he doing? Did he notice anyone a few feet away, on the other side of the plane, pull up another ramp, go in, go out with a large ... something ...? We don't know; Mr. Lifton hasn't investigated this aspect closely enough. What about Dave Powers? It might seem reasonable to assume that he went with O'Donnell and O'Brien; but did he? Manchester's account doesn't tell us, but had Mr. Lifton merely bothered to ask, Powers would have told him in emphatic terms that he did not (see sidebar at right).
But let's look at the four who mattered.
a. McHugh: Lifton correctly points out that McHugh went forward almost immediately. Lifton leaves out, however, the part about McHugh running back and forth through the entire length of the plane no fewer than five times:
He [Swindal, the pilot] had justified his delay to everyone except Godfrey McHugh. There is something marvelous about the General's continuing ignorance. By his own account he made five journeys through the length of the aircraft before he found out why they weren't moving. (Manchester, p. 314.)
Remember, these five trips took place during a fourteen minute period (2:18 - 2:32) Just how fast and how lucky were the coffin-robbers?
McHugh is caught in flight, illustrating the point:
"It doesn't matter what anybody says. Move." McHugh commanded. He was a general, Swindal a colonel. He returned aft assuming that he would be obeyed." (Manchester, p. 312)and
"This time we're going," McHugh promised grimly. He could replace Swindal and fly the plane himself if he had to. In the corridor outside the bedroom he hesitated." (Manchester, p. 313)Let us pause here to note that the corridor outside the bedroom is only a few feet from, and in plain sight of the coffin, as we can see from Lifton's diagram on p. 676.
You get the idea. Lifton says that, between 2:18 and 2:32 "Godfrey McHugh was in the forward part of the aircraft." But this isn't true, according to the source Mr. Lifton is using. What is true about General McHugh is that, five times, he ran from the front of the airplane to the back of the airplane, in a complete dither, trying to get the plane to take off. He absolutely was not "in the forward part of the aircraft" between 2:18 and 2:32.
b. Jackie: Lifton also correctly points out that Jackie went to the bedroom almost directly after entering the plane. He leaves out the fact that she immediately went back to the coffin: As Jackie entered the Presidential bedroom she encountered LBJ and one of his secretaries. Surprised by this development: "Mrs. Kennedy returned to the tail cabin." (Manchester, p. 310)
(Note that Manchester refers to the part of the plane where the coffin rested as "the tail cabin" because this is important later.)
Later, Jackie returned to the bedroom; but Lifton leaves a false impression, by omitting the fact that, after first going to the bedroom, Jackie then returned to the rear of the plane, where the coffin was.
How long did she stay there? Long enough for the following vignette to occur:
"Johnson's bags had just been delivered from the backup plane. Mrs. Kennedy had resumed her seat across from the coffin, and the new President, who had been inquiring of Kilduff whether there were any photographers present, entered the bedroom's powder room to change his shirt and comb his hair." (Manchester, p. 313)
Remember, above, where Lifton wrote:
"After entering the plane, she was escorted there by Ladybird Johnson, and the Johnsons then stayed with her and expressed their condolences. Manchester, based on his interview with Jacqueline, wrote that Johnson told here the judge wouldn't arrive for an hour. The result was that when they left, she stayed in the room. Kenneth O'Donnell and Larry O'Brien were called to the stateroom by Johnson."
Mr. Lifton's footnote here refers us to p. 317 of Manchester. Page 317 of Manchester's book simply says no such thing. The passage actually begins on p. 316:
"After the new President had changed his shirt and combed his hair, Joe Ayres [yet another person who was close enough to see the coffin, but who doesn't matter, according to Lifton] laid out some blue Air Force One towels for Jacqueline Kennedy. She thanked him and entered the bedroom, and Johnsons came in to offer their condolences."
Not only does p. 317 not say what Lifton say it says, but when we turn to p. 316, the page in which LBJ, Ladybird, and Jacqueline finally meet in the bedroom, we see that Jackie was already in the room. Ladybird didn't take her there. And this didn't happen right after Jackie boarded the plane. A whole bunch of other stuff had already happened. (see above and below for more detail on this)
Let us also note that at the conclusion of the conversation, LBJ and Ladybird left the bedroom, placing them in the corridor right by the coffin.
So here is another one of the four who mattered who wasn't away from the area of the coffin for the time period Lifton says his source said she was away from the coffin, according to the source.
c. Ken O'Donnell: O'Donnell went forward after boarding, all right. But at some point he went back to the tail cabin, where the coffin was: "The cabin in the tail grew more humid. Jacqueline Kennedy said: "It's so hot. Let's leave." "Didn't you tell them?" Ken asked McHugh. "Yes, but Mac Kilduff told them something else. I'll go up again." (Manchester, p. 313)
Mr. Lifton tells us O'Donnell went forward, which is true. He doesn't tell us he went back. For how long? We can't say for sure. But we can surely say that he wasn't absent from the area between 2:18 and 2:32.
d. Larry O'Brien - not enough info on O'Brien, so let's assume he went forward and stayed there. Except...
e. Secret Service Agent Jerry Kivett, with whose report Mr. Lifton takes greats liberties. Lifton quotes (correctly) from Kivett's report, the relevant part [the AF1 part] of which is found in 18H780-781:
"The Vice-President and Mrs. Johnson attempted to console Mrs. Kennedy in the State Room where she was. It was cleared of all personnel [with the] exception of Vice-President, Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Kennedy , ASAIC Youngblood, and a member or two of the White House staff, exactly who I cannot recall." (BE, 678) Skipping ahead, Mr. Lifton guesses (probably correctly) that "... the "member or two of the White House staff" referred to O'Donnell and O'Brien." (BE, 678) But if you look (again) at Lifton's diagram of the plane on p. 676, it is clear that for O'Brien and O'Donnell to have gone into the "state room" (we shall see that Kivett clearly means the bedroom) they would have to pass within a few feet and, yes, once again, in plain sight of the coffin.
None of the four who mattered were absent from the area continuously between 2:18 through 2:32. At least, according to Mr. Lifton's source, that is. And let's look a little more closely at what Lifton does to Kivett's report.
When I first read Kivett's sentence, I didn't understand it. Ladybird and Lyndon Johnson visited Mrs. Kennedy in the bedroom, not the stateroom. There seemed to have been no reason for the bedroom to be "cleared of all personnel." Only Mrs. Kennedy was there in the first place.In fact, the only surprising thing here is that Lifton was surprised when he first read this sentence, assuming he had read what Kivett had written only a few sentences before the surprising one:
If, however, Kivett was forward of the stateroom door, in the rear part of the Press and Staff cabin, under instructions to let no one pass, the sentence might make sense. It might mean that during the period when the Johnsons were visiting Mrs. Kennedy in the bedroom, the rear part of the plane - from the forward stateroom back - was "cleared of all personnel." In ignorance of their actual location, Kivett might well have written that the Johnsons were extending their condolences to Mrs. Kennedy "in the State Room where she was."
"At first, the Vice President was put in the State Room, i.e. where the beds were; however he said this was in bad taste and he moved up to the sitting room, i.e. where the table and television set are located." (18H780)Kivett wasn't confused about where they were; Lifton was confused by what Kivett was saying. Not surprising, since Kivett uses the words 'state room' interchangably between the "sitting room" and the bedroom. But when Kivett refers to "the State Room where she was" there is no confusion at all. We know exactly what he is talking about.
Assuming, incorrectly, that Kivett was confused, Lifton goes on to speculate all over the place about how maybe Kivett was "under instructions to let no one pass." There is nothing in Kivett's report to indicate that he was doing any such thing or that, if he were, he would not have mentioned this in his report. There is plenty of evidence to demonstrate that quite a few people were milling about near the coffin during the period when Lifton tells us it was unguarded.
In short, we have a clear case of Lifton's source telling one story, and Lifton telling us the source told another. With each person, even the four who mattered, coming and going at various times, the window of opportunity for ghoulish body-theft gets narrower and narrower.
About two years after B.E. was published, I in fact realized there was a much more significant moment in time for getting the body out of the coffin, and that was the brief period when the coffin was already aboard the plane, and the entire Kennedy party was down on the tarmac. And today, that is when I think that event actually occurred. How they got the body off the plane is another matter.
In the intervening years I (and an associate) have interviewed a number of people connected with this affair, and today I believe the body was transfered to another aircraft, probably Air Force Two.
In any event, one cannot use the Manchester text to either "prove it" or to "disprove it."So Lifton, after researching the case for 15 years, writes a 747 page best-selling book claiming that the body must have been snatched between 2:18 to 2:32. The book relies heavily on Manchester. But then Grant actually checks out what Manchester says, and finds it impossible that anybody snatched the body during that period. Lifton simply replies, in effect, "it wasn't really then, it was earlier."