She Does Have Something
By Rosemary James

From the New Orleans Times-Picayune, © July 11, 1999. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Times-Picayune.

False Witness by Patricia Lambert, is required reading for anyone seeking the facts about the events leading to and following the trial of businessman Clay Shaw, charged with conspiring to assassinate President John F. Kennedy. There have been other books on the subject, of course, some of them excellent, notably James Kirkwood's "American Grotesque," which, although an honest account, often is disregarded by scholars and conspiracy nuts alike because of Kirkwood's known friendship with Shaw.

Lambert is the first author who has addressed the subject without an axe to grind. And her straightforward recitation of the facts is flawless. With facts alone, she captures the essence of the events, the man engineering them, and the tragedy of the principal victim.

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An overwhelming sense of lunacy unleashed was the pervasive atmosphere in which the late Clay Shaw was wrongfully indicted and brought to trial in New Orleans by the late Jim Garrison, the district attorney some 30-years ago.

Shaw, a dignified and talented businessman who had made substantial contributions to the city of New Orleans in the realms of international trade, historic preservation and the arts, was selected by Garrison in Machiavellian fashion to be his scapegoat, a way to rekindle national media interest in his cockeyed conspiracy theories.

In 1967, I was a reporter for The New Orleans States-Item (later merged with The Times-Picayune). Along with journalists Dave Snyder and Jack Dempsey, I was assigned to check out the rumors that Garrison was investigating the Kennedy assassination. The story we subsequently published, after first documenting investigative expenses and questioning Garrison, was a rather dry account of a local district attorney's spending New Orleans taxpayers' money to investigate one of the most famous murders in American history, a case considered by most to be a matter of federal jurisdiction.

Regardless of any personal doubts we may have harbored about the conclusions of the Warren Commission, I doubt that any of the reporters and editors involved in this initial story ever thought Garrison's actions were other than just another bit of flimflamming by the DA, who had a habit of hogging the headlines.

When our story was published on Feb. 17, 1967, the national media showed up in force to question Garrison and he proclaimed for them that he, "beyond a shadow of a doubt," had solved the assassination case. They departed quickly after determining for themselves that the DA had not solved it — or even come close. At this point Garrison began grabbing at news straws, saying anything he thought might lure the national media back to New Orleans to stoke his megalomaniac desire for headlines. Garrison's news conferences were the stuff that jokes are made of; the assassination theories changed daily. One day it was 14 Cubans shooting from the storm drains of Dallas, the next it was H.L. Hunt and the other oil-rich Texas millionaires who did it. LBJ took his licks, as did former Attorney Gen. Ramsey Clark. The media began referring to each of Garrison's proclamations as The Theory du Jour.

Unfortunately, while Garrison's posturing was, indeed ridiculous, as a Louisiana District Attorney he had broad, almost limitless powers under Louisiana's Constitution, and many in a position to prevent an abuse of power were afraid of him. Members of the criminal justice system feared his ability to destroy their careers. He had already forcefully demonstrated his political prowess to the Criminal Courts bench.

These judges sued Garrison for libel when he called them a bunch of "sacred cows" in an argument over how court revenues would be spent. They lost in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Garrison's favor. Garrison paid back the offending judges by running candidates against many of them and defeating them. Those who remained knuckled under and let him have his way with Clay Shaw. The foreman of the grand jury that indicted Clay Shaw was a political crony of Garrison; other cronies from the business community formed a vigilante organization, Truth Or Consequences, which violated Shaw's civil rights by giving Garrison private funds to conduct his prosecution.

Garrison solved his jurisdiction problems by creating a theory that the assassination was the product of a conspiracy that originated in New Orleans with a group of New Orleans residents.

Most of his theories about this conspiracy he imagined made little sense once examined closely, and the theory that made the least sense of all was that Clay Shaw created and supervised a CIA-driven conspiracy to kill Kennedy. Shaw was an honorable man, a decorated war hero, a man of great intellectual refinement, and, politically, a strong Kennedy liberal.

Garrison's manufactured proof — specifically the made-up testimony of Perry Raymond Russo, an insurance salesman who said he saw Clay Shaw with Lee Harvey Oswald — is the basis for the title of Lambert's book. Russo was coached and hypnotized into lying under oath. Later, after Shaw's life — and his own — had been ruined by his dissembling, he admitted his crime.

The title, of course, also fits Garrison, a master of the big lie. Like many people suffering from mental illness, Garrison was highly intelligent, articulate, witty and frequently capable of great personal charm. His imposing size and gift for rabble-rousing gave him an edge in convincing people that he was onto something. People would say, "Why would he arrest a man like Clay Shaw? He must have something! How could he get an indictment? He must have something."

When reporters and others challenged Garrison about specific untruths of either commission or omission, he would threaten to haul them before the grand jury and indict them with obstruction of justice. Garrison used illegal wiretaps to gather information to use for coercion. He even tapped the phones of many of his political cronies to keep them in line.

With the pre-trial lies, the pro-Garrison handling of pre-trial and actions by judges involved, editorial silence by the management of most media, and pro-Garrison stories by some reporters in the local and national media, the public was justifiably confused when the trial opened. Many thinking people simply did not know what to think.

The trial itself — with its six weeks of shocking proof that Garrison, in fact, had only assorted nuts as witnesses, all discredited on the stand, and not a credible shred of physical evidence — ended the fence-sitting for most rational folks.

There remained, of course, conspiracy parasites and those who couldn't be bothered to listen to the facts, preferring to follow Garrison's lead blindly.

For a few days, however, most of the community was able to bask in the realization that the jury system had proven itself reliable with a quick deliberation about and acquittal of Shaw.

Then, Garrison astonished everyone by indicting Shaw for perjury. The defense team went to federal court and sued for an injunction. After what amounted to a second trial, this time before Judge Herbert Christenberry, a no-nonsense jurist with a strong prosecutorial background, Garrison was enjoined from further persecution of Shaw.

Shaw was ruined financially by the investigation and trial and he died of cancer before his civil suit against Garrison for wrongful prosecution could be concluded.

Still not content, Garrison sat down at his typewriter and concocted the biggest lie of all, his book, "On The Trail Of the Assassins," once again defaming Clay Shaw. To give the devil his due, the book was well written, a fast-moving, exciting piece of cold war spy genre fiction, and it produced a lot of money for the DA in book sales, and a movie contract.

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Oliver Stone, a gullible from La La Land if ever there was one, swallowed Garrison's tale, hook, line and sinker, and spent millions regurgitating it on film. With "JFK," Stone became another False Witness, distorting history and justifying his film on the basis of artistic license, giving Garrison the image of a God-fearing family man and caped crusader and using the same smear tactics as Garrison to destroy the image of an innocent man no longer able to defend himself.

This is merely a bare-bones outline of events. Lambert carries the reader from the beginnings of Garrison's investigation through the making of "JFK" and the opening of the federal assassination archives to the public, documenting her highly detailed account with thousands of pieces of paper in official records, countless personal interviews with knowledgable men and women during that sordid, seemingly never-ending saga.

False Witness is an admirable compilation, a reliable history, suitable for use in classroom teaching.

One can hope that future generations will get their history from unbiased, thoroughly documented accounts such as Lambert's instead of relying lazily on the fiction of movies. The depressing thing is that even if the book turns into a huge success, the vast majority of those who saw "JFK" will never read this book.

One must rely on the discernment and common sense of the American public, which, after all, produced Patricia Lambert. A free-lance writer, line editor and researcher, Lambert, like so many Americans, thought "He must have something," and was disillusioned in the wake of the trial. "I felt I had been conned," she said in a recent interview. "When Oliver Stone cranked up 'JFK,' I realized we were being conned yet again. I wanted to know just how Garrison was managing to do it one more time." Her book is the result of her determination to get some answers to that question.

Rosemary James is the owner of Rosemary James and Associates, Inc., a public relations firm, and director of the annual Words and Music Literary Festival.

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