David Talbot, whose book “Brothers” remains an authoritative analysis of the Kennedy brothers assassinations, recently wrote that although 65 percent of Americans are convinced that JKF’s death was some sort of conspiracy likely involving our own government, major elements of the press still accept the Warren Commission’s conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin.
Talbot traces the indifference of the press back to the original Warren Commission in the 1960s. Its findings were not only accepted but praised by important newspapers. The bylines were people who had barely glanced at the 26 volumes and, in some cases hadn’t read them at all. The handful of people who actually read them quickly began exposing the obvious strained explanations for a lone assassin. Those people were branded kooky conspiracy nuts, but over the years dozens of researchers have reinforced their doubts and gradually convinced the public that we never got the truth of both Kennedy murders.
We saw the press failures up close from the beginning. Extensively briefed by Vince Salandria, a Philadelphia lawyer who had actually read the report, Philadelphia Magazine’s Gaeton Fonzi confronted Arlen Specter, the man who invented the “magic bullet” theory. Specter, who had been basking in the praise for his work, did not expect Fonzi to be so prepared, and he made a fool of himself trying to explain what could not be explained.
This was dramatic stuff but was totally ignored by the Philadelphia media. It was, however, not ignored by Richard Schweiker, who 10 years later was a U.S. Senator, and hired Fonzi as an investigator for the House Select Committee on Assassinations. Fonzi, who by then was a partner in our Gold Coast Magazine, did a great job, finding a contact between Oswald and a highly placed CIA man who headed anti-Castro efforts in Florida.
His committee head was reluctant to accept his findings, although most of the staff agreed with Fonzi, and its final report said there was a conspiracy behind JFK’s death, but only added to the intrigue by not naming the conspirators. A disappointed Fonzi wrote a book which did name names, and a lot more, some of them CIA operatives. “The Last Investigation” ran in Gold Coast Magazine and The Washingtonian, a well-read and influential publication in the nation’s capital. Amazingly, it too was ignored by Washington media, and not until Fonzi turned it into a book did it attract national interest. Today, it has joined David Talbot’s books as one of the most trusted works on the subject.
We bring this up in connection with a fresh series, “Four Died Trying” which debuted Nov. 22 on the 60th anniversary of JFK’s death. Subsequent installments (more than 20) will be one of the most intensive efforts to uncover the truth. It has been more than seven years in the making. According to director John Kirby, it will include the media’s sorry role over the years. “We address it in the prologue,” says Kirby, and we do it again and again and again.”
It will take a good many agains to make up for the media’s dismal performance over the years.
Recent Robert Kennedy Jr. inspired Assassination coverage has included a piece of trivia ridiculously overblown by uninformed writers as some kind of dramatic breakthrough in the 60-year-old case. We refer to the long pieces about an aging former Secret Service agent admitting he found the bullet in the limousine in which JFK was killed. He placed the bullet, which appeared to be pristine, on the stretcher that bore Governor John Connally’s wounded body into the Parkland Hospital where JFK was pronounced dead.
First of all, the bullet on the stretcher was known to be strange. It did not appear to have been fired. And it was obvious from the beginning that somebody put it there. Now we know the explanation for that piece of trivia. And trivia it is because it does not destroy the credibility of the Warren Commission Report. That credibility was already destroyed not long after it was published in 1965, two years after the assassination.
I wrote about the challenges to the commission, which found that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, when I was still a newspaper columnist in 1965. Later at Philadelphia Magazine, I watched over his shoulder as Gaeton Fonzi wrote that Arlen Specter, later a U.S. Senator, stumbled all over himself trying to explain his own “magic bullet theory” that was necessary to show Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. The Warren Commission had given Specter the impossible job of showing how Oswald could have acted alone.
By the 1970s, the Warren Commission was discredited and the CIA had become suspect in rigging it. It had been learned that Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren was just a figurehead; he had little to do with the actual report. And several of the Commission’s members-only signed the final report under pressure. They did not believe it. Further, the man who controlled the commission behind the scenes was Allen Dulles who had been head of the CIA and had been fired by JFK after the Cuban Bay of Pigs disaster. Kennedy believed the CIA knew it would be a failed invasion, and was trying to force him to involve American troops, which he refused. It appeared that Dulles continued to strongly influence the CIA even after he left. And Kennedy privately vowed to destroy the entire spy apparatus. Ironically, his death was an example of Kennedy’s concern that the CIA was a government unto itself.
It was also learned that the Warren Commission’s charge was not to determine who committed the crime, but to show how Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Evidence grew that the fatal shots had come not from Oswald’s alleged perch in a building behind Kennedy, but from much closer on the grassy knoll in front of the car. The numerous witnesses to that had been ignored by the Warren Commission.
By the early 1970s, doubts about the lone assassin conclusion were so widespread that a new congressional look was opened by the Church Committee, headed by Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker. Schweiker, recalling Gaeton Fonzi’s work at Philadelphia Magazine, hired him as an investigator working in South Florida, seeking connections between Oswald and the CIA through anti-Castro groups. Schweiker described Oswald as “having the fingerprints of intelligence all over him.”
Schweiker was no longer involved, but he likely had a hand in picking its first director, Richard Sprague, a brilliant Philadelphia prosecutor. But Sprague was quickly forced out by conservatives on the committee when he refused to sign a secrecy agreement with the CIA. His replacement trusted the CIA, which he later regretted. He wanted to pin blame on organized crime and wasted a lot of Fonzi’s time to prove it. He questioned Fonzi’s findings that a credible anti-Castro leader saw Oswald with a top CIA man in Dallas shortly before the assassination. He also downplayed Fonzi’s assertion that known CIA operatives (Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis foremost among them) wasted his time with tantalizing tips that turned out to be bogus. Those distractions further convinced Fonzi that the CIA was involved in both the assassination and the elaborate cover-up.
The committee’s final report, much of which Fonzi wrote, did say the assassination was a conspiracy, negating the Warren Commission’s lone assassin claim. However, it did not name the conspirators or even mention Fonzi’s dramatic discovery of the CIA connection to Oswald. Fonzi (and other investigators) were greatly disappointed that years of work were being wasted. Fonzi decided to write what amounted to a dissenting opinion. It identified the CIA man seen with Oswald as David Atlee Phillips, chief of the CIA’s Western Hemisphere Operations. Fonzi’s “The Last Investigation” originally ran in a three-part series in our Gold Coast Magazine and The Washingtonian, where it resulted in a suit by Phillips against that magazine. The magazine won a costly case.
Gaeton Fonzi discovered a connection between Lee Harvey Oswald and this high-ranking CIA man, David Atlee Phillips, shortly before the assassination.
Fonzi on his own spent the next decade furthering his investigation, and in 1993 published a book that is still in print. Upon his death in 2012, it was cited by the New York Times as one of the best books on the assassination.
The recent pieces about the stretcher bullet did not mention the 1970s Congressional investigation which discredited the Warren Commission and made the bullet merely an irrelevant piece of trivia. So much for the state of coverage of one of the most important stories of our time.
Just as this rant was being completed there came news that a long-anticipated documentary was ready for viewing. It will appear on November 22 - the 60th anniversary of the JFK assassination. "Four Died Trying" is a reappraisal of the murders of JFK, his brother Robert, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X. If that seems an odd coupling, the common thread is the assertion that all four of these crimes in the 1960s bore the fingerprints of the CIA or other government-related groups. Our interest, of course, is primarily the Kennedys. The prologue will be the first of what will be more than 20 installments.
The prologue does a beautiful job of explaining the motivation for the murder of what most people regarded as a popular young president. With the CIA, he was anything but - a traitor who was a threat to national security and to the existence of the CIA itself. It includes some rare film, including a young Congressman Kennedy, after a 1951 visit to what was then French Indochina, explaining that the French could not preserve their colony in the face of the Vietnamese desire for independence. This was a decade before our entrance into Vietnam. It supports claims that President Kennedy wanted to pull out of Vietnam as soon as he could safely do it politically - one of the reasons he was killed.
The team of Libby Handros (producer) and John Kirby (director) has been working on this project for seven and a half years. They interviewed more than 120 people. The producers met with me six years ago, discussing my late partner Gaeton Fonzi' s landmark work. I will likely show up in a future installment devoted to Fonzi's role.
This series should be a must-viewing for anyone wanting to pierce the fog of contradictory reporting on great events of the 1960s. The initial presentation will be streamed on Apple TV, but will then be available various platforms. Kirby says a promotional campaign reaching millions of people through social media will soon be underway. Can’t wait.
The inclination to rewrite history has resulted in the questionable, and to history buffs offensive, removal of names and monuments of important figures in our history. Men considered patriots in their times are now branded traitors, and as such are being expelled from history. The lengths to which this movement has taken are illustrated by a recent essay by James Webb, decorated Vietnam Marine and former Secretary of the Navy. Webb writes in the Wall Street Journal of the proposal to remove the monument to Confederate dead at Arlington National Cemetery, which falls under a provision tacked on to a 2121 defense bill that authorized all the statue removals and military base name changes we have seen recently. He points out that this is no ordinary monument, erected by Southerners to keep alive the memory of their state heroes and, to critics, preserve the spirit of rebellion.
The Confederate memorial is an impressive sculpture, but some of the figures today are perceived as racist.
Quite to the contrary, this memorial was originally proposed by a U.S. president to bring the states together after the bitterness and failed reconstruction following the Civil War. President William McKinley picked both southern and northern commanders to lead our troops in Cuba in the Spanish-American war in 1898. These were men who had fought against each other in the Civil War, and McKinley wanted to take advantage of the new unity by expanding it to honor war dead from the South in a Confederate memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
McKinley had been in the war himself with a regiment from Ohio, and like Abraham Lincoln, he bore no animosity toward the average southern fighting man in that terrible conflict. They were simply fighting for their homeland. It is often forgotten that prior to the Civil War, there was an ongoing debate about state vs. federal government primacy. Patriotism could apply to one’s state as well as a national government.
McKinley was assassinated before the memorial actually appeared more than a decade later, and he might not have been thrilled by some elements on it which did little to produce the harmony he envisioned. The principal objection to the memorial is that several figures on it depict blacks as docilely serving their white masters, preserving the concept of “the lost cause.”
A website for the cemetery puts it well: “The elaborately designed monument offers a nostalgic, mythologized vision of the Confederacy, including highly sanitized depictions of slavery.” That is not quite what President McKinley wanted, although he probably was not thinking of slavery, but rather curing the bitterness which still existed between the states.
It is true that the “lost cause” concept was still current at the time, and it still is if you consider a film such as “Gone With The Wind” which depicts blacks in a contented subservient role. But should that classic film be banned too? The fact is that it is part of history.
James Webb was raised in a military family and writes: “The larger and ultimate question reaches further into America’s atrophied understanding of the Civil War itself. What was it that Union Army veteran McKinley understood about the Confederate soldiers who opposed his infantry units on the battlefield that eludes today’s monument smashers and ad hominem destroyers of historical reputations?”
The rationale for historic revisionists, largely left-wingers, is that the Civil War was a black mark on American history, and those who started it should not be honored or even remembered. In effect, change history. By that thinking, why do we still teach about slavery, the economic/political cause of that war? It is also a black mark on our record, and should we not simply pretend it never existed? Right-wingers arise.
That has already happened in Florida where Governor Ron DeSantis wants slavery and its after-effects played down in public schools, except to note that slavery advanced some blacks, giving them skills such as blacksmiths. That’s the reason the country overflows with people who are great blacksmiths. Now we just need some horses to keep them busy.
Where is William McKinley when we need him?
We often read of neighborhood efforts to save historic buildings and landmark trees from development. Builders buy property in historic tree-shaded neighborhoods, then demolish old homes and cut down those hundred-year-old trees – the very thing that attracts them in the first place – to build huge houses out of character with their rustic surroundings. Community associations often object, but their efforts usually prove futile, “Growth over preservation” seems to be the mantra that too often guides the decisions of government officials.
Fort Lauderdale has seen more than its share of these decisions in recent years. Few of the structures built by pioneers have escaped the sprawl of development. But fortunately not all. And by far the most noteworthy is the city’s first residential house, which figured in almost every aspect of the city’s formation. It has been preserved by history-conscious citizens. Anyone familiar with Fort Lauderdale history knows we refer to the Stranahan House.
The Stranahan House is now literally a museum, supported by its own foundation. Like colonial-era buildings saved in old northern cities, it has become a tourist attraction, continuously memorializing the extraordinary family who first saw the potential of a vibrant city along the banks of the New River.
Frank Stranahan did many significant things in his life, not the least of which was marrying a young school teacher named Julia Ivy Cromartie. She arrived in Fort Lauderdale at age 18 in 1899 from Lemon City, today’s Miami. Frank had arrived six years earlier from Melbourne, Florida where he gained experience in government. He was the first pioneer to establish roots in the area, setting up a trading post and tourist camp on the New River. He ran a ferry and was involved in a stagecoach route to Miami until the railroad came through. He expanded into a general store and even a bank and post office on the site. He later moved his businesses and turned the building into his residence.
Joined by his new wife, he had a hand in virtually every aspect of the city’s development – transportation, education, medicine, urban planning, banking, and establishing cordial relations with the Seminole tribe. You name it and the Stranahans were involved either as founders or facilitators. Ivy Stranahan was a woman before her time, a conspicuous champion of the underdog. Her work included helping establish the first black high school and hospital. The Stranahans even brought baseball to town and built the first football field at a school.
Frank Stranahan achieved all this while in chronic ill health. He died in 1929, but Ivy continued his dedication to the growing community for the rest of her life. She lived to be 90, by which time their residence had achieved recognition as a community treasure. She lived long enough to see the beginnings of its historical recognition. In 1962 the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, under the leadership of lawyer/banker George English, formed the Stranahan Foundation which evolved into the Stranahan House, Inc., a non-profit entity. The Historical Society had purchased the property in 1975 and with the aid of the Board of Realtors, by 1984 had restored the house to its 1915 appearance we see today.
That view is best from across the river in an unobstructed park-like setting in Rio Vista, the same sight that the pioneer boat visitors first saw 124 years ago.
Maintaining the museum is a work of love for a number of volunteers, but it also takes money. Its current board, with Jennifer Belt as executive director and Matthew McAloon its incoming president, works to keep the historic appearance amid all the high-rise buildings that have risen in recent years. It even spends money on an arborist to preserve a large oak tree that shows in the oldest photographs of the property. Staff member Greg Musser has researched the tree and figures it is over 130 years old. It has also been discovered that both Stranahans were nature lovers who valued trees and sought to preserve them.
The organization has received grants from community groups over the years and is currently organizing a capital campaign. Among its efforts is an application to the state for a $500,000 grant.
The board has coined a slogan to define its spirit. Board member Steve Buckley expresses it: “It’s hard to fathom all the things the Stranahans were involved in in the early days. We like to say they paid forward, and now we’re paying back.”
The presidential candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is hard to read, given the division within his own family, but one positive effect is already apparent. He is calling attention to the CIA’s role in the assassination of his uncle, President John F. Kennedy. It may lead to something rare in today's climate: The truth.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Kennedy gives confirmation of what this writer and most of those who have followed this crime since it happened in the 1960s have long believed. There is no doubt that the CIA was involved in both the execution and the decades-long cover-up. And that may be the principal reason we have never seen all the documents locked away in government vaults. Successive administrations, even after they promise to release information, apparently decide the truth is too damaging to our intelligence community to admit. And while it delays, most of those prominent in researching that historic murder have died, along with those who actually authorized or committed the crime.
As a bit player from the first challenges to the Warren Report in the 1960s, we have intense interest in anything a Kennedy says about the assassination. At the time of JFK’s murder, the Kennedys were notably quiet. Both Robert and Ted Kennedy issued identical statements about the Warren Commission report which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin. Both said they had not read the report but had no reason to question its conclusion.
We have since learned that the brothers knew more than they said at the time. Within days of JFK’s murder, Bobby Kennedy through private channels got word to the Soviet Union’s Nikita Krushchev that he knew the Soviets were not involved – that this was a domestic murder. And RFK quietly followed events relating to his brother’s death – such as the highly publicized work of New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, who uncovered suspicious individuals linked to the CIA but ultimately resulted in the acquittal of the man he accused of being part of a plot.
There aren’t many people left who were close to the original assassination doubters. We became one accidentally shortly after the Warren Commission Report in 1965. Our colleague at Philadelphia Magazine, Gaeton Fonzi, was contacted by a Philadelphia school board lawyer named Vincent Salandria who was one of the few people who had actually read the 26 volumes of the report.
Vincent Salandria, left, advised Gaeton Fonzi on his mission to get to JFK truth.
We sat in on Fonzi's first meeting with Salandria. A gaunt, unnervingly intense man, he pointed out the glaring inconsistencies in the Warren report regarding the wounds to JFK. He showed how “the single bullet theory” that had been conceived by Philadelphia attorney Arlen Specter, later a U.S. Senator, was impossible. The whole Warren Commission Report hinged on that element.
After presenting his compelling case, Salandria said, “Don’t you see it, boys, don’t you see it? There’s only one outfit who could have pulled this off.”
He meant, of course, the CIA. Fonzi was doubtful about going that far – until he interviewed Arlen Specter – and was shocked that he could not explain his own single bullet theory. Fonzi wrote as much in Philadelphia magazine and followed up with other articles. Fonzi’s Philadelphia work caught the attention of Richard Schweiker, who later as a U.S. Senator was a key figure in reopening the investigation of JFK’s death in the mid-1970s. Schweker hired Fonzi to look into CIA/anti-Castro activity in South Florida. He was convinced that Oswald was more than a lone gunman, saying he “had the fingerprints of intelligence all over him.”
Fonzi by this time was a partner in our Florida Gold Coast Magazine. He took the assignment confident that the assassination would be solved, especially when Richard Sprague, a brilliant and hard-nosed Philadelphia prosecutor, was selected to head the investigative committee. But Sprague quickly ran into trouble when he refused to sign a secrecy agreement with the CIA. He was in fact investigating its connections to Oswald. Right-wing politicians ganged up and forced Sprague to resign. To Fonzi, that was further proof that the CIA had something to hide.
He had already fulfilled Schweiker’s hunch that South Florida might be fertile ground. A prominent Miami anti-Castro leader, Antonio Vecianna, not knowing Fonzi was on the JFK case, casually told him he had seen Oswald in the company of his own CIA handler in Dallas not long before the assassination. Fonzi was stunned and pushed hard to discover that the CIA man, who used the alias Maurice Bishop, was actually David Atlee Phillips, a high-ranking CIA officer who was coordinating people involved in anti-Castro plots.
Despite the importance of his CIA discovery, Fonzi was ordered to spend time checking out possible Mafia involvement, which he could never establish. CIA operatives, notably Frank Sturgis of Watergate fame, made a game of sending him on time-consuming wild goose chases with tantalizing but bogus information that eventually led to CIA tricksters. Fonzi often worked out of our Gold Coast office so we followed his every step over several years.
He was disappointed in the committee’s final report, which he helped write. It did say JFK’s death was a conspiracy but was vague about the nature of the conspiracy. He decided to write a dissenting opinion. “The Last Investigation” first appeared in three installments in Gold Coast Magazine and a cover story in Washingtonian magazine. It detailed his findings about the CIA, including its motive. It represented a deep state that hated Kennedy, considering him a traitor who wanted to lessen tensions with the Soviets and wanted us out of Vietnam. These articles resulted in a lawsuit against the Washingtonian, which it won, but received little press at the time. However, the book has gone through several printings, and the New York Times has called it one of the best books on the assassination.
Fonzi’s work has influenced other researchers over the years. Mentioning all their revelations is too long and complex to appear here, but several government agencies were clearly involved. For starters, the disgraceful Warren Commission was never run by Chief Justice Earl Warren. It was controlled by Allen Dulles, the ex-CIA chief who had been fired by JFK after the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The very man who should have been investigated ran the investigation. He was helped by the FBI, under J. Edgar Hoover, no fan of the Kennedys, whose bureau withheld important information from the Warren Commission, including CIA connections regarding Jack Ruby, the man who murdered Oswald. And even the Secret Service was negligent in taking usual precautions for protecting the president and seemed a partner in the subsequent cover-up. Talk about a wide conspiracy. As Vince Salandria said in 1965, “There’s only one outfit that could have pulled this off.”
There aren’t many of us still around who had early exposure to the important critics of the JFK assassination. Just about all the people mentioned in this essay are gone. But we assume that Robert Kennedy is familiar with all these details and a lot more. Through necessity, the torch has been passed to a new generation. And Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is not a bad torch bearer.
The new civil war, that is the war to revise American history regarding slavery and the Civil War, has defined extremism on both sides. Florida Republicans want to remove the idea of slavery, and its aftermath, from our school curriculum. At the same time, leftists are steadily removing the idea of the Confederacy from the American consciousness by taking down statues and other reminders that it ever existed.
But until recently, the latter movement has only offended those who understand the Civil War in the context of the time it was fought. Lately, however, it has become personal. They have been changing the names of streets and places named after men once considered Southern heroes. These moves have not forced us to change our address or anything else. Now, however, our personal history is under attack.
Among the names of military posts recently changed from the Confederates for whom they were named, is a place where we spent one of the more memorable months of our youth learning the art of jumping out of airplanes. It was, at the time called Fort Benning, named after a Confederate general who isn’t remembered for much else.
The name was deeply rooted in history. It was at Fort Benning, an army infantry post, that our airborne force was begun in 1940. Over the years, thousands of paratroopers trained here. It just doesn’t seem right, or consistent with history, to say you trained at Fort Moore. That is the new name for Benning. It is named after a military couple, a Vietnam-era general, and his wife, an elite army mother.
The reason for the change of military bases is to dishonor men who once were honored – in a sense to deny the reality of the Civil War on the grounds that the men fought to preserve slavery. That itself is a distortion of history. Slavery was the economic factor which divided the states, but the average Confederate general, and almost all the grunts, fought for their states, their neighborhoods. Robert E. Lee is a prime example. The same for the north. Ordinary soldiers, including two of our great-grandmother’s brothers, died not to abolish slavery, but to preserve the Union and establish their worth as Irish Immigrants. The South thought states’ rights trumped the national government. And, as we see, states still often feel that way.
Back on topic. Some of the men, for whom military posts were named, were not deserving. Braxton Bragg, for instance, was hardly one of the Confederacy’s more successful generals. It would not bother us to see a better leader honored. But Fort Liberty? That’s the new name for Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Pre-war army buddy of Grant, General James Longstreet.
If the name changers wanted to be politically correct, they might have chosen to name Fort Benning after a different and far more noteworthy Georgian. James Longstreet was one of the most able Southern generals. He was second in command to Lee and advised Lee against the disastrous Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg. He also was one of the first men to recognize the reality of firepower by entrenching his infantry. Moreover, Longstreet was a friend of Ulysses Grant, and did what he could to help Grant’s efforts to reunite the bitter country after the war. For that, he was resented in the South. It is no coincidence that he was ignored when it came to honoring Southern leaders. That alone should make him acceptable to those who wish to change history. For those who preserve the reality of slavery and the Civil War, he is a man worthy of honor. And it would not bother us to have done a little jumping in his name.
“Hello, this is Fox News calling with a new service – Make the Press. Fox News management and star broadcasters have admitted that we tell our viewers what they want to hear, regardless whether it is true or not. We don’t want to offend our viewers by telling them what they don’t want to hear. So what news would you like to hear tonight?”
Viewer: That’s really thoughtful. Do you ask all your millions of viewers to participate?
“No, just the most stup – I mean the most faithful; People like you. It’s a very exclusive honor.”
Viewer: “Well, I’m flattered. Do you have any ideas that I should suggest?”
“No, that’s up to your own dumb – I mean your astute preferences about what most turns you on and keeps you watching Fox.”
Viewer: “Well I love anything that makes Donald Trump look good. And Biden bad. Like him and his son being Chinese pedophiles.”
“Do you want news on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas?”
“Never heard of him.”
“Oh, I forgot. You watch us exclusively, and we don’t give such stories much play. We don’t want to disrespect the good people who watch us by telling woke stuff. That’s why we aren’t saying much about our multi-million settlement of the Domin - oops, I’m not supposed to mention that. Please redact that comment.”
“What does redact mean?”
Okay, Fox has not gotten this creative yet, but most observers think it will go right on, paying the settlement as a business cost, and continue, at best, distorting every political story, and at worst, lying so blatantly that it contributed to the Jan. 6 attack on the nation’s capital.
Over the last 60-plus years, we have known a lot of journalists, from small-town newspaper reporters and editors to nationally known magazine writers, and we doubt if a single one of these pros has any respect for Fox News – at least the opinion broadcasters who attract most of their following. We consider them a disgrace to our profession.
Our distaste for these scoundrels may be greater than most – for good reason. This writer is among the declining few who saw Fox develop from a germ in one man’s mind and got to know one of its future stars long before he reached that role.
In 1969, Joe McGinniss, based in Philadelphia, wrote “The Selling of the President – 1968.” It was a number-one bestseller that introduced the world to Roger Ailes. Ailes was the young producer of the popular Mike Douglas Show, then broadcast out of KYW in Philadelphia. Ailes met former President Richard Nixon when he was a guest on the show and so impressed him with the power of TV in political campaigns that he hired Ailes to help manage his 1968 presidential campaign against Hubert Humphrey. McGinniss, who was just in his early 20s, in a bold move, quit his juicy job as the featured columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. An ad man told him the campaign would reinvent Nixon, and McGinniss thought that would make a highly readable book. He gave up his column to follow the campaign.
Roger Ailes in 1970s
Was he ever right, and Roger Ailes was the reason. He gave McGinniss, who conned him somewhat into thinking he was an unbiased observer, an extraordinarily intimate look at political manipulation. He openly shared his technique of exposing Nixon only to favorable press who asked programmed softball questions. Behind the scenes, he hilariously ridiculed his own candidate. It was a cynical performance, and McGinniss chronicled it all. Ailes was stunned by the exposure of his own candor, but his sense of betrayal was balanced by the fact that he looked like a media genius when Nixon won. He and McGinniss became friends.
Not long after the book appeared, we interviewed Ailes for Philadelphia magazine. It was not a long meeting, less than an hour in Ailes’ small office at KYW. But in that short time, Ailes defended his slanted presentation of Nixon by saying the mainstream media was pro-liberal Democratic and his goal was to establish a format that would even things up by being slanted toward conservative Republican causes.
Now his premise was suspect in the era of Huntley-Brinkley and Walter Cronkite, balanced newscasters who keep opinions to a minimum, but Ailes' goal seemed fantasy. There were only three big networks. But few people in 1969 saw cable news coming.
Just a few years later we got to know a future superstar of the new network Ailes would start. We had bought Miami Magazine, and Bill O’Reilly, who, fresh out of college and teaching high school in Miami, freelanced briefly for our magazine. He came across as a can’t-miss kid – good-looking, talented, witty, and ambitious. We never talked politics with him but he hardly seemed like the right-wing commentator that made him famous at Fox.
A young Bill O'Reilly
He became friendly with our editorial partner, Gaeton Fonzi, and stayed in touch as he moved upward rapidly in various broadcast roles around the country. He was especially interested when, after O’Reilly had moved to Dallas, Fonzi, in the mid-1970s, became an investigator for the government committee that reopened an Inquiry into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He was initially hired by Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker, who recalled Fonzi’s 1966 article in Philadelphia challenging the Warren Commission conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald alone murdered JFK. Schweiker was convinced Oswald was a U.S. intelligence operative, and Fonzi went a long way toward proving it when he discovered a contact between Oswald and a top CIA officer involved in anti-Castro activities in South Florida.
That story was a natural for O’Reilly, who was logging his own credits as an award-winning TV investigative reporter. He later co-wrote “Killing Kennedy.” By then, he had risen to become the star of Roger Ailes’ dream – the “fair and balanced” Fox News. It was never that, and those of us who admired O’Reilly’s success were puzzled by his seeming embrace of Fox’s slanted reporting. Fonzi, who remained friendly with O’Reilly until his death 10 years ago, summed it up tersely: “Bill took the money.”
So did a number of other Fox personalities, and the network finally paid a huge price for its kind. For the late Roger Ailes, who like O’Reilly was ousted from Fox on sexual harassment charges, today’s Fox may be a little too much. A recent New York Times history of Fox said at one point Ailes, who always wanted his baby to have a veneer of legitimacy, realized he had created a monster. Its thirst for money made it a servant to ratings, which dipped whenever Fox actually tried to be fair and balanced.
What now? The principal liars on Fox have not been forced to admit their behavior, and most media observers seem to think they will go on as before, a propaganda machine catering to a right-wing audience.
It seems to this writer, and many others, that what they are doing is borderline criminal. Charges could range from obstruction of justice to outright treason by poisoning the minds of millions of viewers, to the point of encouraging insurrections. Or, as some very recent moves have suggested, Fox ownership may decide to clean up its act. But that likely would mean honesting itself out of business.
FA who? That is one of the jokes associated with Florida Atlantic's historic rise from basketball anonymity to the upcoming NCAA final-four showdown in Houston next weekend. The Owls season, almost miraculously elevated by its arrival at the pinnacle of college basketball, has certainly put our local Boca Raton on the map for a lot of people. Many sports fans likely never even heard of the school before this season. Well, it may come as a surprise to them that FAU was not exactly born yesterday, nor is this its first exposure on the national stage. One needs only a bit of memory and knowledge of the right sports.
FAU was founded in 1964, initially with graduate programs only, and had grown impressively on its 850-acre modern campus, but it was not until 2001 that it gained real national attention. And that came with the announcement that Howard Schnellenberger, who lived nearby in Palm Beach County, was coming out of retirement to head and coach a new football program. Schnellenberger was already a South Florida legend, having been a key part of Miami Dolphins' 1972 season and later taking the University of Miami from football mediocrity to a national championship. It would be interesting to watch him build a team from scratch, and that began with the first opponent with a quaint name - Slippery Rock. FAU had little more than an intramural team and lost, 40-7, but the game drew 26,000 fans. Schnellenberger improved the quality of opposition as fast as he could, moving up to Division One and joining the Sun Belt Conference. By 2007, the Owls were good enough to beat a Big 10 opponent - Minnesota, and make its first bowl game appearance. Schnellenberger's calm, pipe-smoking style concealed his energy, and he found time to raise money for a campus stadium which opened in 2011. The program continues to seek higher status. This year's schedule includes Clemson and Illinois.
While football may not yet have gained NCAA playoff identity, the NCAA tournament is no stranger to another sport. College baseball gets far less press coverage than football and basketball, but FAU's name has long ranked among the top baseball programs. Going back to 1985, the Owls have made 14 NCAA regional tournaments and advanced to the super regional (equivalent to basketball "sweet sixteen") level in 2002. The current coach, John McCormack, who we have known since he was in grade school at St. Anthony in Fort Lauderdale, has been with the program 33 years, 15 as head coach. Under him, FAU has made the NCAA tournament six times. Like basketball, the NCAA tournament opens with 64 teams, but unlike basketball, it does not generate the same national frenzy.
FAU's John McCormack is not a stranger to the NCAA tournament in baseball.
So, instead of broadcasters saying FA who, they could say the Owls are familiar with post-season NCAA play, making the tournament 14 times. Just don't tell them what sport.
In this the season of St. Patrick, the Irish understandably take pride in their success in this country. But they had to fight their way in. There are only two clearly Irish names among the signers of the Declaration of Independence. One of them, Charles Carroll of Maryland, was one of the wealthiest men in the young nation, but there isn't a Sean, Kelly, Ryan, Brian, or Liam in that roster. The large immigration of the mid-1800s enabled the Irish to gain power in the big cities, and they have grown from machine politics to represent the nation with distinction in the highest capacities. Many former Presidents, including Barack Obama, have a least a dash of Irish blood, but today the ethnic group is largely defined by the mostly Catholic famine Irish of the mid-1800s. Foremost are political figures such as JFK and Robert Kennedy, Jimmy Byrnes (FDR's trusted secretary of state,) Ronald Reagan (sort of), Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the colorful Thomas (Tip) O'Neill and half-Irish George Mitchell, the man who largely brokered the treaty which ended the centuries-old Irish Troubles. Oddly, Bill Clinton claims Irish blood but can't prove it. But he and his wife are credited with aiding the Irish peace treaty, and, of course, there is our current president, Joe Biden, who wears his green as proudly as any of them. Our former haunt, Philadelphia, was proud of the Kelly family. John B. Kelly was an Olympic Rowing champion who built a construction company and was long a power in Democratic politics. He is also the father of Princess Grace. They are dozens more families like the Kellys, including a number of congressmen and governors serving today who hold promise of further success.
JFK enjoyed Irish pride.
We suspect we are not alone in checking the backgrounds of these individuals, their parents, schools, etc. to confirm Irish authenticity. And we wonder how many others share our concerns about the flip side of this equation - namely prominent figures with conspicuously Irish names who bring dishonor to the nationality. Anyone who lived through the era can vividly recall Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin. Irish Catholics initially embraced him proudly as a devoted anti-Communist out to save the country from the Soviet menace. That made their disappointment all the greater when he was revealed as a man drunk with power - alcoholism was suspected of his early death -who ruined lives with his reckless accusations. He died in disgrace.
Which brings us to today's contentious political atmosphere. Some Gaelic names stand out, like Joe McCarthy, as being on the wrong side of history. The two most obvious are Fox News broadcaster Sean Hannity and Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy. Their Irish names could not be more flagrant, nor could their actions that besmirch the Irish reputation. Hannity, who appears to be Irish Catholic on both sides, is among those responsible for the legal problems facing Fox. His statements contributed to the distortions which have caused so many people to believe the big lie about Trump winning the election and their subsequent distrust of government in general. Among Fox's various defenses against lawsuits is the absurd notion that Hannity and other Fox stars are not really journalists, but rather opinion makers - sort of entertainers who should not be taken seriously. This from the cable outlet that from its origins claimed to be "fair and balanced." Hannity has disgraced an Irish name.
Kevin McCarthy's name seems just as Irish, but he is only Irish on one side. Although both his parents hail from traditionally Catholic roots, he is not a Catholic. And he surely does not share the values of the aforementioned Irish leaders, most of whom worked for the common good. He seems to have no principles, except the law of self-interest. His lust for personal power has compromised him to the extent that he is beholden to those who would overthrow Democracy as it has been long practiced in this country.
These two men appear to be so far gone that there seems little hope for redemption. We don't expect them to change, but we do wish they would change their names to some terrible ethnic group more deserving of their shameless conduct.
The latest angle in the teaching of slave history in Florida schools is a semi-recant by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell for misstating Governor Ron DeSantis’ position on the subject. But she added that the governor “opposed the teaching of an African-American studies curriculum, as well as the use of some authors and source materials that some historians and teachers say makes it all but impossible for students to understand the broader historic and political context behind slavery and its aftermath in the years since.”
Ms. Mitchell likely refers to slavery in America, but she might have added that, contrary to some popular opinion, slavery was not invented in the American South. And the guilt complex that seems to annoy DeSantis should be properly distributed. So let us clarify the record. As a recent letter writer to the Sun-Sentinel pointed out, Europeans did not capture Africans and ship them to the Americas. White men were afraid to venture far from the West African coast because, among other things, they feared malaria, for which they had no immune protection. The slaves were captured by Africans themselves and brought to the coast and sold to the slave traders for transport. Often they were already slaves, captured in tribal warfare. One suspects that if the Africans had the ships, they would have cut out the European middlemen.
If brothers selling their racial brothers sounds abominably cruel, it wasn’t that unusual when Transatlantic Slavery began in the 15th century. Throughout recorded history, slavery had been a fact of life. European colonists did not introduce slavery to the Americas. It was already here. Some warlike American Indian tribes enslaved tribes they conquered, just as African tribes did.
In the old world, Greeks took slaves, often from North Africa. The Roman Empire was built on slavery. The Romans made slaves of much of Western Europe through their conquests, including the Bretons when they invaded what is now England. With time, the slaves became Romans.
The fact is that most people worked all day just to survive, and if you could force somebody else to do your work, well that’s just the way it was. Late in the western world’s slave era, Europeans appear to have justified slavery on the grounds that the slaves came from less culturally advanced societies. You might call it systemic racism. It was the case when Europeans encountered American Indians, whose tribes has no sense of European nationhood and had not yet learned to employ the wheel. Indians were not enslaved in any numbers in North America, but they were deprived of their lands.
The industrial revolution was the beginning of the end of slavery in most of the world. Machines did the hard work, and gradually slavery was viewed in moral terms. Still, it was legal in most of the world until the early 1800s, about the same time as the debate began which ultimately led to the American Civil War.
And, since this is the season of St. Patrick, we might note that at the same time southern slavery was leading to war, the English domination of the Irish, which led to the great famine in which 1.5 million died, amounted to a polite form of slavery. The west of Ireland was dirt poor and survived on one breed of potato. The Irish had other crops, but when the potato crop failed, that potentially lifesaving food was forcefully exported to England.
And, of course, Germany and Japan in World War Two both enslaved many of the people they conquered. Nothing in the history of slavery rivals the Holocaust. Nor has slavery become extinct. Those who document such things say 40 million people today are effective slaves throughout the world.
This is not intended to endorse DeSantis’ pandering to the Trump cult and their prejudices, or the abuses of the prolonged Jim Crow era. But it does respond to Ms. Mitchell’s call for historical context – unpleasant as that may be.