Senator Richard Schweiker and his JFK Assassination Legacy

by Bernard McCormick Wednesday, August 12, 2015 No Comment(s)

When the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was released in 1964, hardly anybody read it. People took it as gospel that a lone nut had murdered an American president. Among the few who actually read the entire 26 volumes of evidence supporting the report was a Philadelphia lawyer named Vincent Salandria. He didn’t believe it.

Salandria challenged the report in a Philadelphia legal newspaper, which few read. One who did, however, was Gaeton Fonzi. Fonzi was early in a career at Philadelphia magazine, which would make him one of the best investigative reporters of our time. Fonzi suspected Salandria might be a bit of a nut himself, but thought he might make an interesting story.

Fonzi’s initial meeting with Salandria, which we happened to attend, convinced us both that Salandria was anything but a nut, and had identified major discrepancies in the Warren Commission’s findings. It was a natural Philadelphia story, for Salandria’s questions dealt mostly with the “magic bullet” theory, upon which the whole notion of a single gunman depended. The man who came up with that theory was Arlen Specter, an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia who would go on to become a longtime United States senator.

Fonzi interviewed Specter and was stunned that the man who developed the “magic bullet” theory could not explain it. Specter had not been questioned in detail before that, and he fumbled all over the place when confronted with specifics about the president’s wounds. Fonzi wrote about Specter in a piece for Philadelphia magazine. Although it created quite a local stir, the story was not picked up by Philadelphia papers or any national media. It seemed that a sensational development in the case had just died.

However, one who had read, and remembered Fonzi’s story was Richard Schweiker, a congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs who, a few years later, was elected a U.S. Senator. In his capacity as a member of a Senate intelligence committee, Schweiker did some personal investigating into the background of the alleged JFK killer, Lee Harvey Oswald. Schweiker concluded that the ease of Oswald’s movements, to Russia and back, and his subsequent activities as a high-profile pro-Castro figure, suggested a connection to U.S. intelligence. In Schweiker phrase, “he had the fingerprints of intelligence all over him.”

The idea that JFK’s assassin could be an American intelligence agent had enormous implications. Furthermore, Schweiker suspected an Oswald connection to the CIA and anti-Castro Cubans in Miami. When he learned Fonzi was living in Miami, he asked him to check some stuff out. In the next year, Fonzi discovered a prominent Miami anti-Castro figure who off-handedly told him he had seen his CIA handler, who used the name Maurice Bishop, with Oswald in Dallas shortly before the 1963 assassination.

That CIA contact turned out to be David Atlee Phillips, who had risen to a top post in the agency. Although Schweiker’s committee expired shortly thereafter, it had opened a door that led to the House Select Committee on Assassination, where Fonzi worked for the next three years. In 1980, that committee issued a report saying the Kennedy assassination was a conspiracy, but offered only several theories to back it up. Fonzi by then was convinced that if the CIA was not behind the Kennedy murder, it surely engineered an elaborate cover-up — controlling the Warren Commission in the1960s and thwarting efforts of investigators over the next few decades. He wrote, in effect, a dissenting opinion as two long magazine articles in Gold Coast magazine (he was a partner at the time), which years later became his book, The Last Investigation in 1993.

That book, the first on the assassination written by a man who had an insider’s perspective working on government investigations, has become must reading for students of that great crime. It inspired numerous other researchers who continue to this day, and who develop further evidence that an American president was killed by his own government. Upon Fonzi’s death two years ago, The New York Times praised his work as among the most important books on the subject.

But without Richard Schweiker, who died last week, it may never have happened. His obituary in the Philadelphia papers did not even mention his connection to the Kennedy investigation, although The New York Times did. Most of the obits cited his friendship with President Ronald Reagan, whose vice-presidential running mate he would have been if Reagan had been nominated in 1976. They also mentioned the respect Senator Ted Kennedy had for the man’s work as secretary of health and human services under Reagan.

Schweiker himself was quoted as saying his most important legacy was from his years in the Reagan administration, “fixing the amounts Medicare pays for medical treatments, instead of leaving costs open-ended. That will have the greatest impact of anything I was able to do." 

Some, with slightly longer memories, would disagree. Most respectfully.

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