The promotional material for Philip Shenon’s rollicking new book, “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” reminds us that three questions have “haunted our nation” for the past 50 years: “Was the President killed by a single gunman? Was Lee Harvey Oswald part of a conspiracy? Did the Warren Commission discover the whole truth of what happened on November 22, 1963?”
Shenon does not definitively answer the first two questions; as he acknowledges, we may never have the final word on whatever conspiracy did or did not exist. On the third matter, however, his judgment is unequivocal. The Warren Commission, he writes, was “flawed from the start” because of bureaucratic infighting, political manipulation, destruction of evidence, tight deadlines, understaffing, deception by intelligence agencies and a host of other ills. Rather than attempting to offer the Ultimate Truth of the Kennedy Assassination, Shenon presents a persuasive, deeply researched account of why, 50 years out, that truth still seems so hard to find.
He began his project with what seemed like a genuinely new angle on a familiar topic. Rather than join the legions of historians and journalists reexamining the Kennedy assassination for the 50th anniversary, he planned to focus on the Warren Commission and on the back-office wrangling that went into producing its conclusions. For Shenon, this was a natural fit. His first book,
“The Commission,” dissected the 9/11 Commission, showing how political considerations and bureaucratic battles distorted its famed report. In 2008, when a former staff investigator offered to help with a “similar history” of the Warren Commission, Shenon signed on.
Something happened along the way. The final book stays true to Shenon’s original plan to write the story of the Warren Commission as told by its junior lawyers, the only members
still alive to describe their experiences. Grafted onto this, though, is a spy drama involving Cuban diplomats, alluring young women and the secret love affairs of Oswald. Despite his best intentions, Shenon found himself drawn into the world of spycraft, intrigue and conspiracy that makes up both the best and the worst of the Kennedy assassination literature. The result is a book that’s one part “Mad Men” and one part James Bond.
“A Cruel and Shocking Act” takes its name from the first sentence of the Warren Commission’s report: “The assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy on November 22, 1963, was a cruel and shocking act of violence directed against a man, a family, a nation, and against all mankind.” And it is the commission — not the assassination — that provides the book’s basic narrative arc. The first chapter begins on the day after the president’s death, with the naval pathologist who conducted Kennedy’s autopsy burning his original notes in his home fireplace. Ostensibly, the good doctor hoped to keep the bloodstained pages out of the hands of trophy-seekers and maudlin “ghouls.” But as Shenon notes, the effect was no different than if he had been deliberately covering up a hidden truth: The notes were gone forever.