By Duty Bound, and Betrayed

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By Bruce Watson,
author of "Sacco and Vanzetti: The Men, the Murders, and the Judgment of Mankind"
Wednesday, March 26, 2008


The True Story of the First African American on the White House Secret Service Detail and His Quest for Justice After the Assassination of JFK

By Abraham Bolden

Harmony. 306 pp. $25.95

In the vast literature of the John F. Kennedy assassination, Abraham Bolden has long been a footnote of interest mainly to conspiracy theorists. Now, after four decades and hundreds of books probing assassination arcana, the first black agent assigned to guard a president has written his memoir. "The Echo From Dealey Plaza" contains no new information about the assassination, but it is a shocking story of injustice.

This much is certain: Bolden was personally appointed by Kennedy in 1961. During the agent's lone month on White House duty, JFK proudly called him "the Jackie Robinson of the Secret Service." Having risen from humble roots in East St. Louis to graduate with honors from Lincoln University in Missouri, Bolden stood in awe of the young president. Though he glosses over Kennedy's mixed record on civil rights, his memoir's fleeting glimpse of the Kennedy clan is charming and heartfelt.

Yet after a month protecting Kennedy, Bolden was sent back to Chicago, where he spent the next three years investigating counterfeiters. He was nowhere near Dealey Plaza in Dallas during what Don DeLillo called "the seven seconds that broke the back of the American Century." Nor did he, as one conspiracy buff has claimed, ever hear Lee Harvey Oswald shout, "Ruby hired me!" So what caused the "echo"?

Bolden's brief White House duty left him certain that the Secret Service was slacking. While in Hyannis Port, Mass., he had seen agents drinking on the job. Back in Chicago, he saw them drop leads on possible assassins. Bolden also heard stories about Secret Service agents drinking heavily in Dallas the night before the assassination. Armed with these accusations, Bolden was preparing to contact the Warren Commission when he was arrested in May 1964. Overnight, his life turned from a Jackie Robinson story to something out of Kafka.

Despite having a spotless record, Bolden found himself charged with selling government information to a suspect. Convicted on testimony from the shadiest of characters, he was denied appeals even when a key trial witness confessed to perjury. Bolden remains certain the frame-up stemmed from his widely known criticism of the Secret Service and his attempts to contact the Warren Commission. Readers, however, might suspect a racial vendetta by some fellow agents rather than a conspiracy related to the assassination.

By his own account, Bolden had no shortage of enemies at the Secret Service. These ranged from outright racists to bullying bosses who hated him for not being a "team player." In one all-too-resonant incident, he looked up from his desk in Chicago one afternoon to see a noose hanging from the ceiling. But while it is possible, perhaps even probable, that Bolden was silenced to keep him from leveling a j'accuse, the jury is still out.

Bolden clearly is innocent of the charge for which he spent more than three years in jail. But just as he hired a lawyer to defend him in court, he should have hired a ghostwriter to state his case in print. His story, replete with conniving characters, a scandalously biased judge and endless innuendo, would make a great made-for-TV movie. Alas, most of "The Echo From Dealey Plaza" reads like an affidavit. Each character talks like every other character, and complex events are recounted in sequence with little attempt to sort them out. Only when Bolden comes to his ordeal in prison does he make the reader feel his fury:

"You hear people talk about the walls closing in on them. Before spending just a few hours in that cell, I had thought it was just a handy expression. . . . The impulse to scream out, to pound my fists against the steel cage, rose inside me, but eventually it passed. With my eyes tightly closed and my arms folded against my chest, I recited verse after verse of scripture, as I had learned to do as a child in East St. Louis, until finally I fell asleep."

Bolden suffered greatly at the hands of American jurisprudence, and his memoir helps set the record straight. More than 40 years after his nightmare, he cannot be blamed for merely laying out the basics and punctuating them with understated outrage. He never claims to be a professional writer, just a proud American deeply wronged. But some editor should have enlivened his plodding prose and drab dialogue. With such treatment, "The Echo From Dealey Plaza" might have been the strong indictment Bolden intended. Instead, it is a rather faint echo of the crimes in question.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company