By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Max Holland, who appears to be coherent, is in his book-lined study, just off the kitchen in his house in Silver Spring. He's going over the Zapruder film. Again. And again. And . . .
Birds are chirping outside. The sun is out. Inside, it's dark, quiet among the filing cabinets.
He's been at work on his book about the Warner Commission investigation into President Kennedy's assassination for 12 years.
For. Twelve. Years.
And right here -- in just the fifth paragraph! -- you already have the overwhelming desire to take him by the collar and shout: Max!!! Buddy!!! SNAP OUT OF IT!!! Abort, abort! Entire human beings have disappeared in Dealey Plaza!! It's the Bermuda Triangle of pop culture! But he's saying, "Now, you see right here . . . "
He's pointing to Secret Service agents on the screen.
"I don't want to overwhelm you . . ."
This is a short story about American paranoia. It is slightly scary. It is about how even good writers and responsible people can fall into the rabbit hole of Washington research -- a tumble that leads you down, down, down to the Elm Street of the mind, below the Texas School Book Depository and in front of the grassy knoll, a few minutes past noon, in a world where it is always Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963.
And Holland, 57, isn't even a conspiracy theorist babbling about the CIA and Castro! He says Lee Harvey Oswald did it and did it alone! His goal, he says, is to heal our national paranoia about Kennedy's murder, to lay to rest the lingering belief that there was some sort of conspiracy (which most Americans believe), and to have this traumatic event finally settled in the national id. He wants people to understand that Oliver Stone's "JFK" actively misstated events, that Don DeLillo's "Libra," which has shooters on the grassy knoll, was a good novel but only that.
A former writer for the Nation, he has already won the prestigious J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award, worth a nifty $45,000, for his book, "A Need to Know: Inside the Warren Commission." That was way back in 2001. He's gotten another $131,000 in book advances. His publisher is Knopf, one of the most respected in the business. His research is so prodigious that it has already birthed two other books, both about tape recordings from the Johnson White House that deal with the Kennedy killing.
This leads you to believe that he's not going to show you that the limo driver actually turned and fired the fatal third shot into Kennedy (as one popular video on YouTube has it). So, maybe against your better judgment, you lean over, and look really hard at the Zapruder film unspooling on his screen . . . and the Secret Service guys in the second car are reacting to something just as the film starts.
See the heads turn? Now, if you calculate that "mediated nervous reaction," and the car's position, and the memories of several witnesses and the speed of the film at 18.3 frames per second, and remember 4.9 seconds elapsed between the second and third shots . . . then you get the revelation that Oswald's first shot, the one that missed, took place before the Zapruder film.
Yes, kids, before.
Somehow, he's saying, the most studied 19 seconds of film in American history has consistently fooled everyone, because everyone has taken it as an article of faith that three shots were captured on the (soundless) film. Nah. Holland theorizes the first shot likely dinged off a traffic mast overhanging the street and not a tree branch, as most people have thought. This means he fired earlier than people have believed and thus had far more time -- a total of just over 11 seconds -- to fire the second and third rounds. This makes it far more understandable how he could have been the lone gunman, and thus bolsters the Warren Commission's finding on that point.
"Everyone has been late to the first shot," he says, pulling back from the computer screen.
This is but one tiny bit of data he says will come out in "A Need to Know," which pledges to be the definitive history of the commission, that body of seven politicians, lawyers and Washington heavyweights who conducted the official inquiry into the assassination and whose 888-page report later became mocked as a hastily done coverup.
Conspiracy theories and distrust in government from later events like Vietnam and Watergate have grown like ivy over the founding documents, Holland says. They obscure the time period, the Cold War, that produced a sometimes flawed but nonetheless accurate report. It's a time capsule from the era, after McCarthyism but before Vietnam spiraled out of control, when America was trembling but the cultural fissures had not yet shifted.
"If I restore faith in the Warren Commission, I'll put to rest some of the disturbing questions people have had," Holland says.
This is the tantalizing promise the assassination makes: That you're on to something everybody has missed. So you catalogue obscure CIA memos, a Bay of Pigs document, comments by FBI field agents in Dallas, Jack Ruby, the mob, Oswald saying, "I'm a patsy," the magic bullet that hit both Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally . . . and then 10 years go by, and you're looking at the same bits of homemade footage on Dealey Plaza, convinced you've just about got it nailed down.
Priscilla Johnson McMillan, who knew both Kennedy and Oswald, spent 13 years working on "Marina and Lee," a book that sought to be the definitive word on the assassin. It was published in 1977. Gerald Posner's years-in-the-making 624-page "Case Closed," which sought to be the last word on the case, was published in 1994. Vincent Bugliosi spent 20 years on "Reclaiming History," his 1,648-page tome that sought to settle everything, once and for all.
That was last year.
And still, here sits Max Holland, working on a book that he says will go a good 600 pages. He has to have a draft to the publisher by October. There is still, after 12 years, no publication date.
"He gets really mad when people ask what's taking so long," says his wife, Tamar Gutner, a political science professor at American University.
"He's a very responsible researcher," says Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University history professor and author of several books about the 1960s.
"The ultimate painstaking research person and serious writer," says McMillan.
"He's an excellent reporter . . . honest and objective," says Al Goldberg, the historian on the Warren Commission.
"Transparently and pathetically irresponsible."
Whoa! This last is from Dale Myers, who won an Emmy for his computer animation work on the Zapruder film. He studied the assassination for 35 years and developed a computer-generated, three-dimensional model of the assassination sequence. He thinks Oswald did it, too.
But he ridicules Holland's analysis of an early first shot. He goes into great detail about the position of the car, the traffic mast on Elm Street, and Oswald's perch above it all.
"He's out to lunch, to put it kindly," Myers says.
None of this really matters. What matters is the American belief in the paranoid.
"People want to believe there must be some momentous history behind this momentous event, that there was some group that really wanted to turn the page rather than just one lone, crazy assassin," says Kazin, the history professor. "The thing that's great about Max is that he doesn't go for that."
Thomas Mallon, a novelist who spent about a year on a nonfiction book about Oswald's landlord, didn't think his project would be too hard. Then he found himself in Parkland Hospital (where Kennedy and Oswald were taken after they were shot) after his neck and shoulders seized with tension from the stress of it all. He says now that he had been sucked into the "space-time wormhole" of the assassination. He was amazed by the whole subculture of the self-appointed Kennedy researchers and by "the pedantry you fall into, the obsessiveness that really does come with the territory."
A few miles away but still inside the Beltway, Max Holland is still deep in Nov. 22, 1963, looking for answers to mysteries that are never going to be solved. He turns back to his computer, pulls out one of his thousands of files, and settles in for another day's work.
The sun is glinting off Oswald's rifle. America. Paranoia. There's something out there.