George H. W. Bush may be one of the few Americans of his generation who cannot recall exactly where he was when John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
At times he has said that he was “somewhere in Texas.” Bush was indeed “somewhere” in Texas. And he had every reason to remember. At the time Bush was the thirty-nine-year-old chairman of the Harris County (Houston) Republican Party and an outspoken critic of the president. He was also actively campaigning for a seat in the U.S. Senate at exactly the time Kennedy was assassinated right in Bush’s own state. The story behind Bush’s apparent evasiveness is complicated. Yet it is crucial to an understanding not just of the Bush family, but also of a tragic chapter in the nation’s history.
Who Wanted Kennedy Dead?
The two and a half years leading up to November 22, 1963, had been tumultuous ones. The Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, designed to dislodge Fidel Castro and his Cuban revolution from its headquarters ninety miles off the Florida Keys, was an embarrassing foreign policy failure. Certainly in terms of lives lost and men captured, it was also a human disaster. But within the ruling American elite it was seen primarily as a jolt to the old boys’ network – a humiliating debacle, and a rebuke of the supposedly infallible CIA. For John Kennedy it also presented an opportunity. He had been impressed with the CIA at first, and depended on its counterinsurgency against Communists and nationalists in the third world. But the Bay of Pigs disaster gave him pause. Whatever Kennedy’s own role in the invasion fiasco, it had been planned on Dwight Eisenhower’s watch. Kennedy had been asked to green-light it shortly after taking office, and in retrospect he felt the agency had deceived him in several key respects.
The most critical involved Cubans’ true feelings toward Castro. The CIA had predicted that the island population would rise up to support the invaders. When this did not happen, the agency, Air Force, Army, and Navy all put pressure on the young president to authorize the open use of U.S. armed forces. In effect they wanted to turn a supposed effort of armed Cuban “exiles” to reclaim their homeland into a full-fledged U.S. invasion. But Kennedy would not go along. The success of the operation had been predicated on something – a popular uprising – that hadn’t happened, and Kennedy concluded it would be foolish to get in deeper.
Following the disaster, CIA director Allen Dulles mounted a counteroffensive against criticism of the agency. Dulles denied that the plan had been dependent on a popular insurrection. Just weeks after the calamity, he offered this account on Meet the Press: “I wouldn’t say we expected a popular uprising. We were expecting something else to happen in Cuba . . . something that didn’t materialize.” For his part Kennedy was furious at Dulles for this self-serving explanation. He also was deeply frustrated about the CIA’s poor intelligence and suspected that the CIA had sought to force him into an invasion from the very beginning.
The president told his advisers he wanted “to splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.” Within weeks of the invasion disaster, Washington was speculating on Dulles’s departure. By autumn, he was gone, along with his lieutenants Charles Cabell and Richard Bissell. But in the end, it was not the CIA but rather John F. Kennedy who was destroyed.
The assassination of JFK has fathered a thousand theories, and nearly as many books and studies. Through it all, no consensus has emerged. Most “respectable” academics, journalists, and news organizations don’t want to get near the matter, lest they be labeled conspiracy nuts. Most Americans harbor an overwhelming psychic resistance to what retired UC Berkeley professor and author Peter Dale Scott has called the “deep politics” surrounding the assassination. Few of us care to contemplate the awful prospect that the forces we depend upon for security and order could themselves be subverted.
When the Kennedy assassination is mentioned, the inquiry tends to focus on the almost impossible task of determining who fired how many shots and from where. This obsession with the gun or guns bypasses the more basic – and therefore more dangerous questions: Who wanted Kennedy dead, and why? And what did they hope to gain?
Earl Warren to LBJ: “I’ll just do whatever you say.”
The years since the first assassination investigation was hastily concluded in September 1964 have not been kind to the Warren Commission. Subsequent inquiries have found the commission’s process, and the resulting report, horrendously flawed. And there are lingering questions about the very origins of the commission. First, all the members were appointed by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was – stark as this may sound – a chief beneficiary of the assassination, having immediately replaced the dead president to become the thirty-sixth president of the United States.
The commission’s chairman was the presiding chief justice of the Supreme Court. Earl Warren was the perfect choice because he was seen by the public as an honest, incorruptible man of substance. Warren’s involvement gave the commission a certain credibility and convinced major newspapers like the New York Times to continue supporting the commission report over the years.
Warren resisted LBJ’s call to service, but finally acquiesced, leading the panel to the conclusions it reached. To get Warren to say yes, Johnson had warned the justice that Oswald might be tied, through an alleged Mexico City visit, to the Soviets and Cubans. He implied that this could lead to nuclear war if level heads did not prevail.
As Johnson explained in a taped telephone conversation with Senator Richard Russell, himself reluctant to join the panel:
Warren told me he wouldn’t do it under any circumstances . . . He came down here and told me no – twice. And I just pulled out what [FBI director] Hoover told me about a little incident in Mexico City . . . And he started crying and he said, “I won’t turn you down. I’ll just do whatever you say.”
And that got Warren— and the public trust he brought— on board.
Allen Dulles, the member who asked the most questions, would have been himself considered a prime suspect by any standard police methodology. Moreover, he was expert not only in assassinations but also in deception and camouflage.
Dulles’s animus toward Kennedy was never overt, but it was incontrovertible. In ousting him, Kennedy was showing the door to a man who had spent his entire adult life in spy work. Behind the pipe-smoking, professorial mien, Allen Dulles was a ruthless, calculating man with blood on his hands. Certainly, the veteran master spy, director since 1953, could not have expected to stay on under Kennedy indefinitely. But to be forced out after what seemed to him a glorious decade of covert operations (including successful coups in Guatemala and Iran) – and on account of what he considered Kennedy’s failure of nerve regarding the Bay of Pigs invasion – must have been galling. Dulles was, according to his subordinate E. Howard Hunt, a “remarkable man whose long career of government service had been destroyed unjustly by men who were laboring unceasingly to preserve their own public images.”
“I have never forgiven them.”
Among those infuriated with the Kennedys was none other than Dulles’s good friend Senator Prescott Bush. In 1961, when Dulles brought his successor, John McCone, to a dinner at Prescott’s home, the senator recalled that he “tried to make a pleasant evening of it, but I was sick at heart, and angry too, for it was the Kennedy’s [sic] that brot [sic] about the [Bay of Pigs] fiasco.”
He expressed this anger in a condolence letter to Allen Dulles’s widow in 1969, discovered among Dulles’s papers at Princeton University. Prescott’s next line is particularly memorable: “I have never forgiven them.” The expression of such lingering resentment, six years after JFK’s death, was doubly chilling because it came just months after a second Kennedy, Robert, had been gunned down under mysterious circumstances, once again by a seemingly unstable lone gunman.
Clearing the Way for Poppy
In the spring of 1962, about six months after Dulles’s departure from the Kennedy administration, both Prescott Bush and his son Poppy made some considerable and rather abrupt changes to their lives. Prescott Bush, having already begun his reelection campaign and opened his headquarters, surprised virtually everyone by reversing himself and announcing that he would not seek a new term after all. The reason he gave was that he was tired and physically not well enough to endure another six years. This decision struck people as curious, in part because Prescott so dearly loved his life in Washington, and in part because he would turn out to be physically robust for a number of years afterward, and would even express his deep regret at having chosen to leave the Senate. Whatever took him away from Washington seems to have been pressing.
Just as Prescott was leaving the political arena, his son was entering it at high speed. Poppy, who until then had been barely involved with local Houston politics, suddenly became consumed with them. Conventional accounts treat Bush’s new interest as simply the next step in the life of an ambitious man, but for the Bush family, there was an almost inexplicable urgency. At a Washington political gathering, Prescott pulled aside the Harris County (Houston) GOP chairman, James Bertron, and demanded that Bertron find a place in his organization for Poppy. “Senator,” replied Bertron, “I’m trying. We’re all trying.”
This pressure quickly paid off. In the fall of 1962, Poppy was named finance co-chair of the Harris County Republican Party, a position which likely entailed visiting wealthy oilmen and asking them for money. Just a few months later, in early 1963, James Bertron abruptly announced his intention to retire and move to Florida, and Poppy announced his intention to succeed him. A party activist who had expressed his desire for the position suddenly abandoned his candidacy, and Bush won the position by acclamation. Now he had a plausible reason not only to be visiting with wealthy oilmen, but also to be building an operational team, ostensibly for political purposes.
Oiling the Rest of the Way for Poppy
That summer of 1963, right in the middle of his move out of the oil business into politics, Poppy Bush embarked on a busy itinerary of foreign business travel for Zapata Offshore. The trip seemed ambitious, especially when one considers the realistic opportunities for a firm with just a few rigs.
Upon his return, Poppy’s new lust for political power hit warp speed: now he had decided to seek a U.S. Senate seat. In less than a year he had gone from uninvolved to finance co-chair to county chairman to U.S. Senate hopeful. As a businessman engaged in offshore drilling, Poppy Bush had little reason to be traveling extensively throughout Texas. As Harris County chairman, Poppy had Houston as his bailiwick. But as a Senate candidate, he had every reason to be seen all over the Lone Star State.
Bush’s political work, like his oil work, may have been cover for intelligence activity. But there were political objectives as well, ones that conflicted with those of John Kennedy. In deciding to run for U.S. Senate, Poppy was playing a key role in the Republican effort to unyoke the conservative south from the Democratic wagon it had pulled to victory in 1960. Jack and Bobby Kennedy, meanwhile were busy strategizing exactly how to prevent that –and this was going to be a crucial battle, given JFK’s wafer-thin victory in the previous election. Two states in particular would be battlegrounds: Florida and Texas. In theory, a candidate like Poppy Bush, with his family connections to Wall Street, could be a strong fund-raiser and perhaps contribute to a substantially increased Republican turnout in 1964, even if Bush himself was not elected. To head off this larger threat, it was clear to Kennedy’s political advisers that Jack would have to campaign in Texas, along with Florida. Kennedy was interested in revoking the oil depletion allowance, a decision that would have meant steep losses for Texas oilmen, and he continued voicing his support for civil rights, always a contentious issue in the South.
As a candidate for statewide office, Poppy Bush was on the go in the fall of 1963, moving around Texas and spending time in Dallas, where he opened a headquarters.
Another Memory Lapse
Jack Kennedy’s death in Dallas on November 22, 1963, was one of the most tragically memorable moments in the lives of those who lived through it. So Poppy Bush’s inability or unwillingness to say where he was on that day is extremely odd, to say the least.
His haziness became an issue a quarter century after the assassination – when there emerged yet another good reason for Bush to have recalled that day vividly. On Thursday, August 25, 1988, about six weeks after the Nation published Joseph McBride’s piece on “George Bush of the CIA” – and just a week after George H. W. Bush accepted the Republican presidential nomination – a short article appeared in the San Francisco Examiner, with the intriguing headline: “Documents: Bush Blew Whistle on Rival in JFK Slaying.” The article began like this:A man who identified himself as George H. W. Bush phoned the FBI in Houston a few hours after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas to report that a right-wing Young Republican had “been talking of killing the president,” FBI documents show.
The FBI, the article goes on to say, promptly followed up on Bush’s tip and interviewed the Young Republican, a man by the name of James Milton Parrott. Parrott claimed he had never threatened Kennedy, and his mother declared that he had been at home with her in Houston all day.
The author of this story, the Examiner’s Miguel Acoca, had been unable to reach Parrott but noted that the FBI report on Bush’s call listed the address of the tipster as 5525 Briar, Houston, Texas – the address of the man who was now, in 1988, vice president of the United States.
Like Bush, Acoca, a Panamanian, had graduated from Yale. He spent the early 1960’s in the Miami area working for Life magazine, where dinners at his Coconut Grove apartment were typically populated by Cuban émigrés and CIA officers managing the war against Castro. While still in Miami, Acoca became interested in the group running the CIA’s JM/WAVE Cuban operations station in the area, and developed a growing obsession with assassinations in general, and JFK’s in particular.
Acoca had placed a call to Bush’s office once he discovered that the vice president had been the tipster back on November 22, 1963. His call brought a familiar response:
Bush’s press office at first said the vice president hadn’t made the call and challenged the authenticity of the FBI reports. Then, several days later, an aide said Bush “does not recall” making the call.
Acoca’s story about Bush didn’t get much attention, running on page A-II of the Examiner. The media reaction was similar to that which greeted journalist Joseph McBride’s earlier revelations: next to nothing. A few newspapers picked up the Examiner piece off the Hearst wire, but not a single paper bothered to assign reporters to follow up.
Thus, neither of two vexing questions – whether George Bush had been a CIA operative in 1963, and whether he had called the FBI on November 22 with purported information related to the JFK assassination – became issues for Bush in 1988 as he sailed into the White House.
By the fall of 1992, though, things were growing uncomfortable for President Bush. Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s challenge was gaining momentum, the economy was in the doldrums, and now an initiative from Congress and the public posed a new dilemma for Poppy. Oliver Stone’s JFK, released in December 1991, had aroused public interest and helped prod Congress to unanimously pass the President John F. Kennedy’s Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992. It required each federal agency to collect and forward all records about the JFK assassination to the National Archives, which would then make them available to the American people.
The 1988 Acoca article that caused so little stir had been based on a brief FBI summary of Bush’s tip about Parrott. But there was a longer, more detailed memo in the archives, waiting to be unearthed and released.
President George H. W. Bush now found himself in the awkward position of potentially outing himself. Should he veto the politically popular JFK Act just days before voters would go to the polls to choose between him and his surging challenger, Bill Clinton? Bush, with little enthusiasm, signed the bill – though, in a move that his son George W. Bush would use without restraint, Poppy issued a “signing statement” that essentially attached conditions, asserting unilateral executive authority to withhold records on the basis of several concerns, including national security. Still, Poppy couldn’t claim national security about everything, certainly not about documents that some already knew to exist, especially documents that had his own name on them.
Whether he knew it or not, with his signature, Poppy was moving the more detailed “Parrott memo” toward the light of day. In fact, government records show that the complete FBI memo from December 22, 1963, laying out the particulars of Bush’s call to the agency was finally declassified in 1993, along with thousands of other papers – by the Clinton administration.
Wrong Tip at the Wrong Time
That memo, reporting the call that had come in on the day of the assassination to Special Agent Graham W. Kitchel of the Houston FBI bureau, contained some important new identifying information and other details:
[DATE: November 22, 1963]
At 1:45 p.m. Mr. GEORGE H.W. BUSH, President of the Zapata Off-shore Drilling Company, Houston, Texas, residence 5525 Briar, Houston, telephonically furnished the following information to writer by long distance telephone call from Tyler, Texas.
BUSH stated that he wanted to be kept confidential but wanted to furnish hearsay that he recalled hearing in recent weeks, the day and source unknown. He stated that one JAMES PARROTT has been talking of killing the president when he comes to Houston.
BUSH stated that PARROTT is possibly a student at the University of Houston and is active in political matters in this area. He stated that he felt MRS FAWLEY, telephone number SU 2-5239, or ARLENE SMITH, telephone number JA 9-9194 of the Harris County Republican Headquarters would be able to furnish additional information regarding the identity of PARROTT.
BUSH stated that he was proceeding to Dallas, Texas, would remain in the Sheraton-Dallas Hotel and return to his residence on 11-23-63. His office telephone Number is CA 2-0395.
The memo contained several intriguing details, but no news organization picked up on them. Indeed, no one paid any heed to the whereabouts of Poppy Bush at the time of the JFK assassination – except Barbara Bush. In 1994, three decades after Poppy began not remembering where he was on November 22, 1963, it was suddenly Barbara who remembered.
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