Press aide doubted JFK was killer’s target

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By Randy Patrick

Every anniversary of that fateful day in Dallas brings with it a new wave of JFK mania, and this year being the 50th, new books, magazines and TV documentaries are re-examining John F. Kennedy’s glamorous life and gruesome death.

Still the question persists — who really killed the president?

Secretary of State John Kerry last week raised the specter of a conspiracy by saying he had “serious doubts” the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, acted alone when he shot and killed Kennedy from a sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository as the president’s motorcade made its way through Dealey Plaza Nov. 22, 1963.

Malcolm Kilduff, on the other hand, didn’t doubt Oswald was the killer, but he doubted that Kennedy was the one he wanted to kill.

I’ve met some fascinating people in my journalism career, and Malcolm Kilduff was one of the most unusual. When I was a young reporter in Irvine, Ky., my boss, Guy Hatfield, introduced him as the man who had announced JFK’s death to the world. I figured he was putting me on because I was green and gullible, but it was true.

Kilduff, who was Kennedy’s deputy press secretary, had been with the president in Dallas that day because his boss, Pierre Salinger, was in Asia.

Mac met his wife, Rosemary, in Washington when she worked for a senator, and years later, when they moved to her hometown of Beattyville, Ky., the former White House press aide became the editor of the weekly Beattyville Enterprise.

I interviewed Kilduff many times through the years. The last time was for Lexington’s ACE Magazine after Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK” was released. The movie starred Kevin Costner as Jim Garrison, a New Orleans district attorney whose bizarre investigation painted a conspiracy tapestry that implicated everyone from the Mafia to the military in Kennedy’s murder. It was, Garrison’s character said, “a coup d’etat with Lyndon Johnson waiting in the wings.”

That’s rubbish, Kilduff told me. He saw and heard what happened and later studied the evidence. The Warren Commission’s conclusion was right: Oswald alone killed Kennedy. But Kilduff thought Texas Gov. John Connally was the one Oswald meant to murder.

Oswald, a Marine sharpshooter and a Marxist, was dishonorably discharged from the military after had tried to renounce his U.S. citizenship and defected to the USSR. He lived there for 32 months and was sent back to the United States, where he lived in Dallas with his Russian wife.

Oswald was court-martialed as a deserter, Kilduff said, and his discharge order was signed by Connally, who was at that time the secretary of the Navy. Connally had the authority to grant him a new trial, but refused to do so. Oswald had written Connally a series of threatening letters, and Kilduff thinks he carried out the threat that day.

Oswald worked in the building from which the shots were fired and knew where the motorcade would be because its route had been printed in the newspapers.

Kilduff vividly remembered how it unfolded.

“I was riding in the third car of the motorcade,” he said, in the front seat with Merriman Smith of United Press International. As they passed the building, Kilduff asked Smith, “What in the name of God is a school book depository?” As they turned onto Elm Street, he heard the first shot, then the second and third. He turned and looked at the building from which the sound came and saw Secret Service agents running toward the president’s car. One of the shots struck Connally in the chest and would have gone through his heart had the governor not turned to look at Kennedy.

Oswald had bench-tested the mail-order Italian rifle and knew the shots drifted downward and to the left, Mac said. As the motorcade descended the hill, it picked up speed, causing Oswald to miss.

“I have always felt that Kennedy was not his target,” Kilduff said. “In my opinion, he was out to get Connally, and had the motorcade not sped up, he would have gotten Connally on the first shot. As it was, he adjusted and got him on the second shot.”

Kilduff thought the conspiracy theories were nonsense and dishonored Kennedy.

“It’s self-perpetuating. It keeps going on and on, and it won’t stop in our lifetime,” he told me. “I wish they’d just let him lie in peace.”

Today Mac Kilduff lies in peace. After Rosemary’s death, he moved into a retirement home, then later a nursing home because of serious health issues. He died 10 years ago, and I learned of his passing from his obituary in The New York Times. I hadn’t talked with him since that last interview, and I regret that.

I wish I could sit with him again at the Purple Cow in Beattyville and have a cup of coffee and another talk because I still have a thousand questions for him — not questions about Kennedy’s death, but about his life.

A man’s life is more interesting than how it ends.