Decision to name agent was publisher's dilemma Book contains note explaining process

February 23, 1992|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

As chairman and chief executive officer of St. Martin's Press, Thomas McCormack was well aware of the ramifications of naming the Secret Service agent who Howard Donahue says accidentally shot the third bullet at John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.

So when, after several months of researching Mr. Donahue's thesis, Mr. McCormack was considering publishing "Mortal Error," he drafted a letter in November to the agent.

"I figured the allegation was very distressing to the man," Mr. McCormack told The Sun. "Basically, I said [in the letter] that if he could have talked us out of it, we wouldn't have published the book. But we never heard back from him.

"For that matter, if anybody else could come up with material that would have invalidated the theory, it wouldn't have been published. I waited until the end of December before giving the go-ahead."

He said that between eight to 10 people at St. Martin's worked on the manuscript for several months, and read "thousands of pages" of material related to the assassination, including other books on the killing and the report of the Warren Commission. At the end of "Mortal Error," Mr. McCormack adds an unusual "note from the publisher" that details the editing process "to convey the kind of decision that we went through."

Edited in secrecy -- the book was not mentioned in St. Martin's winter or spring catalogs -- "Mortal Error" is scheduled to be in bookstores nationwide Wednesday, joining an already crowded field of Kennedy-assassination books (there are five, either in hard cover or paperback, on the New York Times' most recent best-seller list, including "High Treason," co-written by Harrison Livingstone of Baltimore).

St. Martin's spokesman John J. Murphy said advance orders for "Mortal Error" exceed 100,000. He said the book already has gone through three printings; Mr. McCormack said the first printing is 125,000, an unusually high number for a first-time author with no national name recognition.

Mr. McCormack said the decision to name the Secret Service agent (which was not done in the two-part series published in The Sun in May 1977) was a difficult one. And he said the book emphasizes that the agent was not negligent, but in fact acted courageously.

"In looking at what was said in the manuscript, and what Donahue has said in conversation, I was struck by how much Donahue expressed sympathy for [the agent]," Mr. McCormack said. "He even made statements about what a brave man he was, that he picked up the gun to get the bad guys, and the gun accidentally went off."

Thus, he went on, since "Mortal Error" does not say the former agent acted out of negligence or malice, the assertion that he accidentally fired a shot that hit Kennedy is not libelous.

But J. Hamilton Brown, executive director of the Former Agents of the Secret Service Association, based in Alexandria, Va., said the former agent talked to him about seeking legal action against Mr. Donahue when "Mortal Error" author Bonar Menninger was trying to interview him for the book last spring.

"The man's extremely upset, and would you blame him? How would you like to be known as the person who was accused of shooting the president of the United States when you know in your heart that it isn't true?" Mr. Brown said angrily. "I think [the former agent] thinks it's bull----, and so do I."

Mr. Brown says he has not talked recently to the former agent, who he says left the Secret Service in the early 1970s. Citing confidentiality, he would not give out any other information on the former agent.

But referring to a conversation he had last spring with Mr. Menninger, Mr. Brown said, "When I was talking to this twerp, I told him that [the former agent] was very much prepared to bring suit against him and was in the process of finding an attorney -- and that we would be talking about damages in substantial numbers."

If the former agent does sue for libel, Mr. Brown said, members of his organization and other former agents who were in the motorcade with Kennedy in Dallas would testify on his behalf. "There are a number of people who are alive and well who were standing next to [the former agent]," he said.

As for why the former agent has not responded to inquiries by St. Martin's or Mr. Menninger, Mr. Brown said, "Why should he -- why make a response to a theory that is totally incorrect? What you would be doing is giving credence to a ridiculous allegation."

Mr. McCormack said the former agent's name will not be used in any promotion of "Mortal Error."

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