Accident is the sensible answer

James H. Bready

November 22, 1993|By James H. Bready

WHEN the Kennedy assassination theorists convened in Dallas this past weekend, Bonar Menninger wasn't there. Howard Donahue, equally uninvited, stayed home, too. Nobody, it seems, stood up in all the noise about CIA conspiracy, Mafia conspiracy, pro-or-anti-Castro conspiracy, Texas politics conspiracy (and others) to remind the gathering that murder still isn't the likeliest explanation for the president's death. Accident is still the most sensible answer.

Mr. Menninger, who lives in Kansas City, is the author of "Mortal Error," published early last year. It is the book that names a Secret Service agent riding in the car just behind the president's that day 30 years ago, an agent whose gun supposedly went off when, at the sound of gunfire, he stood up but stumbled.

Mr. Donahue, who lives in Towson, is a lifelong gun expert. Years ago, examining the records on John F. Kennedy's wounds, Lee Harvey Oswald's cartridges and the Texas Book Depository's sixth-floor sightlines, he uncovered a vast discrepancy. The window rifle fired penetration bullets; the shot that hit the president in the back of the head and exploded was a fragmentation bullet. And it came in from behind on a flat, straight trajectory, not from a high side angle.

Mr. Donahue went public with his reconstruction in 1977, in two Sunday Sun Magazine articles by Ralph Reppert. The wire services sent out a routine story; the world shrugged.

No writer himself, Mr. Donahue went on doing local-station interviews and local-group talks. In 1991, a youthful writer was introduced to him: Mr. Menninger, who proposed they collaborate on a book.

A minor anniversary event this year is that "Mortal Error" has just been republished in Chinese. The book has made more of an impression abroad than at home. Originally, the publisher, St. Martin's Press, brought it out under extraordinary secrecy; the book includes a remarkable, 17-page "Note From the Publisher" (Thomas McCormack), relating attempts by his editors to balance Mr. Donahue off against the Warren Commission Report, the House Select Committee Report and other investigations -- and finding them repeatedly in error or silent, while Mr. Donahue was coherent and plausible.

In particular, St. Martin's Press asked the Secret Service for comment and wrote to the (now-retired) agent in the trailing car. The answer from one was evasions; the other, silence. This duplicated the experience Bonar Menninger and Howard Donahue had had when, for the book, they too approached agency and agent.

Following the publication of "Mortal Error," the New York Times and Wall Street Journal ignored it. The Washington Post slighted it; Time misrepresented it. "There were strong reviews in second-tier markets," Mr. Menninger reports. But the running pack of Kennedy/Dallas authors churned on by. Of the two big, current books, Gerald Posner's "Case Closed" (Random House) cites "Mortal Error" in a ballistic footnote but suppresses its theme; the other, "Killing the Truth: Deceit and Deception in the JFK Case" (Carroll & Graf), by Harrison E. Livingstone of Baltimore, ignores it.

Thirty years after the assassination, the notion that Oswald was self-propelled, as the Warren Commission affirmed, is no longer so widely doubted. (Mr. Donahue sees no strong evidence otherwise.) And the "magic bullet," long scoffed at, is now largely accepted. (This was Oswald's second shot, passing through Kennedy and then John B. Connally.) Be it noted, Howard Donahue "the dead-eye marksman, gunsmith and ammo expert," proposed this long before other investigators.

It is reasonable to ask whether the Kennedy/Dallas cult even wants the mystery solved. For its part, "Mortal Error" points at, but does not charge or blame. (Mr. Donahue feels Oswald's shot through Kennedy's neck would ultimately have proved fatal.) Only a personal or official admission would fully confirm the accidental-shot solution; obviously, the Secret Service would be doubly damaged by such an admission, first in its performance flaw, second in its ensuing, prolonged coverup.

But as Nov. 22 returns, and returns, the failure of the Secret Service to rebut Howard Donahue, fully and convincingly, looks ever odder.

Out in Kansas City, Mr. Menninger remains proud of his book, and thoughtful. "So far," he remarks, "the book's been something of a pebble down the well -- not much splash. But the public deserves to know, in full, what happened that day. And perhaps, at some later time, it will all come out."

James H. Bready writes a monthly books column for The Sunday Sun. He lives in Baltimore.

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