I saw Oswald get killed on television. I also remember that everything on television about Oswald reduced him to a small figure, this visual icon. I don't remember him speaking. There was nothing in what was given to us by the media - at least as far as I remember - that gave us any evidence that this person could think for himself, that he was intelligent, that there was something self-motivated or self-directed in his life. That's something that I think Mailer brings back so effectively.
I think that's true. The thing that made him write the book was that he and Larry Schiller got access to all these KGB archives when the Soviet Union collapsed, and nobody had gotten in there. This had been regarded by most people who had studied Oswald and studied the assassination as perhaps the place where the answer lay, because it was the great void: What happened to Oswald in those two years when he was in Russia? And Mailer was convinced, initially, that a connection between Oswald and either Soviet intelligence or American intelligence would be found in those records. That turned out not to be the case, but they came across these transcripts. The KGB bugged his apartment. It's just the most banal shit - Lee and his wife making love, or failing to make love, or fighting.
The Lee Harvey Oswald reality show.
It is the Lee Harvey Oswald reality show, but you really get to know this guy as a person. Mailer went beyond that. It's not just the two years in Russia. He did Oswald's entire life, and Oswald becomes a bizarre personification of the nightmare of the Cold War. He's like this spawn of Satan that grew out of the Cold War and the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States. It's an absolutely brilliant book.
Usually, when someone returns from that kind of life in the Soviet Union, the US government would bug him when he came back to the United States.
They didn't bug him, as far as we know, but they certainly did everything they could to debrief him, and they knew all about him and they knew where he had worked. That was the big cover-up that everybody's always referring to, mistakenly thinking that the big cover-up is covering up the CIA and the FBI's role in the assassination. It's them covering up their ass, because they knew all about him, and they didn't alert the Secret Service to him.
How much time did you spend with Mailer on this? He has the capacity to speak about the Oswald case and the assassination at length, but he can also talk like an encyclopedia of everything that he's read.
The remarkable thing about Mailer was that he could talk almost as he would write. A lot of writers, you read their books, and they're writing beautifully, and then you go and interview them, and they just can't speak. They take a long time writing their sentences, and they can't talk that way. Well, Mailer can.
When I interviewed him, I completely over-prepared for the interview, as I always do. I had reams of notes and questions, and I was expecting this great back and forth. We got to his house, and they ushered us into this upstairs bedroom, and we set everything up. Eventually the great man appears, and he's very friendly, sits down and gets ready to go. I asked one question, and he was off and running. There was hardly any back and forth at all. He just basically spoke for 45 minutes. I never referred to any of my notes or any of the reading I had done. He answered every question that I could possibly have wanted him to answer, brilliantly. And then at the end he said, "I think we're done now, and if we go any further, it will just screw up the editing." And he was totally right.
That is something, when you think that Errol Morris is doing marathon interviews. For his new film, Standard Operating Procedure, he talked to Janis Karpinski, the commander of Abu Ghraib prison, for 16 hours.
I don't understand that. I've never seen him do an interview. I've heard about how he does it, which is that he basically lets people talk and talk and talk, which is what I do, too. I let people talk until they're done talking, and then I wait. There are always these moments, when you're not asking a question, when somebody starts saying something that's interesting. He does that in spades, and gets great results. But I can't imagine talking to somebody for 16 hours. I don't know where you'd go. People get worn out.
Did Mailer talk at all about things that might have occurred to him about the assassination after the publication of the book?
Like me, he did not devote his entire life to this subject. This was a period of time. He wrote the book, and then he moved on to other things. He's not like these people who spend their entire lives just focusing on the Kennedy assassination.
What struck me listening to Mailer was his discussion of Oswald's killing of the police officer, J. D. Tippit, before he hid in the Texas Theater. Mailer believed that the killing of the police officer marked the way that the police and the people in Dallas at the time viewed him, and suggested that the police resented Oswald more for his killing of Tippit, one of their peers, than for his assassination of Kennedy.
The episode with Tippit is key. If you look at the film carefully, you'll notice, when Oswald is first brought into the police station, he's making a power fist. He's in handcuffs and he's making what's very, very clear, to the press, a power fist. Then he's taken into police custody, and taken back to an interrogation room, and at that time all the police were doing was presenting him with the evidence that he shot a Dallas police officer. Probably the Dallas police were more pissed off about him killing one of their own, than they were about him killing Kennedy, quite frankly. They nailed him on that. He had his pistol. He pulled his pistol on the arresting officer in the Texas Theater. It was the same pistol that he used to kill Tippit. They matched the bullets, they had him completely cold on the Tippit killing. And that's what they were going after him for, and they completely shook him up, because he wasn't expecting it. That wasn't part of the plan.
In the press conference, when the press starts asking if he killed the president, Oswald said, "No, I haven't been charged with that. The first time I heard that was when the press were talking to me in the hallway." The police had been talking to him about the Tippit killing. Then he comes out, and he's paraded through the hallway, and he says, "I'm just a patsy, I didn't do anything." You can understand it.
I think Mailer's comment that his plan of presenting himself as a political hero or political martyr or whatever he imagined himself to be - the man who killed the president of the United States - went down the drain, because he's being charged with killing a cop, so at that point he's just going to try to weasel out of it and say that he's innocent. It's an interesting theory, and it's as good a theory as we have.
The way that Mailer was advancing that theory, if we can call it that, was all the more effective, because there was no element of heroism or courage or anything positive that you might possibly derive from this. It falls apart completely when the guy pulls a gun and kills a cop.
Yeah. Oswald knew that. I think he was prepared to be interrogated about killing the President of the United States. But he was totally unprepared to be interrogated about killing a cop. That was beneath him. He thought of himself as one of the great people of the 20th century, the great men in history. And there he was in the Dallas police station, being accused of killing a cop. Exactly how you put it - any hope for some sort of heroic end to this scenario was gone at that point.
We've talked about getting into someone's mind. Were there any conspiratorialists to whom you became close? With which of them were you most sympathetic?
Probably most sympathetic to Josiah Thompson [author of Six Seconds in Dallas], in that he was so thoughtful. He's a real intellectual. He was a philosophy professor at Haverford when the Warren Commission Report came out, and then he ended up devoting himself for many years to the Kennedy Assassination. I disagree with him on his conclusions, but one of the reasons that I made this film is that I wanted to understand why so many people whom I love and respect, whom I have great admiration for, who are brilliant people, have come to a conclusion about the assassination that I find completely illogical and wrong. I wanted to come to terms with that, so I wanted to treat it with respect and to explain that I wanted to understand it. Of all the people I spoke to, he was the clearest about it.
Gary Hart was great, too. He's also a great believer in conspiracy theories, as was Tom Hayden. They were all people I admired a great deal. I understand their perspective on things. Their world view was greatly influenced by their belief that there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, and that the government covered it up. The history of that idea and how it had come about had never been explored before, so that was really the whole motivation behind the film.
Why did so many punk bands take their names from the Kennedy assassination - Dead Kennedys, Single Bullet Theory, the Lee Harvey Oswald Band...?
It's one of the great pop culture moments in American history. Everything goes back to that. At least that's how we perceive it. Everything that has happened since, happened because of that event. Had that event not happened, had the bullet missed, the entire course of our lives would have taken an entirely different course. Perhaps no Vietnam War. If no Vietnam, perhaps no civil rights unrest in the 60s. Maybe there would be no drug culture. Maybe no man on the moon.
It's the Cleopatra's nose view of history. If her nose had been a different shape, perhaps everything that happened during her time would have been different. Our great legend is that the Kennedy assassination changed everything, and everything was spun from that. We would have had no Watergate.
Do people in Dallas, where you'll have an event today at the Texas Theater, view the assassination any differently from people anywhere else?
I don't think so. It seems to me that there is a general consensus that Kennedy was killed as a result of a conspiracy, no matter where you go. I think probably there are more people who think about it, because they drive past the site every day. They're probably more aware of the details of it, because of all these people out there hawking conspiracy books and giving tours. It's maybe in the forefront of their minds a bit more than people in other cities or towns around the country.
I think most Americans, if asked, would say, "Sure." Was Kennedy killed as a result of a conspiracy? It's almost that people say, "Duh." That's the answer. It's just taken for granted.
Did Mailer in any way address this persistent belief in the conspiracies in spite of the evidence that he and other people have presented?
He always hedged his bets. In the film, he said he's perfectly willing to accept that there were conspiracies, even conspiracies on that day, and that Oswald may have been talking to some of the conspirators. But that doesn't mean that Oswald singlehandedly didn't kill Kennedy, without assistance.
This is one of the things that people don't think about. Every president has hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people who want him dead, and plenty of people are talking about it. At this very moment, think about how many people might be saying that they want George Bush dead. It's not so unusual. And with Kennedy, maybe there were rogue elements in the CIA who were plotting against him. There may have been elements of the Mafia who wanted him dead for a variety of reasons. Maybe there were people in the military who wanted him dead because they thought he was going to pull out of Vietnam, but that doesn't mean that they actually pulled it off.
Mailer never suggested, and I don't suggest, that there weren't perhaps hundreds of conspiracies going on. Mailer quotes an FBI guy whom he spoke to who spent many years working on this, saying that "they lacked the proper testosterone." It's a wonderful Mailer comment.
If Mailer can't say that, who can? Who there people whom you wanted desperately to get for the film, whom you were not able to get?
Only two people - Ted Kennedy, who has never spoken about this. I was very interested to know his take on all this, having been there from Day One and suffered through this. I thought he might have a lot to say if he ever chose to speak about it, but he didn't choose to speak about it. He hasn't spoken to anybody else about it, as far as I know.
The other was Marina Oswald. I spoke to her on the phone, but she didn't want to be involved in the film.
Was there any information that she gave you that was valuable?
No, since I did speak with Priscilla McMillan [author of Marina and Lee] and Priscilla McMillan spent ten years with Marina, writing a book about her relationship with Lee Harvey, and could almost channel their relationship. She's been so consumed with this story, she was almost a perfect stand-in for Marina, the Marina of 40 years ago. In terms of information, I was covered. What I was interested in with regard to Marina was that she had gone the other way. She started out as the main witness against Oswald, and claimed that she knew the moment she heard that shots were fired in Dealey Plaza that it was Lee. But then she flipped over and became a conspiracy theorist in the early 80s. She became the darling of the conspiracy community, as it were.
Why did she become a conspiracy theorist?
Frankly... I hate to say this, but I think it was money and celebrity, things like this. She would charge ten grand for an interview.
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