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Americas

French author remembers JFK assassination

© Photo: AFP

Video by Stanislas DE SAINT HIPPOLYTE , Philip CROWTHER

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2013-11-22

France’s most prominent expert on John F. Kennedy, Philippe Labro, was on assignment in the US when the president was shot and in Dallas when his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was murdered. He spoke to FRANCE 24 about the events of 50 years ago.

On Thursday the United States, but also the world, is remembering the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, five decades after the tragic day. Philippe Labro, a well-known journalist, author and media personality in France, is among those who have recently published new books to mark the landmark anniversary.

He is well positioned to contribute to the already vast literature on the subject: as a young reporter on assignment in the US, Labro experienced the dramatic events in the fall of 1963 firsthand. His name even appears in the famous Warren Commission Report, the US government’s first official inquiry into the “events which saddened and shocked the people of the United States and of the world.”

In the book "The Presidet's Been Shot" Philippe Labro has published his personal account of the JFK tragedy in Dallas 50 years ago. © Photo used under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Labro was on a reporting assignment in Connecticut when word spread that Kennedy had been killed. He flew to the scene immediately and was on hand in Dallas for Lee Harvey Oswald’s interrogation by police and his then murder by Jack Ruby.

The French author admits the assassination changed his own destiny. “Kennedy is my life,” he recently told the Journal du Dimanche weekly. “I was there. It was my big break. For eight days my face was on the front page of the newspaper. Suddenly, I was the Kennedy expert!”

Back in France, Labro’s career flourished over the years as he branched out into film and even music. His new book “The president’s been shot” (« On a tiré sur le Président », Gallimard) is a very personal account of his experience in Dallas 50 years ago and his subsequent search for the truth about what happened. FRANCE 24 asked him to tell his version of the story.

FRANCE 24: You have said that your own conclusion about the assassination is that Oswald acted alone, in part recalling your time at the police headquarters in Dallas where you saw Oswald in custody. You say those memories of Oswald have haunted you. Why?

Philippe Labro: All the material evidence that [Oswald] was the killer exists, but we cannot know if he was influenced or manipulated by others. Many people, including some great writers, have investigated Oswald's life in order to understand how and why he could have come to commit that act. I have been working on this story for many years, and I myself hesitated for a long time on whether he acted alone or was part of a conspiracy. But 50 years after the fact, after so many investigations and research, no one has presented clear evidence there was a plot.

The first time I saw him he was very close, just across the room. He had this look, this smirk on his face, like he knew something no one else did, like he had done something big and grand. It was an incredible moment, to be crammed in this corridor at the station with journalists and police amid all the attention. I met Jack Ruby, who told me he “loved the French” and gave me his card and, of course, I had no idea he would shoot Oswald two days later. I was a young journalist and was part of probably the biggest event of the second part of the 20th century. So yes, it impressed me. And when I decided to write the book, I did so to tell the truth. I wanted to tell what happened during those amazing 48 hours in that small police headquarters in Dallas.

F24: People have written about Oswald’s obsession with recognition. Do you think in the end he got his wish?

Labro: In the book I wrote one, short chapter comparing Oswald and Kennedy. For me, everything was contradictory about the two men. Kennedy was handsome, wealthy, really, the most powerful man on the planet. Oswald was small and awkward, not rich, and had none of the recognition he craved. I write that the only thing that could have brought these two very different people together was death.

The only thing they had in common was that they both wanted to go down in history. They did, but of course for very different reasons. Yeah, Oswald probably got what he wanted.

F24: What about Jack Ruby?

Labro: For 48 hours Ruby kept repeating “someone should get this son of a bitch” who had “killed my president”. Every two hours he would be telling this to someone else. He was very emotional. You can tell he was getting ready for it in his head. But things did not turn out how he probably pictured. He asked police in Dallas after he shot Oswald “When do I get out?” He thought he had performed a feat of bravery, that people would cheer him as a hero in the streets. He didn’t get this. He went to jail and died in jail.

F24: A majority of Americans believed then, and polls show the same is true today, that there was a conspiracy to kill the president. Do you think people’s first or natural instinct is to believe in conspiracy?

Photograph of JFK, Jackie Kennedy, Texas governor John Connally and his wife riding in the fated Dallas motorcade on November 22, 1963. © Photo by Victor Hugo King / Library of Congress

Labro: I think there may be a universal impulse to reject the truth that has been handed down. The same is true of different events, like the official version of the World Trade Center attack or even the moon landing. So there is this tendency to say the official truth is a big lie. But that is only part of it. First of all, no one can know the whole truth. Second, events are so much more interesting and romantic if there is conspiracy. If there was a plot to kill Kennedy, then he becomes a hero killed by the forces of evil. If just a single, obsessed person killed him, it’s not as noble; it doesn’t belong to the legend that surrounds the Kennedys and that began to be built as soon as JFK died.

It’s also important to remember the event in its time in history. I suggest in my book that if Kennedy had not been killed in Dallas, he may have been shot somewhere else. Many people loved Kennedy, but a lot of people in the [American] South and Southwest hated him. People forget the tensions and violence surrounding the civil rights movement, the Cold War, the worsening relations with Cuba. People look back on the 60s and they think of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and hippies. It was also the decade of assassinations. Three: JFK, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It was the decade of Vietnam. It was not a garden of roses.

F24: The French press had been quizzing you a lot about how the assassination affected and changed the United States, but interest in JFK continues to be an international phenomenon.

Labro: Of course it is. He was an international star. While his career was cut short he accomplished important things that made him famous around the world. He successfully led his country through the [Cuban] missile crisis, he was at the origin of the thaw in the Cold War by pushing for the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, he launched the Peace Corps. His presidency was complex and complicated, it surely had faults, but he accomplished some important things.

There was also the incredibly photogenic presidential couple that made the pair world stars.

And finally just the raw elements of the assassination have gripped the attention of the world since then. The assassination was completely caught on tape by [private citizen Abraham] Zapruder’s home-video camera. Ruby shot Oswald on live television. This is the age of images and these are such strong images. I completely understand why people around the world continue to show such interest in this event, especially during a big anniversary like this one. But it’s true that for many the interest lies in the idea of it as a conspiracy, or at least an enigma.

Date created : 2013-11-21

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