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Kup vs. JFK

Chronicle of a Columnist's Obsession

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In an essay on the Oliver Stone film JFK, published a month after his laudatory review in the Sun-Times, Roger Ebert wrote: "Never in my years as a newspaperman have I seen one subject pummeled so mercilessly and joylessly as this movie that questions the official wisdom on the assassination of John F. Kennedy."

Ebert didn't have to look far to find the chief Chicago-area pummeler: his Sun-Times colleague Irv Kupcinet has repeatedly used his column to flail JFK, Oliver Stone, and anyone else who has dared to challenge the findings of the Warren Commission report.

Between December 17 of last year, when he first reviewed JFK as the lead item in his column, and May 22 of this year, when the Sun-Times reviewed the home video version (and I stopped counting), Kup ran more than two dozen items on Stone, his film, and other Kennedy assassination subjects. He also called for the opening of sealed government files on the assassination, venturing that the information contained therein will put an end to "far-fetched conspiracy theories," by which he seems to mean anything other than the Warren Commission report.

Let's run the highlights:

December 17, 1991: Kup says JFK may be "the most controversial movie of our day." He reports that Oliver Stone "has come under severe criticism for twisting the story to fit his own theory." He faults Stone for making former New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison the hero of the movie and for claiming the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were all linked in some conspiracy. "Stone's movie probably will be a box office hit," Kup predicts, "but in reaching a huge audience he owes history some relevance to the truth."

December 19: Kup mentions another assassination film set for release, Ruby, calling it a "powerful role" for star Danny Aiello.

December 22: Kup's Sunday column carries a photo of the now-aged Governor John Connally of Texas with a caption promoting his planned appearance the next day on CBS This Morning, where, Kup says, Connally will "give his opinion of the movie JFK."

December 23: "The new movie JFK was trashed on David Brinkley's ABC Sunday show," Kup reports. "The various theories of a conspiracy in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in the Oliver Stone production were ridiculed by the panelists, as we previously did."

December 24: Kup criticizes the syndicated Geraldo show telecast in Chicago on Channel Nine the day before. The guests on the show, including the supposed mistress of President Lyndon B. Johnson, claimed that LBJ was the "prime mover in the assassination." Calling the show's theme "the nadir of speculation," Kup asks, "wouldn't Bobby Kennedy, then attorney general . . . have exposed such a plot?"

December 25: On his Christmas wish list for assorted celebrities Kup suggests the following: "Oliver Stone--another theory for his collection of astounding assumptions on the assassination of JFK: the butler did it."

Kup then took a vacation and resumed his column on Sunday, January 5. It took him a week to return to the topic of JFK.

January 12: Kup reports that Oliver Stone is coming to Chicago to tape an Oprah Winfrey show. "I trust Oprah will press him on all the criticism of his convoluted conspiracy theory for the assassination."

January 19: In his lead item this Sunday Kup again plays the Bobby card: "The major flaw in all the theories about the JFK assassination, especially those cited in the movie JFK, is failure to mention Bobby Kennedy, then U.S. attorney general with tremendous resources at his demand. Can anybody believe that Bobby, a tenacious prosecutor, wouldn't have taken action to pursue every conspiracy theory to determine if some person(s) other than Lee Harvey Oswald had killed his beloved brother? Doesn't make sense."

January 23: Kup reports that former House speaker Tip O'Neill "became infuriated" during an interview with radio personality Eddie Schwartz when asked about LBJ's alleged involvement in the assassination. "Meanwhile," Kup adds, "the pressure to open all the records, including Warren Commission documents, is gaining momentum. That would help clarify the confusion now rampant."

January 26: Again Kup leads his Sunday column with the assassination: the nation is "going ballistic" over it, he says. Comparing the current hysteria to public reactions to the deaths of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley, Kup quotes Chicago historian Ralph Newman, who explains that the nation "refuses to accept the logical explanation for the sudden death of a hero."

February 5: Kup plugs Oliver Stone's appearance on Dan Rather's CBS show 48 Hours, which he seems to have previewed. He identifies Rather as a "severe critic" of the film and adds: "One more time: Stone makes one admission in the interview. He did make up some points in the movie. In doing so, he exercised his legitimate license as an artist to tell a story. But Stone insists that did not alter the movie's conclusion that there was a conspiracy to kill JFK."

February 6: A Chicago alderman has asked Mayor Daley to have the Police Department release its files on Jack Ruby, to determine if Ruby had any connection with the assassination. "That, Your Honor, will be a waste of time and money," Kup advises.

Kup goes on in a second paragraph of this column to quote his old pal Elmer Gertz, who worked as an attorney for Jack Ruby and considers any effort to link him to a conspiracy "sheer madness." According to Gertz, Kup reports, Ruby's shooting of Oswald was a "moment of madness . . . by a self-anointed avenger, anothing more." Kup concludes with a quick slap at Geraldo Rivera: "The search of the Ruby files will be as fruitful as Geraldo Rivera's opening of Al Capone's vault."

February 14: Kup notes that Kevin Costner, who plays Jim Garrison in JFK, portrayed a character in an earlier film, Bull Durham, who "believes in the soul, hard liquor and that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone." Kup asks: "Cinema verite?" The column is illustrated by a stock shot of Costner dressed as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables. The caption reads: "Inconsistencies in 'character.'"

February 28: Kup plugs an appearance by former president Gerald Ford, the lone surviving member of the Warren Commission, on the A&E cable show Investigative Reports. Kup says the former president "minces no words in describing the conspiracy theory in the movie 'JFK.' He calls it 'hogwash.' Adds Ford, 'Not one credible piece of evidence has surfaced to convince me that Lee Harvey Oswald wasn't the lone assassin.'"

March 15: The lead item in Kup's Sunday column reports on an upcoming appearance in Chicago by Oliver Stone, who is to receive an award as "Director of the Decade" from the Chicago International Film Festival. Kup adds that Stone will join a "panel of authorities" on the JFK assassination.

March 29: One day before the Oscars, Kup allows as how JFK, which is up for a slew of awards, "helped get Congress to pass legislation that would open the files on the assassination." But he adds that "the movie had a lot of help," pointing out that Warner Bros., producers of the film, retained Hill & Knowlton's Frank Mankiewicz, former press secretary to Robert F. Kennedy, "to lobby Congress to take such action."

March 30: Kup takes a pre-Oscar shot at JFK's director: "If Oliver Stone doesn't win an award," he asks, "will he charge conspiracy?"

April 1: Kup's Oscar wrap-up says: "Worst Loser--Oliver Stone, whose 'JFK' failed to score except for two technical awards, was victim of a conspiracy, no doubt. Stone was quoted as blaming the media and gays for denouncing the film."

April 3: Kup reports that Motion Picture Association president Jack Valenti, a former aide to LBJ, "denounced 'JFK' as a 'hoax, a smear and pure fiction.'" Kup explains that Valenti waited until after the Academy Awards to denounce the film so as not to influence the voting. "He was especially upset," Kup claims, "because of his loyalty to his former boss . . . who was implicated in the movie as part of a conspiracy to kill JFK."

In the same column, Kup sneaks in another plug for old friend Elmer Gertz. "'Who Shot JFK?' will be Elmer Gertz's topic at Congregation Kol Ami tonight," Kup reports, adding, "Gertz wrote the definitive biography of Jack Ruby."

April 7: Kup again comes to the defense of the Warren Commission, writing, "Dr. Charles Crenshaw, who waited 29 years to 'reveal' that President JFK was shot by 'bullets in front of his head' as described in his book, JFK: Conspiracy of Silence, hereby is awarded the procrastinator medal."

April 15: Kup notes "overwhelming support" to have the government open the files on the assassination of President Kennedy. "But don't expect to see the files shortly," he cautions. "The House appointed a five-member board to review and release all the documents--but it has two years to complete its work."

April 22: Kup again mentions that Oliver Stone is being honored by the Chicago International Film Festival and that Stone "also will join a pre-dinner panel on the JFK assassination."

April 30: Kup criticizes the Justice Department's "surprising opposition to releasing" the Kennedy assassination files, writing that this plays "into the hands of those who insist there was a conspiracy." He then reports that U.S. Representative Henry Hyde wrote to Attorney General William Barr to ask why the government opposed disclosure of the files. Hyde's letter, according to Kup, claims the government's refusal "is supporting the paranoia of Oliver Stone and his conspiracy comrades."

May 21: After three weeks of silence on the issue, Kup notes an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association by the two pathologists who performed the autopsy on the body of President Kennedy. They claim that the bullets that killed the president came from the rear "and confirm the Warren Commission report. That should cause the government to speed up its release of the official reports on the assassination," Kup continues, "and put an end to all those far-fetched conspiracy theories." Kup ends the item by stating: "Some doubters, nevertheless, will continue to hold conspiracy theories, largely because of the movie 'JFK.'"

May 22: Kup reports on Oliver Stone's reaction to the JAMA report, quoting Hollywood columnist Army Archerd as saying that Stone took a "so what?" position. Nevertheless, Kup insists that the claim of the two pathologists "deflates Stone's conspiracy theory that another person was involved." Coincidentally, the home video version of JFK is reviewed in the Sun-Times on this day. The thumbnail critique quotes Roger Ebert's original review, which says the film "convincingly argues the official version of JFK's death is flatly impossible."

What did Kup have against JFK? I asked him recently, and he replied that he thought Stone "went overboard" in tying government agencies to the assassination. He said Jim Garrison, the prosecutor played in the film by Kevin Costner, was "held in low esteem" in New Orleans for his prosecution of Clay Shaw as part of the assassination conspiracy. He felt that if Stone's film went unchallenged, it could give "the wrong impression to young viewers" whose only knowledge of the assassination might come from the film.

But perhaps there's a more personal dimension to Kup's animus. A hint of it surfaces in his column of February 9, which I've held aside from the foregoing chronology. In this Sunday column Kup writes, "The NBC 'Today' show on Friday carried a list of people who died violently in 1963 shortly after the death of President John F. Kennedy and may have had some link to the assassination. The first name on the list was Karyn Kupcinet, my daughter."

Calling the inclusion of his daughter "an atrocious outrage," Kup goes on to acknowledge that his daughter died violently in a still unsolved Hollywood murder and that the list including her name was published in a book several years earlier. He denies his daughter had any knowledge of the assassination and says that for the Today show "to repeat the calumny is reprehensible." He concludes by asking the show to "rectify the error."

What exactly had the Today show done? The week of February 3 through 7, Today carried a five-part series entitled "Who Killed JFK?" The last segment included an interview with Oliver Stone conducted by Bryant Gumbel. Immediately after the Stone interview and concluding the five-part series, Gumbel said: "As if JFK's murder weren't enough, consider this: in the first 13 years following the assassination, 37 people with some relation to the case died violently. The odds against that, actuaries say, are higher than 1 in 10,000. We thought showing you who they were, along with how they died, would make an intriguing footnote to our series. They add further mystery to one of the great puzzles of our time." The first name on the list was that of Karyn Kupcinet, preceded by the description, "Murdered--November, 1963."

The book Kup referred to in his February 9 column is Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy, by Jim Marrs. It describes Karyn Kupcinet as a "TV host's daughter who was overheard telling of JFK's death prior to 11/22/63." A similar "mysterious deaths list" was carried in another book on the assassination, High Treason: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the New Evidence of Conspiracy by Robert Groden and Harrison Livingstone. These authors refer to Karyn as a "daughter of a childhood friend of Ruby. . . . She was murdered two days after Kennedy. She had foreknowledge of the assassination and was overheard by a telephone operator talking about it." (In his autobiography Kup says he knew Ruby "when he was a one-time organizer for the Waste and Material Handlers Union.")

Asked if there might be some connection, conscious or otherwise, between his attitude toward assassination conspiracy theories and the fact that his daughter's name has been dragged into them, Kup said the insinuations about his daughter are as outlandish as the theories. He said there is no connection whatsoever.

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