Assume Nothing: Encounters with Assassins, Spies, Presidents, and Would-Be Masters of the Universe

Here are some excerpts from this 2023 book by the late Edward Jay Epstein:

* Indeed, it was from [Gerald Ford] that I first heard the term “political truth,” a concept in which facts may be tempered to fit political realities.

* John J. McCloy: “J. Edgar Hoover likes to close doors. I told Warren we had to reopen them.”

Had the [Warren] commission’s investigation faced limits in what it could report? I asked.
He answered by describing Thornton Wilder’s novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, in which an investigation uncovered a series of unrelated sexual liaisons. He compared the book to the investigation, saying, “We had uncovered a lot of minor scandals, but they were not relevant to our investigation. We decided not to publish them in the report.”
When I pressed him on what these scandals involved, he replied, “It was as if someone picked up a rock and the light caused all sorts of bugs to run for cover.” He said the Secret Service needed to obscure the indiscretions of its agents the night before the assassination, the FBI had to expunge embarrassing incidents from its reports, and the CIA had to hide its unauthorized domestic activities. He added that even Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother, had put his own man, Howard Willens, on the staff to deal with “inappropriate revelations.”

* He said that while no one on the commission had any doubts that Oswald was the shooter in the sniper’s nest, the real mystery for him was “why Oswald was there with a rifle.” He believed there was persuasive evidence that Oswald had been trained in espionage in Russia and that Oswald might have been “a sleeper agent who went haywire.” Warren did not buy his theory, and he lost the argument because “Warren was, you need to understand, stubborn as a mule.”

* [Attorney Wesley J.] Liebeler gave me his own account of the investigation. He ridiculed the seven commissioners, saying the staff called them the Seven Dwarfs because they refused to question the claims of Oswald’s Russian wife, Marina (who was Snow White). He said Dopey was Chief Justice Warren, who dismissed any testimony that impugned Marina’s credibility.
I asked him, “Who was Sleepy?”
He said Allen Dulles, the former director of Central Intelligence. Dulles received this appellation because he often fell asleep during the testimony of witnesses and, when awakened, asked inappropriate questions. For example, an FBI fiber expert was describing the bullet holes in the front of Kennedy’s shirt when Dulles woke up, looked at the blowup of the bloody shirt, and said, “He wears ready – made shirts, huh?” At another point, he spilled a wad of tobacco on a photograph of three bullet fragments and said, as if he had discovered new evidence, that he saw four fragments.
McCloy was Grumpy. According to Liebeler, he became angry when staff lawyers did not pay sufficient attention to his theories about possible foreign involvement.
Liebeler was also scathing about the initial FBI investigation, which he called “a joke.” As for the CIA, he said one of its theories was that Oswald might have been “brainwashed” into serving as a “Manchurian Candidate” assassin. He noted the agency had no basis for this “ridiculous theory” other than a decade – old study it had conducted on brainwashing techniques.

* Arlen Specter: “I showed them the Zapruder film frame by frame and explained that they could either accept the single – bullet theory or begin looking for a second assassin.”

* “Did you examine the color autopsy photos?”
“No,” he answered. “I never saw the autopsy photos.”
“Did anyone else on the commission or staff see them?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
Obviously they were missing. Looking him straight in the eyes, I asked, “Why not?”
Specter shook his head. “You need to ask Rankin.”

* This crucial omission showed that the Warren Commission, no matter how decent and virtuous its seven members, did not conduct an exhaustive investigation. Indeed, it did not even examine the basic autopsy evidence of how the president was killed.

* Numerous fireflies were blinking in the distance. Calling my attention to them, Angleton said the female firefly uses a sort of Morse code of flashes to signal her availability to males. He added, lest I assume it was a chance observation, “Of course, one can’t be sure it’s a firefly.” He explained that the assassination beetle, which was the firefly’s natural predator, had learned over time to replicate this code of flashes. “The firefly responds to this mating call, and instead of finding a mate … is devoured by a beetle.” In this case, the assassination beetle provoked the firefly into flying into the fatal trap.

* [Edward Banfield’s] idea of an intellectual was someone who could see controversial issues in shades of gray, as opposed to a man of action, which included a politician, who saw them in black and white.

* I had learned that projects such as moviemaking, which required the cooperation of many other people, were not for me. My moviemaking ambitions were an ego – driven mistake. I needed to find something less entangling. I decided to move forward with my writing career, a career in which I could be the sole author.

* [Graham Allison] introduced me to Diplomacy, a board game in which seven players are assigned seven countries in pre – World War I Europe and make their strategic decisions. Since there could be only one winner and alliances were necessary to win, the rules permitted players to lie, cheat, and deceive each other.

* As a teacher, I found a marked difference between my Harvard and MIT students. The former were socially transactional. Those in my seminar did not hesitate to attempt to negotiate a better grade on their papers. As I enjoy verbal argument, I usually acquiesced in the negotiations to reward their efforts. One student, Tom Werner, even broadened the negotiations to include an idea to collaborate on a TV series based on a Robert Ludlum thriller. (He went on to produce The Bill Cosby Show. ) On the other hand, MIT students tended to accept their grades as the fate they deserved. They evidenced little interest in engaging in social interaction or negotiations. I did learn from them, however. Unlike their social science counterparts at Harvard, they were the future electrical engineers and computer scientists who would usher in the age of internet.

* I had lunch with Pat [Moynihan] every day while awaiting Kate’s arrival. He was furious at the “minions” in the Nixon administration who were telling him to work to shut down the production of opium in India. “It’s idiotic,” he said. Although India was the world’s largest producer of opium, much of it went to pharmaceutical companies to manufacture codeine, an antitussive. “If they shut down Indian opium, they are going to cause a global coughing crisis.”
It was a role reversal for Pat. When he served in the Nixon White House two years earlier, he had advocated overriding ambassadors and using the threat of military action to suppress opium. I realized that Pat, a chameleon, adapted his views to coincide with his position. In other words, he was a political animal.

He explained that when he joined the Nixon administration, there was a concern that drugs and street crime were linked. He suggested to Nixon that the link theory could be tested by temporarily disrupting the supply of foreign drugs into the United States. What he had not foreseen is that “the Mormons” would expand his idea into policy. “I was as surprised as anyone when they turned my suggestion into the war on heroin.”

* [Tom Wolfe said] that a memoir to be true would have to describe the writer’s most painful humiliations, as Jean – Jacques Rosseau did in his Confessions. He said that would not be easy because a human brain is not wired to relive painful moments. To test Wolfe’s proposition, I later tried to recount one but, as he predicted, it was too traumatic.

* Some five years later, in 2008, the day after Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination for president, I received an email from Katie Rosman, then a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, asking about an exchange I had with her and Obama in 2003 when he was serving in the Illinois Senate… Katie said Obama was standing with Vernon Jordan, whom I also did not know and did not recall ever meeting. She went on to say that she was so impressed with our conversation with Obama that immediately after Tina’s party, she pitched the idea of doing a piece on him to an editor at the New York Times Magazine, but it was rejected on the grounds that a story about an unknown Chicago politician did not belong in the New York Times.

* network television news is a product manufactured by an organization, not by individuals… And while at one level a newsperson chose and prepared individual stories, at another level the organization chose the newsperson. Those who were able to adapt to the networks’ values were retained and promoted. Those who were not able to accept those values were weeded out and shunted aside. From this perspective, it was the organization, not the individuals, that determined the pictures of society represented on national television.

* [New Yorker’s William] Shawn offered me the opportunity to do so by assigning me to investigate the allegations of a conspiracy by the Nixon administration to murder the entire leadership of the Black Panthers, a group of militants opposing the government oppression of Blacks. The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers had reported as fact that the police had killed 28 Panthers. Shawn told me to find out whether the murder of 28 Panthers by the police was, as he put it, “part of a pattern of genocide.”

…That left four questionable deaths in shoot – outs, and all of them were with local, not federal, police.
While “four deaths, two deaths, even a single death must be the subject of the most serious concern,” I wrote, I concluded that false numbers bandied about in the press had only confused the issue of police violence with a conspiracy theory about government genocide.

Afterward, to their credit, many newspapers, including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, who had lazily repeated the false numbers of Black Panther deaths, printed editorial apologies to their readers.

* I had learned in my work on the Warren Commission that contemporaneous memoranda were far more valuable to understanding a complex issue than the retrospective memories expressed in even the most candid interviews with people involved in the issue.

* Times had changed from the mid – 1960s, when I could get access, unimpeded by a communications officer, to the members of the Warren Commission and its staff. By 1980, all government agencies employed press communications officers, whose job it was to prevent outsiders from getting anything but approved sound bites.

* After the Miami Herald published an exposé of his exploitation of women in November 2018, Epstein sought help, as I learned from one of his close friends, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former strategic advisor. Epstein befriended Bannon after Trump fired him in 2017 and even planned a trip with him on his plane to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Now he sought Bannon’s help restoring his public image. Bannon suggested Epstein should go public by giving an exclusive interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes or another high – profile TV show. Bannon then became his media coach and schooled him on how to take control of a television interview. To this end, in March 2019, Bannon prepared him through a sham 60 Minutes interview in the living room of Epstein’s mansion with a TV camera crew and indoor lighting. Playing the role of a 60 Minutes interviewer, Bannon fired questions at Epstein about the source of his money, his guilty plea, and his relations with women. Although Epstein thought he did well in this trial run, according to a person who attended this mock interview, he decided against having Bannon try to arrange a real 60 Minutes interview.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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