Book Review: “The Final Witness” — Just the Facts
By Bob Katz
Strangely, Paul Landis makes no acknowledgment of the implications of the evidence he attests to, namely that neither Lee Harvey Oswald nor any other single gunman could have acted alone.
The Final Witness: A Kennedy Secret Service Agent Breaks His Silence After 60 Years by Paul Landis. Chicago Review Press, 222 pages, $30.
I’m trying hard to imagine what it would be like to read Paul Landis’s book, The Final Witness, if I didn’t know what I already know. How would it read if, a full month before publication, the book’s single newsworthy element had not been widely reported in the New York Times, CNN, Vanity Fair, NBC, and the Dallas Morning News?
Moreover, I wonder what it would be like to read this book, subtitled “A Kennedy Secret Service Agent Breaks His Silence After 60 Years,” if I had not myself, once upon a time, fervently believed that the JFK assassination was of great importance and that it could, with sufficient resources, be successfully investigated and ultimately solved.
In other words, how would this book read if one accepted it for what it purports to be, the modest memoir of an unheralded individual who, having been thrust dead center into one of the pivotal events of modern American history, happened to notice something that maybe we should all know about.
The story opens with Landis as a recent college graduate living with his parents in Worthington, Ohio. The year is 1957. Vocationally aimless, he signs up with the Ohio Air National Guard. Faced with an empty summer before training begins, he heads out on an extended road trip with a college buddy. Badlands, Yellowstone, Glacier, Mount Rainier, Crater Lake, pitching tent, yakking with strangers, stretching his wings. For a fleeting moment it seemed this excursion was going to accelerate into a fevered Kerouacian quest to grasp the quicksilver essence of our fraught and sprawling nation. That would make for a nifty run-up to a narrative that we realize, spoiler alert baked in, is bound to culminate in an epic nightmare.
Given this subject, readers will be predisposed to look for clues, at the very least clues that Landis realizes his account will be scoured and scrutinized for clues. Alas, he doesn’t make it easy. Young Paul Landis doesn’t seem to be searching for anything beyond a little adventure and a bit of self-actualization.
Hiking along a northern California beach by Highway 101, he witnesses a brutal car accident. Screeching tires, crunched metal, injured passengers by the side of the road. Is this a deft foreshadowing of you know what? “We waited quite a while for the police and an ambulance,” Landis writes drily, “but once they arrived, Paul (his traveling companion) and I gave our statements and we were again on our way.”
I lingered over that for a moment. He gave a statement and was on his way.
After completing his National Guard training, Landis returns to Ohio. He’s living with his parents, working at Wilson’s Men’s Wear, honing his golf game, aimless again. When a family friend who’d become a Secret Service agent stops by for a visit, something clicks. Landis writes, “I began thinking that being able to protect the president of the United States had to be the coolest job in the universe.”
The rest, as they say, is …
Landis fills out an application and is hired so readily, by his telling, as to raise questions concerning the requisite qualifications. Affability? Check. Propensity to follow instructions? Check. Absence of outstanding demerits? Check. At least five foot eight? “I stretched as much as I could without standing on my tiptoes.”
Assigned to the Cincinnati field office, he specializes in check forgeries and takes a rented room with a widowed grandmother who lovingly prepares home-cooked dinners for him even though he doesn’t always come home on time. Can it get any more bland?
Yes it can. Landis is transferred to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he becomes part of the Secret Service detail guarding President Eisenhower’s four grandchildren and, eventually, the president himself. Highlight: Protecting Ike during a round of 18 at the fabled Augusta National Golf Course.
Landis describes all this in a straightforward manner with almost nothing in the way of embellishment, commentary, or personal reflection. Just the facts, Ma’am, is clearly his stylistic preference and seemingly his guiding philosophy. It doesn’t make for scintillating reading and one gets the urge, familiar to fans of pornography, to skip ahead to the good stuff. Because something is brewing. We know it even if there’s nary a hint that guileless SSA Landis knows it.
John F. Kennedy is elected president. Camelot’s in bloom. Landis is assigned to Jackie and the kids. Watching him go about his mundane duties, escorting Caroline as she rides her pony, accompanying Jackie on antiquing expeditions, one wonders what exactly his professional toolkit consists of and what he does to keep himself sharp. Working the midnight shift at the White House, Landis writes, “Booooring. We were not allowed to read on post, so I used to while away the time counting the holes in the acoustic ceiling tiles outside the Oval Office, or the number of floor tiles in the hallway.”
The months fly by. “At the end of a summer in Hyannis Port, we would move on to Newport, Rhode Island to visit Mrs. Kennedy’s mother and stepfather … at Hammersmith Farm, the estate where Mrs. Kennedy had grown up. After a month or so in Newport, it was off to Palm Beach for most of the winter. Then, in spring, it would be back to the White House, spending weekends in Middleburg, Virginia (where Jackie has leased an estate.)”
Politics? There’s not much. A glancing reference to the October, 1962, Cuban Missile Crisis is the exception, although this does allow Landis — tellingly? – a segue into the December 29, 1962, trip to the Orange Bowl in Miami where the president was feted by surviving members of Brigade 2506, the CIA-sponsored group of Cuban exiles that had launched a failed attempt in 1961 to overthrow Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs.
Cuba. Castro. Bay of Pigs. CIA. Cuban exiles. JFK. Each of these is a potent hashtag in any discussion of the Kennedy assassination. Is Landis at last starting to zero in?
“We had a white Lincoln convertible there,” he writes, “to drive the president and Mrs. Kennedy out of the stadium to their waiting helicopter. I was told to cover the left rear of the car, where I walked and jogged as we departed the Orange Bowl. This was my first OJT [on job training] experience covering a moving vehicle in which the president and the first lady were riding.”
Then it’s on to Texas.
In recounting his super-charged encounter with the events of November 22, 1963, Landis does not deviate from this monotone approach. He was positioned on the right rear running board on the open air convertible directly following the presidential limousine. He heard gunshots. He saw the president’s skull explode in a spray of blood. He leapt into the rear seat of the convertible as the motorcade raced away. Outside Parkland Hospital, he tried to coax a traumatized Jackie, who “was holding what was left of the President’s head in her lap,” to exit the limo. When Jackie finally rose up, he spotted atop the cushioning of the leather seat a completely intact, copper-jacketed bullet. He picked up the bullet. He slipped it into his suit coat pocket. The hospital corridor was a chaotic madhouse. JFK’s lifeless body was moved onto an examining table in Trauma Room #1. “I removed the bullet from my pocket and reaching out over the examination table, I carefully placed it on the white cotton blanket next to the president’s left shoe…. I had saved an important piece of evidence and placed it … where it would be found and prove to be helpful.”
That’s it. Landis has nothing more to add. Having quietly planted a land mine, he walks away with a shrug, dodging even the most obvious, two-plus-two-equals-four type of conclusion. Strangely, he makes no acknowledgment of the implications of the evidence he attests to, namely that neither Lee Harvey Oswald nor any other single gunman could have acted alone.
Without rehashing the whole hornet’s nest of intricate forensic details — look up “magic bullet theory” if you’re interested — Landis’s disclosure that the intact bullet came from President Kennedy and not from Texas Governor John Connally, who was also seated in the limousine and was severely wounded, effectively refutes the official Warren Commission conclusion that one person using the bolt action rifle attributed to Oswald could have fired all the shots in Dealey Plaza during that fatal six-second time frame.
So what now, America, 60 years later? Paul Landis’s tale is not Jim Garrison’s A Heritage of Stone. It is not Peter Dale Scott’s Deep Politics and the Death of JFK. It is not Robert Blakey’s The Fatal Hour, or Oliver Stone’s JFK. Declining even to acknowledge that the assassination might be still unsolved, even while presenting something close to proof of exactly that, Landis is not about to speculate as to whodunit. Presumably that will be left to folks who care about such things.
An iconic Getty photo of JFK’s funeral appears on one of the final pages of the book. It shows the Kennedy family grimly gathered outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral on a brisk November morning. Jackie, veiled in black, is flanked by Ted and Bobby, as the fatherless toddler John Jr. gamely salutes the passing casket. Paul Landis stands behind the boy, solemnly looking on.
Landis states he’s waited all these decades to tell his story because the assassination left him traumatized (he quit the secret service the following year) and, having refused to pay any attention to the many controversies about the case, he was therefore unaware of the significance of the bullet he found. We have no choice but to take him at his word.
One gets the sense that by writing this book, SSA Landis believes he’s made good on his assignment. He’s fulfilled his obligation to the truth by taking appropriate steps to enter into the historical record a unique piece of evidence. He writes, “I have shared what I saw, what I did, and only what I know to be factual about that November weekend.”
If the historical record was all that mattered, he indeed would have done his duty.
Bob Katz was a founder of the Assassination Information Bureau, a public interest group that lobbied for a reinvestigation of the JFK and MLK murders. His novel Waiting for Al Gore will be published in February 2024.