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Moyers and Others Want History Channel Inquiry Over Film That Accuses Johnson
Published on Thursday, February 5, 2004 by the New York Times
Moyers and Others Want History Channel Inquiry Over Film That Accuses Johnson
by Bruce Weber
 

It is the most serious of public accusations, but it is so serious that serious people dismiss it as nuts. In a book published last fall and again in a television documentary, one of President Lyndon B. Johnson's personal lawyers asserts that Vice President Johnson was complicit in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

"Simply stated, L.B.J. killed J.F.K.," Barr McClellan wrote in his book, "Blood, Money and Power: How L.B.J. Killed J.F.K." He repeated the accusation in the documentary "The Guilty Men," which was shown in November on the History Channel.

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Russell Mokhiber: Scott, your father, Barr McClellan, has written a book that's coming out next month. It's called "Blood, Money and Power: How LBJ Killed JFK." And I'm wondering if you agree with your father that President Johnson was behind the assassination of President Kennedy?

Scott McClellan: Thank you for the opportunity, but I'm not going to have any comment on it. Thanks.

more...

Now, Bill Moyers and other powerful men who worked for President Johnson and who are outraged by the book and the film are pressuring the History Channel to conduct an internal examination of the documentary and televise the results.

Yesterday, four of them met with Nicholas Davatzes, the president and chief executive of A & E Television Networks, which owns the History Channel, and Daniel Davids, the History Channel's general manager. In a brief conversation, Mr. Davatzes called it "a positive meeting," but the complainants were withholding judgment.

"They assured us they heard us," said Mr. Moyers, the newscaster who was Johnson's press secretary. "They're considering our request."

The story, which raises issues of censorship and responsibility in television broadcasting, is a strange one, not least because of the people involved, who seem to have brought a great deal of thunder to bear on a controversy that might well have disappeared of its own accord. But it was important, Mr. Moyers said, to put the public record straight.

In addition to Mr. Moyers, those who visited the History Channel yesterday included W. Thomas Johnson Jr., former publisher of The Los Angeles Times and former chief executive of CNN, who is chairman of the L.B.J. Foundation; Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, who in 1963 was a consultant to Vice President Johnson and, along with Mr. Moyers, was on Air Force One for Johnson's swearing-in as president; and Larry Temple, a lawyer in Austin, Tex., who was Johnson's special counsel and is now president of the L.B.J. Foundation.

Mr. Johnson, who is also a spokesman for the former president's family (though no relation), has also enlisted the aid of former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald R. Ford. They, along with Lady Bird Johnson, the president's widow, have written to the chief executives of the three parent companies of A & E Networks: Victor F. Ganzi of the Hearst Corporation, Michael D. Eisner of Disney, and Robert C. Wright of NBC.

In his letter, Mr. Ford called the charges "the most damaging accusations ever made against a former vice president and president in American history."

The film was shown as one of a series devoted to conspiracy theories and was produced by an Englishman, Nigel Turner.

What makes the former Johnson aides especially angry, Mr. Johnson said, is that none of the principals accused in Mr. McClellan's book or the documentary is alive to defend himself — or to sue for libel.

"President Carter said to me, `If it can happen to him, it could happen to me after I'm dead,' " Mr. Johnson said. While libel is excluded, he said, "there may be other legal avenues to pursue."

In perhaps the oddest power connection, Mr. McClellan, the author, is the father of Scott McClellan, President Bush's press secretary, and Dr. Mark S. McClellan, the head of the Food and Drug Administration.

Both younger McClellans have declined in the past to comment on their father's book. Their father, reached at his home in Gulfport, Miss., said he had not spoken with either of them about it.

The author himself, however, is happy to discuss his work. Mr. McClellan, whose book includes several passages of admittedly fictional projection — "faction," he calls it — said he would welcome an investigation of his accusations.

Among other things, he alleges that Johnson, working through his personal lawyer Edward Clark, the senior partner in Mr. McClellan's firm, ordered an associate to kill President Kennedy to keep Robert F. Kennedy, then the attorney general, from investigating Johnson's dealings with a Texas con man, Billy Sol Estes, and from accusing Johnson of involvement in the murder of another man said to have been on the verge of disclosing Johnson's criminality.

On the night of Nov. 21, 1963, Mr. McClellan said, witnesses place Johnson at the home of a Dallas businessman, Clint Murchison, along with Richard M. Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover, and all were discussing the assassination plot for the next day.

All of this, the four men who visited the History Channel say, is baloney. For example, Mr. Valenti said, on Nov. 21, both Johnson and Kennedy were in Houston.

"That very night I was chairman of a huge dinner," Mr. Valenti said, "and the two speakers were the vice president and the president. I rode in a car with L.B.J. to the airport, and we flew on Air Force Two to Fort Worth, where we talked at the Texas Hotel until 1 in the morning."

Mr. McClellan responded: "That is a very disputed thing. There are sources from both sides. My senior partner, Ed Clark, was there, and I'm reasonably certain it happened. There was a meeting. Johnson may or may not have been there. There are people who say that he was."

In fact, no one involved in this episode is actually attacking Mr. McClellan or Mr. Turner, the filmmaker. As Mr. Moyers pointed out, the responsibility lies with the History Channel.

"The History Channel is perfectly within their First Amendment rights to broadcast whatever they choose," Mr. Moyers said. "But we felt they had a responsibility to investigate the allegations. This broadcast was full of errors. What was said was not said as theory, but allegation."

Mr. Johnson said that he first became aware of "The Guilty Men," which he described as "reprehensible journalism," when it was broadcast on Nov. 18 and that he tried to get the History Channel to include a three-paragraph rebuttal in any rebroadcast. The demands made at yesterday's meeting, he said, came about because the L.B.J. Library was getting hundreds of letters, some of whose outraged writers threatened to tear it down. People, he realized, believed the allegations. He was also incensed that Mr. Davatzes had refused to meet with him and that he had gotten no satisfying response from the parent companies until the former presidents and first lady wrote their letters.

"At no point did we try to censor them," Mr. Johnson said, "but I realized that if there is no rebuttal it will always be out there as a source. I have had many people say to me, `Drop it, it was a one-week story.' But I don't want my children and grandchildren on the 50th or 100th anniversary to see a show in which a man I knew well is accused of assassinating President Kennedy."

Mr. Moyers pointed out that in the documentary, allegations were presented as unquestioned facts. He called the show "very bad journalism, the worst I've ever seen."

Even though the book has sold about 75,000 copies, according to its publisher, Hannover House, whose main business is the distribution of DVD's and whose main customer is Wal-Mart, it was the potential reach of television that catalyzed the men to act. The History Channel has 125 million subscribers in some 60 countries.

In a statement, the History Channel defended itself by saying it broadcast 11 hours of programming about the assassination in conjunction with its 40th anniversary.

"The series of shows called `The Men Who Killed Kennedy' looks at many, often contradictory, conspiracy theories concerning the assassination of the president. One episode of the series is `The Guilty Men.' The History Channel has endeavored to make it clear that the program expressed only one point of view, and that the History Channel does not endorse it or any other theory of the assassination."

The statement also said, "The History Channel has agreed to review the matter."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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