Whose Obsession Is It, Anyway?

Docu-dramas by and large make a hash of history. Ambiguity and nuance are routinely sacrificed for dramatic pacing. But like it or not, movies and TV are the only way many Americans learn about the past. So, though purists may squirm, traditional notions of historical accuracy may have to be replaced by a cruder standard: does the film get the basic truth right, even if some (or most) of the facts are wrong?

Oliver Stone's 1991 movie, "JFK," flunked even this test. Stone's apparent thesis, that LBJ, the Pentagon and the CIA somehow conspired to kill President Kennedy, would be laughable if so many people didn't believe it (polls show that half of the country believes that the CIA played a role in killing Kennedy). "Nixon," on the other hand, is a much more credible effort. Richard Nixon was a Shakespearean tragedy. Stone had no need to embellish the drama. For the most part, he sticks to the known record, making good use of the White House tapes of Watergate fame for the dialogue. Made defensive by historians and journalists who derided the inaccuracy of "JFK," Stone has published an annotated script of his historical sources, most of them mainstream biographies and histories of the period, even before the movie arrives on the screen.

Still, Stone can't escape his favorite conspiracy theory. His Nixon is haunted by his supposed role in plots against Fidel Castro in the early 1960s--plots that somehow got out of control and killed John E Kennedy. This ghost is not the only one spooking NIXon; he suffers in the movie, as he did in real life, from hubris, inner rage and profound insecurity. But his involvement in the assassination plots is made out to be Nixon's darkest secret. It is what Alfred Hitchcock called a "macguffin," a central plot-moving device. "It might as well have been 'Rosebud'," Stone told NEWSWEEK, referring to the psychological clue that drove Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane."

In one of the opening scenes of "Nixon," the president is talking to his aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, trying to figure out how to cover up White House involvement in the Watergate break-in. Nixon is visibly shaken to learn that one of the White House "plumbers" arrested at the Watergate is E. Howard Hunt. "On the list of horribles, I know what he is," Nixon mutters. In a later scene he explains that Hunt is a former CIA man who worked on the plot to assassinate Fidel Castro. The plot, Nixon says, originated in the Eisenhower White House when Nixon was vice president. The CIA hired the Mafia to kill Castro, but as Haldeman later explains to Ehrlichman, "in some crazy way it got turned on Kennedy." Nixon doesn't know exactly why or how Kennedy was killed, but he is obsessed with his own role in creating the original assassination machinery to get Castro--"Track 2," he calls it ("Track 1" was the CIA's failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs). Nixon refers to Track 2 as a "beast" that got, out of control. (It is also the name of Stone s production company.) In an early version of Stone's script, Nixon hallucinates about "The Beast," "an image of evil that will recur throughout the film," according to the staging instructions. Mercifully, this operatic touch was dropped from the final film.

The theory that Nixon was obsessed with Track 2 is a provocative one, but there is no strong evidence to support his early knowledge of the CIA's assassination plots. It is possible, as historian Fawn Brodie suggests, that Nixon suffered from some kind of "survivor's guilt" over the deaths of the two Kennedys, whom he envied and resented. But Stone is really reaching to suggest that Nixon had anything at all--even indirectly--to do with Kennedy's death.

Legitimate historians have wondered about Nixon's role in the assassination plots against Castro, but no one has offered evidence directly linking Nixon. Stone cites two sources. One is H. R. Haldeman, who wrote in his 1978 memoir, "The Ends of Power," that during Watergate he suspected that Nixon was obsessed with a CIA plot that somehow led to the assassination of JFK. But Haldeman later disavowed this version, telling journalist Chris Matthews that his ghostwriter, Joseph DiMona, had simply invented it. (The book was drafted by DiMona while Haldeman was in prison for his Watergate crimes.) Stone's other source is E. Howard Hunt, who wrote in his memoirs that Nixon played some kind of supervisory role in CIA operations aimed at overthrowing Castro. But even Hunt, a fabulist who has written some 50 spy novels, does not suggest that Nixon played any role in the assassination plots. Stone makes Hunt out to be involved in the plots: in fact he was not, although he probably knew about their existence.

The man who conceived of and actually ran the CIA's assassination plots, Richard Bissell, told NEWSWEEK that Nixon played no role. During the course of several interviews before his death in 1994, Bissell recalled briefing Nixon in 1960 about some of the agency's psychological-warfare plans against Castro, but the CIA's former chief of covert action says he never discussed the assassination plots with anyone at the White House. It was Bissell, a supremely self-assured operator who routinely acted with only the gauziest authority from the White House, who had the idea of hiring the Mafia. Bissell wanted the mob to stage a gangland-style execution of the Cuban leader. Bissell said he is "certain" that his boss, CIA Director Allen Dulles, did not tell anyone in the White House about the Mafia plot. In that earlier era, policymakers did not want to know too much about what the CIA was up to.

'Psywar' campaign: The CIA's own still-classified secret history of the Bay of Pigs, which I was permitted to examine for my book on the early days of the CIA, "The Very Best Men," also examines Nixon's role. The CIA history records that Bissell briefed Nixon on a "psywar" campaign to embarrass Castro in March 1960 (by such actions as trying to make his beard fall out). But it concludes that Nixon was not involved in the assassination plots. Bissell did not even come up with the idea of hiring the Mafia to kill Castro until September 1960, by which time Nixon was preoccupied with his election campaign against JFK.

It is impossible, of course, to absolutely dispose of Stone's elaborate theory linking Nixon, the CIA, the mob and the Kennedy assassination. Nixon did eventually learn of the assassination plots, possibly after he became president, and it's true that the White House tapes recorded him saying that an investigation of the CIA's role in the Bay of Pigs could produce a larger scandal. "You open up that scab and you uncover a lot of pus," said Nixon. But in the movie, Stone conveniently cuts out what else Nixon said: that the CIA plots "have nothing to do with ourselves."

In an interview with NEWSWEEK last week, Stone conceded that he is "speculating" about Track 2. He even said that the actual facts surrounding the Kennedy assassination didn't matter--that the larger truth is that Nixon was concealing something that made him gradually self-destruct. Maybe so. But it seems more likely that Stone is projecting his own demons onto Nixon. There is no particular reason to believe that Nixon was obsessed with JFK's assassination. But Oliver Stone certainly is.