Nightmare of the talking heads

I must be watching too much TV lately.

Published September 3, 2004 11:18PM (EDT)

The other night I had a dream, a very peculiar dream. In this dream, there was some black-and-white footage, some music and, on occasion, even a narrator. A very good, authoritative narrator. Someone like David Ogden Stiers in the Ric Burns documentary on New York. To be honest, my dream seemed like a documentary. It was about the Kennedy assassination, and it proved conclusively that the young president had been killed by a military coup. These people felt Kennedy had shown weakness during the Bay of Pigs and was therefore unfit to serve as commander in chief of the United States. So they killed him.

In this docu-dream, a former general stated that he had been directly responsible for the assassination. In fact, he named a number of others who were also involved. Unfortunately, they were dead, but the general managed to provide detailed information on each and every one of them. Time. Place. An extremely thorough account by any standards.

Why was the general giving out this information? Because he was dying of cancer, and he wanted to set the record straight once and for all. He presented audiotapes of secret meetings that recorded every aspect of the planning. He also presented the conspirators' original diagrams of Dealey Plaza, complete with the precise locations from which the assassins fired.

It was a very convincing dream, but the revelation of the conspiracy wasn't really the scariest part. It actually got worse. Much worse. Because as the dream played out, it became a nightmare, as the talking heads and so-called experts entered the picture. Suddenly the airwaves were flooded with these people, and they talked and they talked. The general was now a "malcontent who was just trying to stimulate sales of his upcoming book" (although it was unclear whether he had ever written a book), "he was bitter at being passed over to head NATO," "he was never a very competent general to begin with" and "the medals he received as an officer in World War II were, at best, questionable."

Even former presidential candidate Bob Dole stated, in so many words, that he was in World War II and doesn't remember the general ever getting any medals. Worse, two officers from the general's staff said he seemed to suffer from bouts of depression, and a doctor from Bellevue said the general's behavior was consistent with that of someone suffering from the late stages of cancer. The medication was probably affecting his brain, as well as his ability to think rationally. Although there were others who said the general was in perfect health, and referred to medical records that never mentioned cancer at all.

In this nightmare documentary, critics claimed the secret recordings may have been tampered with, that there seemed to be sonic irregularities. Of course, the other side felt the general's information was factual, and a number of other experts came to the same conclusion. Both sides aired their views between beer ads and tampon commercials. In this nightmare, every show on earth got into the act. The "Today Show" invited the general's son to be a guest. He couldn't believe the controversy.

"My father has always been a ramrod of straight talk and strength. Go ahead and denounce him for killing Kennedy, but it's just plain insane to question the truth of his statements."

Then the general's son's ex-wife appeared on "Good Morning America." She talked about how dysfunctional the family was.

"The son idolized his father," she said. "The man could do no wrong in his eyes. And the mother! She just kept turning a blind eye to every one of that general's indiscretions."

Then, in a very poignant moment with Diane Sawyer, the ex-wife of the son explained how the general had groped her ... It was a touching moment, so they cut to a commercial about how the quality of a couple's sex life could be improved by switching to Viagra.

Several talking heads from Fox News began to steer the story toward President Kennedy and away from the assassination. It was said that although the killing of Kennedy was certainly a tragedy, it should be noted that his administration was a failed liberal agenda. It showed that Goldwater held the keys to the political future, and that Kennedy was more enamored with old-school thinking. The Fox News talking heads then began to question Kennedy's record during World War II and whether or not he truly was a hero concerning the PT Boat incident. They even suggested that Kennedy's book "Profiles in Courage" may have been ghost-written and that it became a bestseller because Kennedy's own father bought so many copies.

Pretty soon "Entertainment Tonight" got in on the act. They showed a clip of a 1950s rock 'n' roll act performing for troops somewhere in Europe way back when, and a G.I. at the concert said the general had been there and seemed to be a real "Rock 'n' Roller," and even said he suspected the general may have been smoking pot. According to the former soldier the general loved the oldies, and the two of them talked about some of the great groups like Dion and the Belmonts, the Drifters, and especially the young Bobby Darin before he made it big with "Mac the Knife." Then came the "Entertainment Tonight" jingle, followed by a Paris Hilton story.

All the Sunday morning press shows covered it -- pro and con -- and even the comedy guys got in on the act. Clips from "Dr. Strangelove" were shown. A lot of laughs were had, and then everyone got bored, and the story faded, and the general died.

His funeral registered as a blip, though his television obit did mention his military record, which was now conveyed as stellar. The obit never mentioned the hard evidence linking the general directly to the assassination of President Kennedy, but did mention that he liked to dabble in conspiracy theories regarding the subject. The obit was followed by a commercial in which a college kid slashes the tires of his car while holding a six-pack, the message being, if you're going to drink a lot, you better slash your tires so you can't drive.

Then I woke up to the real world. The nightmare was over.

By Barry Levinson

Barry Levinson is an award-winning writer, film director and producer

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