On Nov. 23, 1963 — the day after a sniper perched in a sixth-story window assassinated President Kennedy — James "Scotty" Reston's front-page story appeared in The New York Times on the epidemic of violence in the U.S.
"America wept tonight, not alone for its dead young President, but for itself," Reston opined. "The grief was general, for somehow the worst in the nation had prevailed over the best. The indictment extended beyond the assassin, for something in the nation itself, some strain of madness and violence, had destroyed the highest symbol of law and order."
Fifty years later, Reston's son has put forward a somewhat different narrative, one in which JFK's assassination was neither a symptom of societal decay nor even a deliberate act. In his latest book, The Accidental Victim, James Reston Jr. posits that Lee Harvey Oswald's intended target was Texas Gov. John Connally, who was sitting in front of Kennedy in the presidential limousine and was seriously wounded during the attack.
"There is no evidence anywhere "¦ that Oswald had anything against President Kennedy," Reston said on the phone Tuesday.
His argument is twofold.
First, it appears that Oswald liked and respected Kennedy. Oswald's widow testified that she and her husband, who were expecting their second child in the summer of 1963, felt a certain kinship with the president and first lady, who gave birth to a baby boy that August. (Patrick Kennedy, the couple's youngest child, died two days later from respiratory distress syndrome.)
"According to her testimony, she and Lee Harvey Oswald followed the pregnancy of Jackie Kennedy with great interest because they felt like they were in a parallel situation," Reston said.
Second, Oswald may have resented Connally, who had brushed off a letter from Oswald when Connally was secretary of the Navy. After exiting the Marine Corps in 1959, Oswald renounced his American citizenship and defected to the Soviet Union, starting a new life as a factory worker in Minsk. This prompted the U.S. military to retroactively downgrade his discharge status from honorable to dishonorable. Oswald complained to Connally that he was not granted a hearing, and, three weeks later, Oswald received a campaign envelope emblazoned with Connally's visage.
"Oswald sits down and writes this very heartfelt, plaintive letter to the secretary of the Navy," Reston said. "A campaign envelope comes to him with a big picture of Connally's head in the middle of a Texas star. Connally, who was stepping down to run for governor, said he would pass the problem to his successor — a classic bureaucratic brush-off.
"It's my view that the envelope immediately came to personalize the problems that he was having with his discharge. That envelope gave a face to his frustrations."
Reston's argument, if accepted by fellow students of JFK, may stem the proliferation of conspiracy theories that have captivated the American public. According to a 2003 ABC News poll, 70 percent of Americans believe that Oswald did not act alone.
Reston, 70, is a celebrity in his own right, having consulted on the 2008 film Frost/Nixon, which is based on his experience as an assistant to David Frost when Frost interviewed former President Nixon in 1977. In the film, which was directed by Ron Howard and nominated for five Academy Awards, actor Sam Rockwell played Reston.
Born in 1941, Reston studied philosophy at the University of North Carolina, where he played on the men's varsity soccer team and holds the school's single-game scoring record (five goals against North Carolina State University). Reston has written 15 books and three plays, according to his official biography, including a character-driven quintet on medieval history.
He lives in Chevy Chase, Md., with his wife and three children.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article gave the wrong date for the assassination.