ON JANUARY 4, 2012, Vince Salandria and Arlen Specter met at the Oyster House for lunch. It was scheduled for noon, but Specter got there first and was seated; Vince came in and waited in front. Finally, after 40 minutes or so, Arlen Specter came out and found him.
They sat down. There was no one sitting near them. Specter was smiling and pleasant.
He had contacted Vince out of a random connection through mutual friends. Specter got Vince’s number and made the call, asking him if he’d have lunch.
But it was Vince who started talking, and kept talking. Specter listened.
Vince told Specter that he wanted him to know that if he had been assigned to work for the Warren Commission, as Arlen had been, and understood what he did now, that he, too, would have taken the assignment. He thought that Specter had a job to do as a lawyer.
Specter didn’t respond.
Vince said that not to do the work of the Warren Commission would have invited domestic disorder, and perhaps a dictatorship. The generals would have killed Vince, he told Specter, as quickly as Stalin would have. Specter probably saved his life.
Specter was quiet. His demeanor remained pleasant.
Vince explained what he hadn’t realized back in 1964: that the American people weren’t prepared to accept that military intelligence had assassinated the President in a coup. Vince added that his wife, a bright and rational woman, didn’t support his obsession with the assassination.
Vince told Specter his rationale for the assassination—he had read correspondence between Kennedy and Khrushchev and concluded they were very fond of each other and were seeking to end the Cold War. The assassins wanted to continue the Cold War and to escalate the war in Vietnam. Vince told Specter he believed Kennedy was killed by the CIA with the approval of the military.
Specter took this in without comment.
Vince told him that he understood it was a conspiracy when Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald, and that no guilty government would tell us the truth about an institutional killing of the President.
Vince went on in this vein a bit longer, explaining more of his insights about the assassination. Specter asked him—the first time he had said anything in some time—whether Vince spoke frequently to Mark Lane. Vince said no, he didn’t.
Then Specter asked Vince what he remembered about their 1964 confrontation at the bar association event in Specter’s honor. Vince told him he had attended with his copy of the Warren Report. Specter
wondered how long the report had been available—he thought it had been out only one week. Vince thought it was a couple of weeks. Specter seemed impressed with
how quickly Vince had digested the report.
Then Specter said: “You charged me then, at that meeting, with fraud.”
That was true. As Vince laid out his case in his first article, the Warren Commission’s work was speculation conforming to none of the evidence, without the slightest credibility, with errors in logic and contrary to the laws of physics and geometry. He was charging Specter with corruption. Of perpetrating a fraud.
And now, at lunch, Arlen Specter had a request. “Instead of calling me corrupt,” he said, “can you change it to incompetent?”
Almost a half-century had passed since the Warren Commission’s work had been made public; almost a half-century since the event at City Hall at which Vince Salandria stood up and asked his pointed questions. During that time, Arlen Specter was forever being asked about the Warren Report and the Magic Bullet. He was laughed at over his theory. Oliver Stone made a movie in which Specter was mocked, and the running joke in the Specter household was that his epitaph would lead with the Magic Bullet.
He had lived with the assassination, and his role in solving it, forever. And he hadn’t stopped living with it, upholding his responsibility to explain. Arlen Specter, those close to him say, believed in that responsibility. He told friends he was looking forward to 2013, the 50th anniversary of the assassination, because it was an opportunity to speak about solving the murder of the President yet again, to engage the issue once more. Specter, they say, hadn’t backed off one inch.
Vince Salandria, too, had lived with the assassination for a long time, and he, too, had paid a steep price. He says now that teaching is far and away his most important life’s work, his true calling, yet he taught at Bartram High for only eight years before his conspiracy theories made him an outlier among his fellow teachers. He’d end up spending three decades as a school-system lawyer. He did well. It was work he believed in. But it wasn’t the same as teaching.
Long ago, Vince Salandria said: “No matter what comes of this work”—the assassination research he and fellow obsessives kept plugging away at—“we have involved ourselves in the worthiest cause of our lives.”
He says he still believes that. “Until we really come to grips with the true meaning of the assassination—i.e., the coup, by military intelligence services of the country—civil liberties are necessarily restricted,” he says. “Every president since Kennedy knows what happened to him and why. Therefore, every president knows he’s circumscribed in terms of what he can do and who he can oppose and how much he opposes them.”
When Arlen Specter asked Vince Salandria to change his opinion of him from corrupt to incompetent, Vince told him that he couldn’t change it. He told Arlen Specter he knew from the public record that the Senator was quite competent then—in 1964—and that he was, at all times, competent. He had never considered Specter incompetent. And he wasn’t incompetent now.
Specter had no reaction to that, just as he hadn’t reacted to anything else Vince said.
Perhaps Specter, in asking Salandria to change his opinion, was admitting that the Warren Commission got it wrong, that the Magic Bullet and a lone gunman really don’t wash. Or perhaps it was simpler than that, a moment between two men who had lived with the same profound event for so long, who played such important and different roles in our understanding of what happened and, well … did Vince’s opinion have to be so harsh? Perhaps, in other words, it was merely a personal moment. Whatever he was up to, Arlen Specter certainly opened the door a crack to yet another debate about what he really believed.
He would ask Vince another question: Do you think the Warren Commission was a setup? That is, did Vince think Earl Warren was told that Lee Harvey Oswald had to be their man before there was any investigation at all?
Yes, Vince said.
Arlen Specter had no reaction to that, either, and remained pleasant to the end, even though, Vince is sure, he’d arranged lunch in order to hear one thing: that Vince could come to a new opinion about Specter’s work for the Warren Commission. Whatever personal redemption Specter may have been seeking, he left without it.
Though he didn’t leave empty-handed. On the way out of the Oyster House, Vince handed Specter a copy of James Douglass’s book JFK and the Unspeakable, published in 2008. The book is dedicated to Vince and another conspiracy theorist. Vince told Specter it was the best work ever written on the assassination.
First appeared in the March, 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.