Thursday, July 10, 2008

REMAKING HISTORY?

Last night I watched an old History Channel documentary on the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy (right). Conspiracy theories abounded. There's no doubt that 24-year-old Palestinian immigrant Sirhan Sirhan (below, in custody) was a key player since he was caught with a--if not the--smoking gun, but experts agree that others were involved. Of particular interest (to me) was a woman wearing a polka dot dress who is said to have been in the crowd and to have declared one of two things, depending on whom you believe, to her male companion after RFK was shot: "They got him!" Or was it "We got him!"? The latter would make her, some insist, one of several co-conspirators. More compelling (in general) is the evidence of multiple shots fired at angles that indicate they didn't come from one gun. But the woman wearing the polka dot dress really pulled me into the story because, well, how Barbara Stanwyck! She added a touch of soapy, film-noir drama to what was otherwise dry academics.

History--and history channels--are full of conspiracy theories. I recently watched two other docs, both on Abraham Lincoln, the 16th U.S. president. One reasoned that his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was a pawn of the Confederate government, including Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president. The other contended that Lincoln was a secret racist. Then there are the theories surrounding John F. Kennedy's 1963 assassination, which have been well-documented, both on the History Channel and in Oliver Stone's 1991 film, JFK. Even Hillary Clinton, at one point, suggested that the whole Monica Lewinsky mess was a Republican conspiracy against her husband, President Bill Clinton.

I generally don't have much of an opinion one way or the other when it comes to these theories (although I find the idea of a racist Lincoln somewhat unfathomable). It's the history element--along with the occasional soap-operatic flourish--that attracts me, and I have been mad about history my entire life. At age seven, I became obsessed with the U.S. Presidents and learned everything I could about them: the years they were born, the years they died, their political parties, their years in office, their first ladies, and the list goes on. Impressed by my vast Presidential knowledge, my teacher took me around to the other second-grade classes so that I could recite all their names (we were only up to No. 39, Jimmy Carter, at the time), not seeming to mind that I completely butchered a few of them, most memorably (by me) James Buchanan and Dwight David Eisenhower. I was, after all, only 7. I was born in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and although my family moved to Florida when I was 4, I still had a crazy-thick Caribbean accent (traces of it remain to this day). I must have been some spectacle: More than 30 years later, my classmates from back then still talk about these recitations.

Getting back to the conspiracy theories, sometimes I wonder if they've actually been hotly debated since the time of the incidents in question or if they are merely the recent creations of a generation raised on convoluted cloak-and-dagger crime dramas. Sometimes people die, plain and simple. Maybe there was no grand royal scheme behind the car crash the killed Princess Diana. Maybe she was just the victim of reckless driving and overzealous paparazzi. Maybe Marilyn Monroe's drug-overdose death was just as plain, simple and senseless as Heath Ledger's. And maybe, just maybe, Elvis really has left the building.
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