Sunday, 16 April 2023 16:32

Assume Nothing about Edward Epstein

Written by

Jim DiEugenio writes a detailed critique about Edward Epstein's new memoir on his writing career. The book probably reveals more than intended. And Jim adds some facts that the author did not include. The combination paints an unattractive portrait.

To those who were curious about the career of Edward Epstein and how such a person ever advanced in the literary world, his memoir is revealing. It's called Assume Nothing and although its kind of an uphill grind to read, I am glad I read it since I now understand a lot more about Epstein. And how he got to where he was and is.

Epstein’s father died at the age of 28. He left him some money he was entitled to at age 21. The author dropped out, or flunked out—its not clear which—from Cornell and decided to become a film producer. For his first film he was nothing if not ambitious. He was going to make a picture out of Homer’s Iliad. But there was a bit of a problem, actually more than one.

He did not have a completed script.
He did not have a director signed.
He did not have an actor to play Achilles.

I think Epstein tries to play all of this off as a comedy of errors: youthful indiscretions. I did not take it that way. All I could think of is this: What kind of a moron goes to Europe and tries to make an epic movie under those conditions? And even puts up some of his own money to do so.

As anyone with any experience, or just common sense could have advised him, the whole effort turned out be a disaster.

Epstein wandered back to Cornell and he happened to be with Professor Andrew Hacker on the day Kennedy was assassinated. (p. 38. All footnotes to the E book version.) They were continually watching the news and Epstein writes about Oswald calling himself a patsy, except he puts that word in quotes. Hacker said that establishing the truth about the murder “would be a test of American democracy.”

Hacker helped get Epstein back into Cornell and Epstein suggested that he could write about the JFK case for his master’s thesis. (p. 40). Hacker agreed and said once Epstein read the Warren Report and the 26 volumes, he would write him letters of introduction for the seven commissioners. Epstein does not say if he read the 26 volumes. He just says he satisfied Hacker the he had done so. (p. 40) Hacker now writes the letters and all the commissioners agree to see him except Earl Warren. And its this part of the book that was for me the most interesting.


Instead of seeing Warren Epstein got to visit J. Lee Rankin, the chief counsel. Rankin tells him he was surprised that Warren chose him for the job. And that was that. I decided to go back and look at Epstein’s book about this issue, since it has become a seminal part of the literature about the Warren Commission. In Inquest, which became the book Epstein fashioned out of his thesis, this is how the episode is treated:

The next order of business was the selection of a general counsel. The first person suggested for this position was rejected because he was “too controversial.” Warren then proposed J. Lee Rankin, a former Solicitor General of the Unites States, and the Commission, “immediately and unanimously” agreed upon him. (Epstein, The Assassination Chronicles, p. 31)

And that was that? No it was not. Not by a long shot. Epstein deals with this key chapter in three sentences. Gerald McKnight spent three pages on it in his fine book Breach of Trust, and Warren did not propose Rankin. (pp. 41-44). J. Edgar Hoover was adamantly opposed to Warren Olney since he had been an FBI critic. Two days before this session where Warren tried to nominate Olney, Hoover learned through Nicolas Katzenbach of the Justice Department that Olney was in the cards. The FBI now went to work through Gerald Ford to detonate Olney. It was Ford and John McCloy who objected to Olney and it was McCloy, not Warren, who nominated Rankin. Rankin eventually got the job with the help of Allen Dulles.

This is an important episode and Epstein missed its significance, then and now. It showed that, first, Warren was pretty much a figurehead. Secondly, that the nexus of power inside the Commission was with Ford, McCloy and Dulles. Third, that the three southern commissioners—Richard Russell, John Sherman Cooper and Hale Boggs—were outside that nexus.

Later on, after visiting with Ford and Howard Willens—Katzenbach’s man on the Commission—Epstein writes that Ford had been absent from most hearings. (p. 50). That deduction completely collides with Walt Brown’s tabulation of which commissioners were at how many hearings. Ford’s attendance record was remarkable for a sitting congressman. By any method of accounting, Ford was in the top three for attendance and he was second in the number of questions asked. (Walt Brown, The Warren Omission, pp. 83-85) If he was going to be a spy for the FBI, he had to be there a lot.

But that is not all that is notable about how Epstein describes Ford. He says that Ford had a reputation for candor. This is almost ludicrous. But if he did, then why did Ford not tell Epstein that he changed the draft of the Warren Report. Namely that he moved Kennedy’s wound in the back up to his neck to make the Single Bullet Theory more tenable. (LA Times, July 3, 1997) In the face of that it is just plain goofy that Epstein kept that judgment in this book. Because in the light of that alteration, Epstein’s quote about Ford makes perfect sense, he says that he had a keen grasp of the Warren Report’s ramifications on the stability of America’s system and how he saw each issue in that context. He concludes with Ford by saying, “Indeed, it was from him that I first heard the term ‘political truth’, a concept in which facts may be tempered to fit political realities.” (Epstein, p. 52)

If Epstein had been a little bit more eager, penetrating, and curious researcher he might have found out something about just how political the Warren Commission really was. As Oliver Stone showed in his documentary JFK Revisited, Senator Richard Russell had serious doubts about the Commission from the start. He did not like how Katzenbach attended the first executive session meeting, how the FBI was largely going to be in charge, and how the conclusions seemed to be decided on well in advance of the inquiry.

Russell had two allies in his severe doubts: Senator John Cooper and congressman Hale Boggs. They cooperated together in the last days of the Commission to form a united front against the other four. This is how Epstein treated this subject in his book:

The Final Hearing. On September 7 Commissioners Russell, Cooper and Boggs went to Dallas to re-examine Marina Oswald. Under Senator Russell’s rigorous questioning, she changed major aspects of her story and altered her previous testimony. More rewriting was thus necessitated. Finally on September 24, the Report was submitted to President Johnson. (Epstein, p. 49)

To be fair to Epstein, he does describe a debate, which was at the last executive meeting—although he does not describe it as being there. That debate was over how much certainty would be placed on the Single Bullet Theory (SBT). (Epstein, pp. 156-57). But incredibly, Epstein missed the most important aspect of this whole debate. Namely that the commissioners who backed the SBT snookered those who did not. Russell had come to that final meeting prepped and loaded. At the prior hearing with Marina, Warren, Ford, Dulles and McCloy were not there. Rankin was. It is pretty obvious that Rankin was there to see what the three dissidents were up to. And this helped lay the trap.

That Epstein missed this—and that he does not even mention it in his memoir—this is kind of stunning. Because to many, it holds the key to the whole story behind the Warren Commission. That last executive session meeting, the one where Russell laid bare all his objections to the Magic Bullet, that meeting was not transcribed. Therefore we have no way to read about how this debate was enacted and who said what about which points. McKnight devoted the better part of an entire chapter of his book to this matter. (Breach of Trust, Chapter 11). He calls this betrayal, “one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of the Kennedy assassination investigation.” (p. 284). It indicates that Rankin reported back to the Commission, and they then arranged a charade, complete with a woman there who Russell assumed was the stenographer. This is how desperate the Commission was to conceal the fact that they themselves did not think this was an open and shut case.

That Epstein did not discover this back in 1965-66, and he does not include it in his memoir today, that tells us a lot about the man. As does the fact that he says that Allen Dulles retired as CIA Director in 1961. (Epstein, p. 59). This characterization is as bad as how Sy Hersh described it in his putrid book The Dark Side of Camelot. Dulles was fired by President Kennedy. JFK allowed him leniency as to when he was leaving. Therefore Dulles departed when the new building for the CIA was ready in the late fall of 1961. Kennedy terminated him over his lies about the Bay of Pigs invasion. Again, this tells us something about Epstein. Because in the index to Inquest, as contained in his The Assassination Chronicles, you will not see a reference to the Bay of Pigs.


Perhaps the most interesting interviews that Epstein describes in his memoir are the ones he did with Arlen Specter and Francis Adams.

Adams did not last long on the Commission. He had been a former NYC Police Commissioner. Along with Specter, he was going to inquire into the facts of the case against Oswald as the sole assassin. In his memoir, Epstein now says that Adams left because he disagreed with running a compartmentalized investigation. He also disagreed with the delay in going to Dallas to investigate. Which Warren said could only occur later in March of 1964, after the Jack Ruby trial. (p. 67). In his book Inquest, Epstein did mention an investigative disagreement, but the main reason was his law firm needed Adams. (The Assassination Chronicles, p. 90)

Interestingly, Epstein wrote back then that Rankin kept Adams’ name on the report because if he did not, it would be a sign of dissension amid the Commission. Which, if we believe Epstein’s memoir, it was. So—including his role in the Richard Russell deception—this is how much of a cover up artist Rankin was. Which helps explain why Hoover and McCloy wanted him and not Olney.

But the really fascinating revelations are from the man Adams was going to be partners with, namely Arlen Specter. These are nothing less than bracing. First of all, Specter said that Warren briefed him about the problem with Dr. Malcolm Perry’s 11/22/63 press conference and his mention of the neck wound being one of entrance. Specter tells Epstein that he cleared up that problem. In his memoir, Epstein leaves it at that. Which again, is kind of inexplicable. Except that if you look back at his book, he swallowed this Specter story back then also. (The Assassination Chronicles, p. 92). I could find no indication that Epstein interviewed Perry.

With all we know about this today, we can pretty much say this is utter baloney. With the testimony of Dr. Donald Miller in Stone’s documentary, Perry always thought the throat wound was one of entrance. And with the work done on this issue by reporter Martin Steadman, we know that the pressure began on Perry to alter his story the might of the assassination, and it was from Washington. So again, Epstein missed the real story.

But then, Epstein reveals a couple of quotes which I never recalled from Specter. First, he asks Specter: When the Secret Service did a reconstruction on December 7, 1963, why did they not arrive at the magic bullet concept? Specter replies like this:

They had no idea at the time that unless one bullet had hit Kennedy and Connally, there had to be a second assassin. (p. 69)

In other words, Specter just confessed that the SBT was a matter of necessity not evidence. But then, Specter tops that one. Epstein asks him how he convinced the Commission about this concept. This is Specter’s reply:

I showed them the Zapruder film, frame by frame, and explained that they could either accept the single bullet theory or begin looking for a second assassin. (p. 70)

I don’t recall either of these being in Inquest. To me they are more or less confessions to the very worst thoughts the critics had about how the Commission decided on their conclusions. Why Epstein waited until now to reveal all this is rather puzzling.


I figured that this was all too candid and that Epstein could not continue with it. I was correct. Right after this Specter tells Epstein he never saw the autopsy photos. This is not true and Epstein did not do his homework. In 2003, at a conference in Pittsburgh, Specter revealed that Secret Service agent Elmer Moore showed him an autopsy photograph.

What this does is blow up a story that Epstein is trying to propagate. That somehow the Commission did not have the autopsy materials, and that the reason no one saw them is that Robert Kennedy controlled them. (Epstein, p. 70). Obviously, if Elmer Moore had them, then the Secret Service had access to them. And if Moore was the assistant to Warren, which he was, then the Commission had them. The truth is that the Secret Service had control of these materials until 1965. And the Commission had them in a safe in their offices. (McKnight, p. 171)

One of the things the memoir shows is that in addition to Hacker, Epstein’s other initial career benefactor was Clay Felker. Felker was a prolific magazine editor of the sixties and seventies who, among other periodicals, founded New York magazine, was publisher of The Village Voice, bought Esquire and edited Manhattan Inc where Epstein had a column. Once the manuscript for Inquest was ready to be published, Felker was instrumental in getting it to Viking Press. (pp. 71-76). Felker held a book signing party in New York in which everyone who was anyone was invited: Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, Peter Maas, David Frost, and Paul Newman among others. Epstein is an incontinent name dropper and we see that this was really the beginning of his entry into the New York/Washington power nexus. From here he would migrate to Harvard along with another mentor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. And he would get a position at The New Yorker through William Shawn.

I think all this is apropos of relating a story that is not in the book. Before Felker’s big book signing for Inquest and before its sale to Viking, Epstein attended a gathering in New York City. Except this was not among the gliterati. It was a meeting of the JFK critical community at the time: Sylvia Meagher, Vince Salandria, Thomas Stamm and several more. At that gathering at Meagher’s New York apartment, Epstein revealed another story which I could not find in his book Inquest. He said that in the late summer, early fall of 1964, the Commission was in danger of collapse. That many of the counsel were about to give up since there was no case or real evidence against Oswald. These letters went to Howard Willens who had the job of sewing it together, which he did. (John Kelin, Praise from a Future Generation, p. 255).

There is more. Sylvia Meagher called him up later and asked him if he thought Lee Oswald was guilty. Epstein said he might be, he might not be. But he thought the murder was carried out by a group of conspirators. (Kelin, p. 259)

After his book came out, Epstein appeared on some TV shows. Meagher watched one of these and was shocked by how poorly Epstein did. He was taken over the coals by Commission counsel Wesley Liebeler. She called him and told him to not do these debates anymore, he was hurting both his book and the critical community. (Kelin, p. 319)

I think its safe to say that something happened to Epstein between when he finished his book and a bit after Felker’s party. I base that on two things. First, there was a debate in Boston in late fall of 1966. Vince Salandria was there to present the critical side, Jacob Cohen was among those to defend the Warren Report. Epstein was supposed to be there but declined the invite.

Once the debate began, Salandria was surprised to see Epstein was there, but not part of the debate. The following is reconstructed from notes Vince made that evening:

E: What are you doing in Boston?
V: I’m telling the truth to the American people. What are you doing Ed?
E: I’ve changed Vince.
V: You made a deal, that’s alright. That’s OK, Ed…But if you get up before a television camera again and pretend you’re a critic, I’ll tell all about you, Ed Epstein.
E: (Smiles, and says) You know what happened. (Kelin, pp. 334-35)

The other thing that clearly denotes a sea change in Epstein was this. In January of 1967, Richard Warren Lewis and Larry Schiller wrote a book called The Scavengers and Critics of the Warren Report. It was an all-out smear of the Commission critics, and declassified files later revealed Schiller was a prolific informant for the FBI on the subject. Well, there was also an LP record album to accompany the book. Epstein is on the album ridiculing the critics. In the space of a few months, Epstein had apparently done a back flip.


I am not going to go into Epstein’s utterly horrendous article for The New Yorker on Jim Garrison.(You can read about that in the links below.) It was turned into a book called Counterplot. I will say this: that with all that was declassified about Garrison by the Assassination Records Review Board, Epstein’s book is pretty much an obsolete relic from ancient times. His last book on the JFK case was called Legend. That book was sponsored by the management of Readers’ Digest and James Angleton was an informal consultant on it.

Epstein devotes certain chapters, or parts of them, to other books he has written, like News from Nowhere, Deception and his book about Edward Snowden, How America Lost its Secrets. He tries to insinuate that somehow the first book is still a valuable look at the mass media, especially television. I have read several books on the subject and I do not recall it figuring prominently in any of those studies. He admits that Deception, dealing with how intel agencies try and deceive each other, was released around the same time the Berlin Wall fell. Which would mean that if the KGB deceived the USA, it was not very effective in the overall scheme. Finally, his book on Snowden is one he apparently is running away from. Since it was pretty much blasted in the formerly friendly confines of The Nation (2/14/17) and The New York Review of Books (4/6/2017).

I would like to close this critique with Epstein’s meetings with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. Because I thought these episodes were revealing of who the man is, and what he is about. Epstein met Nixon through his friendship with the late James Goldsmith, who some would call a financier, others would call a corporate raider. After Goldsmith failed to take over Goodyear, he created a huge estate in Mexico called Cuixmala. Epstein would spend ten Christmases there. And Goldsmith allowed him to take a worldwide tour with him on his 737. (Epstein, pp. 257-60)

Since Goldsmith was so wealthy and Nixon did not want the government to run his library, RMN and his entourage visited him for a donation. (p. 263) Nixon arrived with Bill Simon, Bebe Rebozo and Robert Abplanap. To put it mildly, Epstein writes rather kindly about RMN. From his description one would never know that Nixon would have been imprisoned over Watergate if not for his VP Gerald Ford pardoning him.

For example, he praises Nixon’s comeback in 1968, without saying that it was Nixon’s undermining Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace plan that allowed him to win the election. (Click here) And that does not even include the chaos of the Chicago Democratic convention due to the assassination of Senator Robert Kennedy.

He also praises Nixon for his effort to open up relations with China, saying that no other president thought of that. Not accurate. Kennedy was going to do it and he told his Far East diplomat Roger Hilsman about it.

Epstein then says that Nixon’s move toward China changed the politics and economics of the world. (p. 285). What is really surprising is how little was done with that opening back then, forget later. As scholar Jeff Kimball notes in his research at the Nixon Library, Nixon seems to have made the visits to the USSR and China to get them to cooperate with him on Vietnam. Which they did not do. We know what happened as of today: China and Russia and India are now a putting together a new world order. And it was not because of Nixon.

How did Epstein meet Kissinger? He was invited to a gathering at the home of former CIA Director Richard Helms and his wife. The other two guests were columnist Joe Alsop, and Arnaud de Borchgrave, the latter was a founding member of Newsmax Media. That guest list says a lot. And Epstein is even more fawning over Kissinger, who he says has ”spellbinding insights into past and present events.” (p. 291)

I wish I was kidding about the above but I am not. Some of the questions I would have had for these two men:

  1. For Nixon: Why did you steal the 1968 election in order to make the Vietnam War last five more years? Especially in light of the fact that, according to Jeff Kimball, as early as 1968, you knew it could not be won? (Kimball, Nixon’s Vietnam War, p. 52)
  2. For both of you: Do you think that the secret bombing and invasion of Cambodia was justified for whatever military advantage there was? According to William Shawcross’s book, Sideshow, this destabilization led to the deaths of about 2 million innocent civilians.
  3. For both of you: Was it worth the assassinations of both General Schneider and President Salvador Allende to install a brutal dictator in Chile like Pinochet? After all, at his death, Pinochet had been arrested twice and had 300 charges outstanding against him. Do you know how many people he killed after he rounded them up in that stadium?
  4. For Henry: How does it feel to be the world champion of genocides? I mean, 3 in the space of about 5 years. That’s no mean feat: East Pakistan, Cambodia, and East Timor.

But alas, Ed did not ask or say anything like this in his adulation of Nixon and Kissinger. Which is one reason why the documentary about him, Hall of Mirrors, did not go anywhere. In fact, the first time I heard of it was in this book. I think the fact that he felt so cozy with those two men tells us a lot about whatever success he has had.


For more on Epstein and his JFK writings, click here.

Last modified on Tuesday, 18 April 2023 04:35
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and The JFK Assassination: The Evidence Today (2018), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

Find Us On ...


Please publish modules in offcanvas position.