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Commentary: Counterfactuals & The Kennedy Assassination

By Chris Tucker, KERA Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Do you believe in fate and destiny? Or do you believe that nothing has to be, that there's always another path, another way things might have worked out?

This age-old question has been the basis of endless science fiction and fantasy stories, and it spawned the pseudo-historical genre known as "counterfactuals," which asks how the world might be different if the South had won the Civil War, if Hitler had been assassinated in 1939, if Nixon had destroyed the White House tapes, and so on.

I've been thinking about another counterfactual lately: "What if Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby had not killed Lee Harvey Oswald the day after President Kennedy was murdered in Dallas?"

Had Ruby not killed Oswald, Oswald probably would have gone on trial for killing the president. If Oswald was the lone killer, as I've always believed he was, he might have confessed as the state built its case against him. Or he might have revealed co-conspirators and puppet masters if they existed--CIA rogues, vengeful Fidelistas, shadowy Texas oilmen, Russian moles, what have you.

Whatever happened, a Ruby trial would likely have produced a much clearer understanding of this endlessly tangled case than we have now. In the absence of an Oswald trial, confession, conviction or - imagine this acquittal - the fertile ground was sown with a thousand conspiracies involving ricocheting magic bullets, tramps on the railroad tracks, military-industrial overlords, Umbrella Man and so on. The Kennedy assassination and its aftermath, coupled with the conduct of the war in Vietnam, did much to undermine the public's faith in government and foster a culture in which abiding suspicion and a conspiracy mentality took hold in many people. So much that is dark and negative in our society today rippled outward from the mystery of Kennedy's murder.

I got to thinking about all this a few months ago when a former Dallas policeman named Joe R. Cody died. The headline of his obituary caught my eye:

"Longtime Dallas Officer Bought Gun for Jack Ruby"

The story explained that Cody and Ruby had met and become friends in the late Fifties and that one day, Ruby asked the officer about buying a safe to protect the proceeds from his nightclub. Cody said it would be cheaper for Ruby to buy a gun to protect the cash. He recommended a lightweight Colt Cobra revolver.

As Cody recalled in his oral history for The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, he took Ruby to an Oak Cliff hardware store on January 19, 1960 and bought the gun for Ruby, saving him a little money because the officer didn't have to pay tax on it. Cody said he then forgot all about the gun until Nov. 24, 1963. He was in Louisiana on a fishing trip when he saw the news that Jack Ruby, with the whole world watching on TV, had killed Lee Harvey Oswald with the gun Cody had purchased.

And that brings us back to this fascinating counterfactual. What if Officer Cody had said, "Jack, you've got no business with a gun. You might shoot one of your strippers by mistake. Get yourself a nice big safe for that cash, friend."

Of course we cannot know how another decision, a different comment from Officer Cody might have altered history. It's certainly possible that Ruby would have bought another gun on his own and used his easy access to the Dallas jail to kill Oswald anyway. But maybe not. And if not, the present might be a very different place.

Chris Tucker is a Dallas writer and literary consultant.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.