'Change has its enemies'
An old interview with a right-wing extremist connected with the JFK assassination raises new questions about the murder of the president’s brother, Robert
By Lionel Rolfe
A few weeks back, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow talked about Col. William Potter Gale, a central figure in the Posse Comitatus, Christian Identity and Aryan Nation movements.
She pointed out that Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who thinks he should not have to pay federal grazing fees, was espousing a particular ideology which had been adopted by Gale.
It turns out Maddow was talking about a rather arcane theory Gale embraced rejecting the legitimacy of the federal government because the 14th Amendment was passed in the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, and was therefore invalid. The former Confederacy hated the 14th Amendment because it essentially was designed to protect the rights of freed slaves. In 1878, 10 years after passage of the 14th Amendment, at the end of Reconstruction, Congress passed the Posse Comitatus Act, which was meant to limit the powers of federal government in using federal military personnel to enforce state laws. Gale’s answer was to insist the only legitimate authority in each county was the sheriff.
Maddow’s piece reminded me of an encounter of another kind that I had with Gale. In January 1969, New Orleans District Attorney James Garrison tried Clay Shaw for what Garrison believed was Shaw’s involvement in a conspiracy to kill President John Kennedy. I had never believed the shots that killed Kennedy came from the Texas School Book Depository, not after hearing an ABC News reporter at the scene proclaim, “Shots are coming from the grassy knoll!”
I was working with the Garrison people on the Shaw trial for the Newhall Signal because Col. Gale, named by Garrison as part of the conspiracy to kill the president, was a local Republican primary congressional candidate in the Newhall area.
On June 4, 1968, six hours before the president’s younger brother, Robert Kennedy, was fatally shot, I was sitting on a couch in the front room of this long forgotten but historically significant character’s home on the outer reaches of town, close to the beginning of the Mojave Desert. Shortly after midnight, Robert Kennedy would be gunned down in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
During our talk earlier that day, Gale told me how Robert Kennedy was part of the “Jewish-communist conspiracy.” As he spoke, he fondled a large handgun with a mammoth silencer attached to its muzzle. When he became angry, which he did at times during our discussion, he brandished the weapon, so much so that I became quite nervous.
A former top aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Gale later became better known as the Rev. William Gale of the Christian Identity faith, which moved to Hayden Lake, Idaho. At that time, I didn’t know much about the man. I was just a young reporter interviewing a congressional candidate. He was running against incumbent Edwin Reinecke, who later went on to serve as lieutenant governor when Ronald Reagan was governor.
When asked about the matter, Reinecke admitted that he had many nagging doubts about the official version of the Kennedy murder, and so the Signal played that up. Soon enough, the Signal was running articles and pictures meant to discredit the Warren Commission Report because my boss was fascinated by what happened that day in Dealey Plaza.
In 1968, Gale was not yet known as the mastermind of the Posse Comitatus, taken from the Latin phrase meaning “force of the county,” which was a loosely organized, far-right movement that opposed the federal government and believed in localism. There were rumors of links to paramilitary groups, but mostly Gale portrayed himself as just another stock broker working in Glendale who was an investor in high desert real estate.
In our interview, and in his campaign, Gale emphasized his military record. He had joined the service at 16 and at 26 was the youngest lieutenant colonel in the Army. He later became one of three officers selected by MacArthur during World War II to direct guerrilla operations in the Philippines. He called himself a “constitutionalist.”
When asked about a group he had formed called the California Rangers, Gale denied that it was a paramilitary organization. He said it was a “volunteer civil defense group” comprised of former army officer friends of his.
Not surprisingly, Gale suggested that Garrison was probably an agent of Fidel Castro. And with what was obviously meant to be an ironic touch, he told me how he personally had liked John Kennedy, even if he didn’t agree with his politics. He said the assassination “looked like an inside job.” Gale criticized Reinecke for having expressed his doubts about the president’s assassination to me. “It isn’t a congressman’s job to investigate things like this. That’s why there are organizations like the FBI. If the agencies have investigated it, that’s it unless there’s good reason to believe there’s hanky panky."
Gale then showed me his shiny new Land Rover, which in a few hours he said he would be driving to somewhere in the Midwest to visit relatives he hadn’t seen in years if he lost the election to Reinecke — which he did, by a landslide. Reinecke took 89 percent of the votes cast in the three-person primary. Gale talked a lot about his hero, Gen. Edwin Walker, an ultra-conservative who was tolerated by President Eisenhower and later publicly blasted by President Kennedy for calling Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman “pink,” or communist sympathizers, in an article. Kennedy accepted his resignation in 1961.
Walker was committed to a psychiatric hospital on orders from then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy for leading riots opposing the admission of James Meredith, an African American, to the then-all-white University of Mississippi in 1962. Gale also spoke of former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, whom he had come to dismiss as “a coward.” Wallace, he told me, was “a politician who would sell out to the niggers.”
Gale complained because his name had been dragged into news stories about Garrison’s investigation of Shaw “by reporters with Jewish names.” Since I am Jewish, I left Gale’s place before the sun sank behind the dry California hills. I did not want to stay at the man’s house after dark.
The morning after our interview, I read about Robert Kennedy being shot and vividly remembered Gale and his Land Rover and his gun with the silencer, and thought thoughts too horrible to articulate. A couple of days before the shooting, I had taken a photo of Robert Kennedy, who, without much caution, joyously pressed the flesh. My camera lens came within three feet of his face, and I captured a powerful picture which we used in a special edition of the Signal on June 7, 1968, devoted to the Robert Kennedy assassination.
Several years passed and my boss at the Signal, Jon Newhall, and I went in different directions. But we did collaborate on an article that appeared in the Dec. 27, 1974, issue of New Times, a news weekly then coming out of New York that viewed itself as kind of a left-wing Time magazine. Jon and I wrote an article that centered on attempts by then-Los Angeles County Coroner Thomas Noguchi and former County Supervisor Baxter Ward to reopen the Robert Kennedy assassination.
I used to argue with a friend, Bart Everett, an editor at the Los Angeles Times, about whether Robert Kennedy had been the victim of a lone assassin, which Bart and his paper believed. I felt that Noguchi and Ward were onto something when they suggested that Kennedy was not killed by the bullets coming from the gun of Sirhan Sirhan, a Pasadena resident and a student at Pasadena City College. Rather, he was shot by the bullets of someone else who fired from the rear. Bart remained convinced by the party line, which maintained that Robert Kennedy was killed by a lone assassin, just as his older brother had supposedly been killed by a man acting alone.
It wasn’t until some time later that I came to realize that Gale knew what was going to happen to Robert Kennedy that night at the Ambassador. I knew that he knew that I didn’t believe him, that I thought Garrison was onto something with him. In truth, I remember he did not even try very hard to personally convince me of the truth of his alibis. In the ensuing years I’ve come to believe I was lucky to have gotten away from Gale’s home with my life.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of a number of books, including “Fat Man on the Left,” “The Menuhins: A Family Odyssey” and “The Uncommon Friendship of Yaltah Menuhin and Willa Cather,” all available at Amazon's Kindle Store. A version of this story has appeared on Huffington Post. For more Robert Kennedy quotes, visit http://rfkcenter.org/citazioni-3.