The King of the Night’s darkest hour Johnny Carson and the Kennedy Assassination
Larry Chin – 2005-01-28
January 28, 2005—Even in glints of light and joy, there is the darkness of unacknowledged realities and suppressed nightmare.
As America mourns the death of late night TV icon Johnny Carson, fondly reminiscing over decades of gags and laughs, few bother recalling the single most telling “Carson moment” there ever was.
On January 31, 1968, New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison appeared on the Tonight Show to discuss his investigation into US government involvement in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (Listen to the archived tape of this telecast at “Johnny Carson interviews Jim Garrison”, Parts One and Two, or at Garrison on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.)
Over the course of 90 minutes, the smiles and yucks went silent. Carson, America’s chuckling nighttime buddy, everybody’s friend, was the assassin. He badgered, belittled, and mocked Garrison, repeatedly interrupting Garrison as he made an impassioned plea to the American people to question the official story of the JFK assassination.
When Garrison attempted to show the photograph of the infamous “Three Tramps” (still unidentified mystery men who were arrested behind the Grassy Knoll and marched through Dealey Plaza, likely members of the assassination team), Carson made sure America would not see it. He yanked Garrison’s arm aside, and cut the cameras.
Garrison later mused:
“Why had I been debriefed in advance so that Carson could be apprised of my likely answers? Why had Carson pulled my arm away so that the photographs were out of camera range? And why had the director and the control room switched the camera so that the photographs could not be seen? The only reasonable, realistic explanation, I found myself concluding, was control.
“Some long-cherished illusions of mine about the great free press in our country underwent a painful reappraisal during this period. The restraint and respect for justice one might expect from the press . . . did not exist”.
As noted by Maureen Farrell, the “unholy alliance between the media and the government,” in covering up government crimes, was evident that night:
“The function of the Warren Commission was to make the American people feel that the [JFK assassination] had been looked into so that there would be no further inquiries,” Garrison told an incredulous Carson.
“I just can’t understand how you think that these men think they can get away with it or for what reason they would do it,” Carson later responded.
By 9:00 the next morning, Garrison had received more than 2,000 telegrams from district attorneys across America, who felt that Carson’s “nervous antagonism,” was a sign that Garrison was onto something. Feeling the need to apologize for Carson’s demeanor (which was nevertheless polite and jovial by today’s shout-fest standards), NBC sent out thousands of form letters saying, “The Johnny seen on TV that night was not the Johnny we all know and love. He had to play the devil’s advocate, because that makes for a better program.”
Carson was furious about NBC’s letter, and promised never to allow Garrison on his program again.
It is no surprise that today, as mainstream corporate media is flooded with “happy” Johnny Carson memories and magnificent tomes about how the charming Carson “epitomized the goodness of middle America,” the Garrison interview—the one glaring moment that exposed Carson as a peevish, patronizing, gatekeeping servant of larger forces continues to be studiously avoided.
Times, and the historical facts, have fully vindicated the late Garrison. Oliver Stone’s film JFK, which included an amusing version of the Carson interview (Stone depicted his fictional Garrison protagonist being badgered by an obnoxious talk show host named “Johnny Johnson,” played by John Laroquette.)
Here we find something to truly mourn: Johnny Carson, on that night in 1968, had the power to change the world. He chose to use that power to destroy a courageous whistleblower, kill truth, and keep America naïve and stupid.
As one television critic wrote of Carson, “he rode his droll detachment and bemused self-effacement through wars and assassinations, riots and Watergate.” But Carson, like many other powerful public figures and Hollywood celebrities, did little to address these serious events, except to provide water cooler humor and lampoons (ultimately giving birth to brain-addling sound-bite entertainment politics, epitomized by Jon Stewart, Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, Saturday Night Live, etc.), and worse.
Larry Chin is a freelance journalist and an Online Journal Associate Editor.