A Back Story to the Kennedy Killing

by Quin Hillyer
Two lives change forever after a brush with Lee Harvey Oswald.

One of the few men who ever interviewed Lee Harvey Oswald ended up renting my old room for about four years. Another man, one of the few innocents who lost their jobs due to the Kennedy assassination, wrote feature stories for me when I was managing editor of the New Orleans weekly Gambit. The reverberations from that assassination a half century ago altered not only the course of a nation but also the course of numerous private lives, in ways poignant and deep.

For the two men I knew, Ed Butler and Jesse Core, August 16, 1963, was a fateful day. It was then that Lee Harvey Oswald was passing out leaflets for the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, outside the International Trade Mart in New Orleans. Core was the Trade Mart’s publicist; as Oswald started causing a commotion, Core tried to shoo him away to avoid bad publicity for the Trade Mart. Core promptly reported the incident to the FBI. Five days later, Butler, as the head of an anti-Communist outfit called the Information Council of the Americas (INCA), joined a Cuban exile and two local reporters on WDSU radio to interview, or debate, Oswald.

Hauntingly, it is one of only two readily available recordings of Oswald before the assassination. It was Butler who helped goad Oswald into proclaiming that he was a Marxist — an admission that the late U.S. representative Hale Boggs, who served on the Warren Commission and who greatly admired INCA, thought was highly important in establishing Oswald’s motives.

For Butler, it was a career-definer. Already a well-connected crusader against Communists and “revolutionaries” anywhere and everywhere they lurked, Butler’s brush with Kennedy’s assassin provided him fame (for about a decade) and, more important, confirmation that the intersection of radio and anti-Communism should be his life’s work.

Butler was the prototypical “hedgehog,” viewing the world through the single lens of anti-revolution/anti-Communism. He was sincere, often incisive, and dead on-target in terms of understanding the big picture of Communist propaganda and organizational strategies. He also had a great voice for radio and knew how to conduct an interview to elicit interesting responses from his guests.

But a man obsessed with fighting Communists — and sometimes in mistaking ordinary liberals as Communists in fact or in training — is not a man with whom most national media folks want to associate or converse. No matter how personally kind or thoughtful he was, his obsession could wear on the nerves even of those who shared much of his conservative philosophy. Yet no matter how much the mainstream media shunted him aside, Butler remained convinced that his onetime fame was prelude to an even more important “big reveal” through which he would help save Western civilization.

The collapse of Soviet Communism did not assuage Butler’s worries; even as others celebrated the triumph of the West, Butler remained convinced that the revolutionary Left was still plotting. In the early 1990s, Butler scraped together enough money to take over New Orleans radio station WTIX and run it on a shoestring budget — while barely bringing home enough to live on.

So it was that, with me living and working in Washington, D.C., as a congressional staffer, my father — who counted Butler’s brother as a good friend — rented out my former room to Butler at some tiny fee like $50 a month. In Lord knows how many conversations during those years, Butler told me again and again that he was glad I was up there fighting the revolutionaries — and he would always wave off my protestations that sometimes we were just dealing with garden-variety liberals, misguided but not bent on destruction.

“You just have to know how to expose them,” he’d say. “Like I exposed Oswald.”

Butler finally moved on from my old house — and, a decade later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, bereft, he died.

If Ed Butler was eager to let his encounter with Oswald help define his career, Jesse Core was just the opposite. In trying to shoo Oswald away on that August day 14 weeks before the assassination, Core was just doing his job. Little did he know what a nightmare was in store for him.

By the mid-1960s, Core had his own PR firm. His two biggest clients were, first, the Trade Mart, and second, District Attorney Jim Garrison. Garrison, of course, infamously decided to make his fame by accusing Trade Mart director Clay Shaw of conspiring with Oswald to kill Kennedy. Never mind that Shaw was so fiercely anti-Communist that he was a big donor to Butler’s INCA organization: Garrison smelled blood and headlines, and he went hard after Shaw.

Well, the Trade Mart knew that Core was “Garrison’s guy.” There went Core’s longstanding relationship with that organization. Alas, Garrison knew that Core had been “Shaw’s guy” long before Garrison even entered the scene. Garrison also cut ties with Core.

And Core, who was entirely guiltless (and who knew darn well that Shaw was guiltless, too) — and who was, indeed, just an independent contractor — suddenly had lost his two biggest clients and, in the assassination-related maelstrom that engulfed the New Orleans political community for the next few years, he was buffeted so badly that a great reputation built over several decades was blown to smithereens. (Ed Butler, who had known Core back in the 1960s, was grieved to hear of this misfortune, calling Core a class act all the way.) The kindest, gentlest soul imaginable, Core by 1990 was living in a tiny apartment — with Social Security checks and payments for infrequent freelance writing apparently his primary, if not sole, sources of sustenance.

Core wrote a few terrific, shaggy-dog stories for me at Gambit: one about how gracious Louis Armstrong was during an appearance at a state fair in Texas; another recounting, for a Halloween issue, an unsolved series of New Orleans axe murders 70 years earlier. He was a delightful man and told me of his Oswald-related misfortunes without anger or malice, but rather wistfully. Right up until the end, he was writing: His last story, also a Halloween-themed tale, was run special to the Times-Picayune in 1997 — obviously turned in a few days in advance, because it ran the day after his death.

What if Oswald had not passed out those leaflets outside the Trade Mart? What if Jesse Core hadn’t shooed him away? What if Core hadn’t reported the incident to the FBI? Would Jim Garrison have seized on the Trade Mart’s Clay Shaw as a culprit in the Kennedy assassination? Would Core have found himself caught between two clients, and then out of a job? And would Ed Butler, to whose organization Shaw was a donor, have been moved to confront Oswald at the radio station?

And if people like Butler and Core hadn’t given Oswald such a (deservedly) rough reception in New Orleans, would Oswald and his wife have fled the Crescent City to settle back in Dallas, where he just happened to take a job in the Book Depository?

Fifty years after Oswald assassinated Kennedy, the conspiracy theories still vie for attention. I think Core and Butler, were they still here, would insist that a crazy Commie almost randomly found himself with an unexpected opportunity to be in the wrong place at the wrong time for Western civilization, and that he took full advantage of it. That’s what Communists do when given the chance: They wreak destruction. Our body politic has never been the same since — and certainly the lives of Ed Butler and Jesse Core, too, weren’t the same ever again. Those lives are just part of the detritus of an act of despicable evil 50 years ago this week. But as history is writ large, it also is writ small in the lives of individual men.

— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom.