The Corner

R.I.P. Arlen Specter, Originator of the Single Bullet ‘Theory’

Arlen Specter died yesterday. Depending on who’s doing the remembering, he will either be recalled as an independent-minded centrist, or an opportunist with no ideological core, other than a belief in himself. For the record, I lean towards the latter category.

Most everybody will remember him first and foremost as a senator. Not me, though. Whenever Arlen Specter’s name is mentioned, I first think of the single bullet “theory.” I put theory in quotation marks, because the evidence supporting its conclusions is overwhelming. Specter, who was an investigator for the Warren Commission, is largely credited with originating this theory, which states that the bullet that caused Kennedy’s non-lethal injury also hit Texas governor John Connally. 

Oliver Stone explored the single bullet theory, also derided as the “magic” bullet theory, in his 1991 film JFK. This clip, which purports to disprove the theory, is especially famous, and was hilariously imitated in an episode of Seinfeld

Everything in this clip is wrong. Neither man was sitting perfectly upright; Kennedy’s head was lurched forward, and Connally’s body was turned to the right. Connally’s seat was lower and closer to the center of the car than was Kennedy’s. Computer simulations that accurately depict the two men’s positions demonstrate that the bullet actually traveled in a straight line through their bodies, and that the straight line continues backwards until it reaches the sixth floor window of the Dallas School Book Depository. Subsequent government commissions confirmed that the bullet traveled in a straight line, and firearms experts argue that, depending on its speed, it’s very possible for a bullet to go through two people and emerge relatively unscathed. 

It’s remarkable that the Warren Commission reached this conclusion nearly five decades ago, without the computer simulations that now confirm Arlen Specter’s findings. 

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