clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

We shouldn't have to explain that Ted Cruz's dad didn't kill JFK, but here goes, I guess

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

We have officially reached the point in the 2016 Republican presidential primary when candidates are accusing each other's parents of involvement in the John F. Kennedy assassination:

Specifically, Trump is claiming that Cruz's father, Rafael Bienvenido Cruz, is visible in photos taken of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in New Orleans on August 16, 1963. Specifically, he's relying on a report from the National Enquirer alleging that Rafael Cruz Sr. is the man in white fourth from left, close to Oswald (second from left), in this photo, Exhibit 453-A in the Warren Commission report:

Lee Harvey Oswald in August 16, 1963 next to a mystery man who is not Ted Cruz's father Warren Commission via Snopes

Cruz has mocked the suggestion, joking, "Yes, my dad killed JFK, he is secretly Elvis, and Jimmy Hoffa is buried in his backyard."

Let's be clear: There is basically zero evidence for Trump's claim or the Enquirer report it's based on. It's based entirely on a resemblance between the man in the above photo and Cruz, when there's absolutely no other indication that Cruz Sr. and Oswald ever came into contact. But this is as good an excuse as any to explore an interesting part of Oswald's backstory, and one of his first brushes with mainstream media coverage.

Where that Lee Harvey Oswald photo comes from

The photo in contention is from an August 16, 1963, rally organized by Oswald on behalf of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a pro-Castro organization for which he served as New Orleans chapter secretary (and, in reality, basically the only member of that chapter).

FPCC originated in New York in April 1960, after the Cuban Revolution but before the country firmly allied with the Soviet Union. It counted among its original supporters a number of influential writers and intellectuals, including Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. It would later shut down in December 1963, due to the negative press it received after Oswald killed Kennedy.

As recounted in Jean Davison's biography Oswald's Game, Oswald's relationship with FPCC was not particularly close. Oswald first contacted the New York office in August 1962, a few months after he returned to the US after living in the Soviet Union for three years; around the same time he also renewed his subscription to the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of Communist Party USA, and got in touch with the Socialist Workers Party, the leading Trotskyist party of the time. After writing, FPCC sent him some pamphlets.

Next he put on his first pro-Castro event, wearing a placard saying, "Hands Off Cuba! Viva Fidel!" and handing out literature from FPCC; he reported the demonstration to the office in New York. In May, he sent a change-of-address card to FPCC, receiving a note back from the director, Vincent Lee, saying, "We hope to hear from you soon so that we may again have your name amongst those who continue to support the efforts of our Committee."

Oswald responded to this boilerplate very enthusiastically, offering to open up a New Orleans chapter:

I am requesting formal membership in your organization.

In the past I have received from you pamphlets etc., both bought by me and given to me by you.

Now that I live in New Orleans I have been thinking about renting a small office at my own expense for the purpose of forming a FPCC branch here in New Orleans.

Could you give me a charter?

Also I would like information on buying pamphlets etc. in large lots, as well as blank FPCC applications etc.

Also a picture of Fidel, suitable for framing would be a welcome touch.

Lee was hesitant, giving Oswald a membership card but not a charter, and discouraging the formation of a chapter given lack of interest in New Orleans, but Oswald had ordered handbills advertising the new chapter before even getting a reply.

Oswald set about distributing leaflets again in June 1963, nearly getting arrested by a patrolman who pointed out that he couldn't distribute literature on the New Orleans harbor without a permit. On August 9, it did get him arrested. A few days earlier he had gone into the store of Carlos Bringuier, a prominent anti-Castro Cuban exile, and offered his services as a guerrilla warrior against the Cuban government; he was apparently inspired by William Morgan, an American involved in the Cuban Revolution who once pretended to be an anti-Castro militant so as to foil a plot against Castro.

On the 9th, Bringuier and two friends confronted Oswald while he was handing out anti-Castro literature. A crowd gathered, a policeman arrived, and Oswald and the three Cubans were arrested. Oswald pleaded guilty to "disturbing the peace by creating a scene."

But a mere week later, he was back on pamphleting, this time with two collaborators and a camera crew from the local station WDSU. Video taken by WDSU cameraman Johann Rush is responsible for the photo of Oswald in which Rafael Cruz is alleged to appear; the photo is actually a still from Rush's film footage.

Both pamphleteers were hired by Oswald, rather than volunteers for the organization. One was never identified, and one was Charles Hall Steele Jr. Reclaiming History, Vincent Bugliosi's book that serves as the definitive non-conspiratorial account of the Kennedy assassination, explains:

It was Oswald's best-organized effort. He provided some substance for his phantom FPCC chapter by getting two other young men to help distribute the literature. One of them, a short, young Cuban, only passed out a few of the handful of leaflets [WDSU cameraman Johann Rush] saw Oswald give him on the street after talking to him and his taller companion. The short man, who has never been identified, seemed embarrassed by the entire affair, grinning a lot, and soon left with his companion, who seemed to purposefully keep his back to Rush's camera throughout the entire incident. The other leaflet distributor was a kid named Charles Hall Steele Jr., whom Oswald had recruited at the unemployment office, where Steele was waiting for a friend who was taking a test. Oswald offered two dollars for fifteen or twenty minutes or work. It sounded good to Steele, who asked no questions. He didn't even bother to read the literature he passed out.

Why are people claiming Cruz's dad was one of the pamphleteers?

Lee Harvey Oswald pamphleteering Warren Commission

The man in the photo is believed to be the unidentified pamphleteer who came with a taller companion, not Steele. Max Holland, a veteran journalist and expert on the JFK assassination, emails, "Since the guy to Oswald's right seems to be shorter than Oswald (who wasn't that tall), I think the guy to the right was probably the never-identified 'short young Cuban' rather than Steele."

Naturally, mysterious unidentified figures are catnip for conspiracists. Cruz Sr. is shorter than his son, at 5-foot-8 to 5-foot-10, about the average American male height or a little shorter, and was 24 at the time, so "short young Cuban" seems to fit. Better yet for the conspiracy folks is the fact that Cruz Sr. moved to New Orleans in the 1960s.

It's unclear exactly when Cruz Sr. moved there though. He was apparently there by 1967. Wayne Madsen, the conspiracy theorist most responsible for spreading the Cruz theory and a firm believer that Barack Obama is gay and the government invented swine flu, claims that Cruz moved in November 1962. But he's … not exactly a reliable source. The Ted Cruz campaign didn't reply to a request to comment on when exactly Cruz Sr. moved.

The sole evidence the Enquirer presents for the contention that Cruz Sr. is in the photo is the testimony of two self-styled experts: Carole Lieberman, a celebrity psychiatrist/expert witness who brags about her "star-studded practice in Beverly Hills," and Mitch Goldstone, CEO of ScanMyPhotos, a digitizing photo service. Lieberman said the photos "seem to match," and Goldstone commented, "There's more similarity than dissimilarity."

These are not exactly ringing endorsements, and they come from two people it's hard to fairly characterize as facial recognition experts. Given that, there's really no reason to think that the mysterious short Cuban is Cruz Sr. rather than one of thousands of other people. And even in the spectacularly unlikely event that it is him, that's not exactly damning. The pamphleteers were hired for a few minutes' work, and weren't involved in Oswald's political activities at all, let alone his assassination planning. So there wouldn't have been anything particularly nefarious about Cruz Sr. picking up that odd job.