It's not quite the career trajectory you'd expect from a guy like David Talbot. In 1995, after years as a newspaper features editor in San Francisco, he caught a whiff of the possibilities of the Internet well ahead of his peers, created the online magazine Salon and spent the next decade watching the enterprise ping between journalistic success and financial near death.
Then, two years ago, just as Salon turned a profit for the first time, Talbot stepped down from day-to-day operations, announcing he would engage in that most mainstream of media pursuits: writing a book. But this would not be a memoir - no pithy retelling of his hair-raising adventures as a not-so-ink-stained Internet pioneer. Instead, last month he published a sober, 400-page re-examination of the Kennedy assassination, "Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years."
In "Brothers," Talbot uses Bobby Kennedy's conflicted response to his brother's murder as a lens to examine the crime and various theories about how it happened. Although Bobby Kennedy, who was his brother's attorney general, often seemed publicly to agree with the Warren Commission's lone-gunman conclusion, privately, Talbot writes, he didn't believe it. Talbot concludes that Bobby was in fact the country's first Kennedy conspiracy theorist, and that had he been elected president in 1968, he might have been able to solve the crime once and for all. "Bobby felt this plot came out of the CIA's secret war on Castro," says Talbot during a recent interview in Los Angeles.
This is not Talbot's first public foray into big-splash political writing. He made national waves in 1998, when, during the Clinton impeachment, Salon published a story about a 30-year-old extramarital affair by U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde, then the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Defending his much-vilified decision, Talbot memorably wrote: "Aren't we fighting fire with fire, descending to the gutter tactics of those we deplore? Frankly, yes. But ugly times call for ugly tactics."
There might not always be a Kennedy in public office, but it seems there will always be someone, somewhere, working on a Kennedy book. Talbot, who lives in San Francisco with his wife, writer Camille Peri, and their two teenage sons, says he was always curious about what Bobby Kennedy really thought had happened in Dallas, and was nudged toward the book by a friend who reminded him that for the remaining Kennedy contemporaries, time was running out.
"I can't paw through documents," Talbot says. "I am a journalist. I needed to sit down and talk to Kennedy administration people who had a living link to the story." Some people he interviewed - presidential adviser Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and the investigative journalist Jack Newfield - died before the book came out.
He also spent time with JFK's legendary speechwriter Ted Sorensen; his defense secretary, Robert McNamara; and journalist Ben Bradlee, with whom he had a pointed conversation about why Bradlee, one of JFK's closest friends, who would take the reins at the Washington Post in 1965, did not pursue the assassination story with more vigor. Bradlee admitted that while it "would have been fantastic (to have solved the crime)," he didn't unleash the Post's considerable investigative muscle on the story because he was afraid he'd be discredited for taking the Post "down that path."
The publication of Talbot's book coincides with the arrival of another Kennedy murder inquiry: Vincent Bugliosi's "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy."
When Talbot stepped down from Salon to launch his Kennedy research, incidentally, Bugliosi had been at work on his book for 18 years. Bugliosi's painstaking effort (and, at 1,600 pages, painfully long in the view of some reviewers) reaches an opposite conclusion. While Talbot makes a familiar argument that a confluence of anti-Castro Cubans, rogue CIA elements and the Mafia were behind Lee Harvey Oswald's murderous act, Bugliosi insists there was no conspiracy, that Oswald acted alone (and that anyone who doesn't understand that is a fool or worse). Talbot is not so dismissive, however, and says he is trying to arrange a verbal duel with Bugliosi to be held in public. (So far, no response from the Bugliosi camp, Talbot reported Friday.)
"This whole area is a rabbit hole, a dark labyrinth, and I was determined not to get lost in it," Talbot says over coffee. "I think Vincent Bugliosi got lost in it. My way was to use Bobby Kennedy as a light, and to explore what he thought happened. I think he was looking at the CIA and their secret war on Castro in which they used militant Cuban exiles and mobsters to carry out their dirty work. I think Bobby thought that was the operation that turned its guns against JFK."
History buffs might know that John Kennedy thought it was possible that the Joint Chiefs of Staff could consider a coup under the right conditions, or that the CIA suspected he was being led down a path of "peace, love and drugs" by his mistress, Mary Meyer, the bohemian ex-wife of a CIA agent, who introduced him to marijuana and possibly LSD. Her 1964 death was never solved.
But for those with only a passing knowledge of the era, or who are wishing for a refresher course on the turbulent politics of the early Cold War or the stunning internecine battles waged during the Kennedy administration over commies, Cubans and civil rights, "Brothers" is a bracing retelling of a familiar tale, full of shocking moments and juicy tidbits. Talbot, naturally, hopes the book will find its way to the big screen. "Message to George Clooney," he says, with a chuckle. "I thought he would be perfect to produce it because his aunt, Rosemary Clooney, was singing at the hotel when Bobby was shot and had a terrible nervous breakdown afterward."
Meanwhile, although he helped invent the brave new genre of online journalism, Talbot never managed to get rich. Salon, where he is still chairman of the board, paid him a decent salary (although less than $200,000, according to news reports), and he says he ended up with something north of $100,000 when he cashed out his stock. But, he says cheerfully, ink-stained wretch style: "I am an old-fashioned guy. I started out deeply in debt, and I'm still deeply in debt."