ASK: Roland Swenson

JFK symposium exposes SXSW head as CIA operative!

ASK: Roland Swenson

From 1991 to 1994, SXSW managing director Roland Swenson co-hosted an annual conference in Dallas called the Assassination Symposium on Kennedy, known as ASK, that drew hundreds of curious characters seeking the truth about John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination. On the 50th anniversary of the infamous date, Swenson reflects on the scene around ASK.

Austin Chronicle: What was your goal in hosting ASK?

Roland Swenson: The Chron staff used to hang out at the Texas Chili Parlor, and I learned that a waitress we all knew was Lee Harvey Oswald’s daughter. It made me think about the fact that there were still a lot of people in Texas who were involved in the events of Nov. 22, one way or another.

My friend, writer Joe Nick Patoski, and I cooked up the idea of doing a “Who Shot JFK?” panel at South by Southwest. Joe Nick had just done a piece on “assassination researchers” for Texas Monthly. He’d met a guy named J. Gary Shaw, who was writing a book with a doctor from Parkland Hospital. Gary did the panel for us, and it was a big hit.

I was in the second grade, living in Beaumont, when JFK was killed, so it was my first big memory of a political/historical event. Living in East Texas it was common knowledge that anti-Castro militia training bases were springing up in South Louisiana, so when that became part of the conspiracy story, it struck a chord with me. I was living in Baton Rouge during New Orleans DA Jim Garrison’s trial of Clay Shaw, and it was front page news and on TV every night.

SXSW had been trying to come up with a new event for our staff to work on so we could afford to keep more people on year round. We were concerned about competing with ourselves by copying SXSW. The idea to do something that was so far away from music and entertainment was appealing. It gave us a chance to analyze all of our processes in a different context.

The Oliver Stone film [JFK] was shooting in Dallas, and there was renewed interest in the conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination. We thought the time was ripe for a public event that covered the spectrum of ideas.

AC: How would you characterize the type of audience it drew?

RS: One of the reasons we decided to move forward was that Gary Shaw, who’d done the SXSW panel, was a really nice and reasonable man. We liked him. He was acquainted with the network of researchers and authors on the topic, and he represented our target demographic. Gary was an architect living in Cleburne who had been studying the assassination since it happened. There were a lot of “citizen investigators” along with the writers and so-called experts making up a community that we were able to reach.\

AC: What made you decide to stop putting it on?

RS: At first, it was exciting and the people we were dealing with seemed nice enough, definitely not the tinfoil hat types. I got to meet most of the surviving “eyewitnesses” – Oswald’s widow Marina Porter; one of the cops handcuffed to Oswald when Jack Ruby shot him; one of the KGB officers who interviewed Oswald in Mexico City; and writer Norman Mailer.

As things progressed, we began to see many of our clients in a new light as they took more extreme positions. It was becoming less, “Hmm, there are too many coincidences here” to, “I think maybe aliens abducted JFK!” When Marina Oswald spoke, and she said that she definitely took the famous photos of Oswald holding his rifle in their backyard – that it was not trick photography – some in the audience became openly hostile.

We decided from the start that ASK would officially remain agnostic about the conspiracy, but would encourage a variety of opinions. We had used the phrase “Release the Files” as our primary mission statement. So after Bill Clinton was elected and started a process to release the files that were sealed for 50 years – they’d just now be coming out – that left us without a clear direction.

Eventually, one of the more famous and extreme writers made the claim that SXSW was involved in the assassination plot, having handled the arrangements for the flights, hotels, and rental cars for the assassination team. This seemed plausible to our audience. Having been exposed as CIA operatives, we had no choice but to bow out.

Later, we would see a lot of the same “experts” who had spoken at ASK turn up as “experts” on cable news discussing the O.J. [Simpson] case.

Read more JFK-related stories at The Austin Chronicle’s 'JFK: 50 Years Gone' issue is on stands Thursday, Nov. 21.

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ASK, Roland Swenson, Assassination Symposium on Kennedy, JFK, SXSW, Joe Nick Patoski, Texas Chili Parlor, Lee Harvey Oswald, Marina Porter, Jack Ruby, Oliver Stone, Bill Clinton, J. Gary Shaw, O.J. Simpson, Norman Mailer, Jim Garrison

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