If John Wilkes Booth wasn’t shot and killed 12 days after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, where did he go? Did the government lie about discovering UFOs?
Political thriller novelist Brad Meltzer investigates these questions and more in his new nonfiction book, History Decoded: The Ten Greatest Conspiracies of All-Time, based off his show on the History Channel, “Brad Meltzer’s Decoded.”
Meltzer, who will sign copies of the book at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library at 7 p.m. Wednesday, spoke to The Hill about his conversation with a relative of John Wilkes Booth, alien life and what conspiracy theories reveal about us.
Q: Tell me about your new book.
Q: Why are these the 10 greatest conspiracies of all time?
Let’s be honest: only because I picked them to be. … To me, a great conspiracy is one that tells you something about yourself — that’s not just a spooky story, but it says something about you. You show me your favorite conspiracy, and I’ll show you who you are.
Q: What do you mean by that?
In the 1960s, you know who we said killed JFK? We said it was the communists; it was the Russians; it was the Cubans — our greatest enemies at the height of the Cold War. It was also a time when the Americans hated the establishment, so it was Texas millionaires who wanted JFK dead. In the ’70s, it was a time of Watergate and of Vietnam. You know who killed JFK then? It was our own government. It was the CIA. And in the ’80s, as the “Godfather” movies gave rise to “Scarface,” you know who killed JFK? It was the Mafia. So if you want to know who killed JFK, it’s whomever America is most afraid of in that moment. JFK is a giant mirror that we hold up to ourselves. These stories aren’t just cool stories, they’re stories that say something about us as a people.
Q: Who, in your opinion, is the perceived enemy of today? What does it reveal about us?
I honestly think that the great enemy of today is our own government — in terms of perception. I spent a lot of time on [Capitol] Hill, my wife worked there for a long time, and we loved it there. And what I think regular people, who aren’t there on a daily basis, fail to understand is that the government doesn’t lie — people lie. And we are all, as people, part of the government.
Q: During your investigations, what was the most fascinating discovery you made?
I think hearing John Wilkes Booth’s family members tell the story of their relative was pretty incredible — having a 90-year-old woman say, “Listen, when I was younger, my family sat me down and said, ‘We have a family secret, and the family secret is that we’re related to John Wilkes Booth, and the bigger secret is that he never died. He actually lived for many decades later. And you can’t tell anyone.’ ” That’s a really cool day at work for me.
Q: What was the most absurd theory you encountered?
One of the ones that really stopped me in my tracks is when we found out that Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter said that they saw UFOs.
One of the ones that just really haunted me — I don’t know if this is absurd, but this haunted me — is, we had John Lear, whose father invented the Learjet, who’s a decorated pilot, an incredible member of the military — again, not a kook at all — who said that … when they found the first UFOs, [the U.S. government] just reverse engineered them, and they took the technology. … I just hate that anyone tries to take away American ingenuity and blame it on an alien race.
Q: Why did you choose not to include the Sept. 11 attacks?
You know, that was right on the bubble. I think that part of it is — if I’m just being completely honest here — I still think it’s just too soon. Everyone has to have their line somewhere. My next-door neighbor Michele Heidenberger died in the Pentagon crash. I was living in D.C. on 9/11. Maybe it’s my own bias, but it was too close to me to really touch.
Q: In your book, you write: “We are a country founded on legends and myths. We love them, especially legends of treasure. Looking for treasure isn’t just part of being an American, it is America.” How so?
I love the character Superman — let me do it this way … I love Superman because to me, the most important part of the story is not Superman. The most important part of the story is Clark Kent … because we’re all Clark Kent. We all know what it’s like to be boring and ordinary and wish we were something incredibly beyond ourselves. It’s why he’s now part of the American mythology — not because he sells a lot of comics, but because he says something about us. And it’s the same with Lincoln, and it’s the same with George Washington, and it’s the same with Abigail Adams. These people in stories — our founding fathers and founding mothers — say something about us and our own hopes and dreams for ourselves. And that mythology drives America today.