American in Paris

(Friday, November 21, 2003

Pete Kendall - Hood County News

Regrets? Billie Sol Estes has a few. The self-styled wheeler-dealer could have spared the nation from Vietnam, he said, if he’d spilled the beans on Lyndon Johnson prior to the 1964 presidential election.

Johnson, the larger-than-life Texas liberal, defeated conservative Barry Goldwater by a landslide. Then he escalated the war in Southeast Asia. Pre-election mud-slinging between Johnson and Goldwater captured the nation’s attention only briefly. Johnson dodged most of the dirt. It might have connected more solidly had Estes seized the opportunity to provide the Goldwater camp with proof, he said, of several of LBJ’s alleged transgressions. “If I’d made the right move, there would have been no Vietnam War,” Estes, a 78-year-old Granbury resident, said. “Goldwater already had enough on Lyndon. He offered me a million dollars to confirm it.

“If I had, Goldwater would have won the election.” Mid-20th century American politics is the backdrop for Estes’ recent book - “JFK, le dernier temoin” (JFK, the last standing man), 408 pages, paperback - published in French by mega-publisher Flammarion of France. LBJ is a central character. Estes asserts Johnson played a role in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. “Without a doubt,” Estes said. “It’s tied right around his neck. Any role he had in life, he controlled it. He controlled everything.”

Similar allegations were directed at Johnson in a long-ago stage play and in various publications. More recently, the allegations surfaced in television programs ... one in America and one in France. The latter was something of a companion piece to Estes’ book, which was co-authored and researched by William Reymond. Estes also implicated Johnson in the assassination on the Web site

Johnson died in 1973. His supporters have long denied any involvement by Johnson in Kennedy’s death. Estes, in his book, alleges otherwise. His assertions were researched and verified, he said, by a team of investigators retained by his co-author. “Anything I told him, he wouldn’t have printed without investigating it,” Estes said. “I would give him a lead, and he would spend days on it. “The process took about four years. The publisher spent about a million dollars on it.”

The French have responded favorably to the book, snapping up the first printing of 35,000. A second printing of 50,000-plus copies is in progress. The book was unveiled in October. Estes and family joined Reymond for a promotional tour in France. It was also an ideal honeymoon for Estes and bride Dorris Brookover Estes. Estes’ first wife, Patsy, died in 2000.

“We were so busy in Paris,” Estes said. “You can imagine being on every major TV station there is. They were really kind to us.” They were also inquisitive. French reporters, Estes said, gave him the third degree. “You put about 100 reporters in a room, and if you don’t have it backed up, they’ll find out,” Estes said. “We had the sharpest reporters from all over the world, and we didn’t have any problems with it.”

Unknown to Estes, he’d been introduced to the French before he disembarked in Paris. The popular magazine Paris Match had featured him on its cover and in a story and spread of photographs. “They knew all about him,” daughter Pam Padget said. “The magazine had been on the newsstand.” The book germinated from a photograph, Estes said.

“I wasn’t really interested in writing a book,” he said. “A man came from France and wanted to take my picture. I charged him a thousand dollars. He gave me a thousand dollars in cash. “Then he said he was interested in doing a story. I told him I wasn’t really interested in a story. I didn’t think the timing was right. “But he wanted to do it, and they offered me a few hundred thousand dollars. I took a few hundred thousand dollars, and they got started. “The book unfolded. They thought it would do real well in Europe and all the countries like England and Russia. “There’s a big demand all over Europe. Flammarin is the second largest publisher in the world. William Reymond is a bigshot over there. Maybe not here, but over there. “He’s the No. 1 author in that country, and anything he does is a real success, and he has a lot of credibility.”

Estes’ credibility has come under question. He’s served two prison terms. Detractors have termed him a con man. The book, he said, is undiluted truth. “I have proof of my information,” Estes said. “It’s like when I say Goldwater offered me money. I have the proof. I can give the proof for anything I say.”

Due in part to political friendships with men like Johnson, then a U.S. senator, Estes was granted lucrative government agricultural contracts in far West Texas in the 1950s. Estes was reportedly worth between $140 million and $400 million before his empire crumbled. A federal investigation revealed financial malfeasance.

Arguably, he was more a colorful product of his political times than a hardened criminal. The political times in which he rose and fell were complex. Those times produced victors and victims. Johnson was a victor. Estes was a victim. “To understand the story, you have to understand the political situation at the time,” Estes said. “You’ve got to understand the political power that group had and controlled. “I wanted to do a book to get people to realize what really went on in the history of this country and its politics and who really controlled things.”

The book’s political intrigue begins with the 1940s. “I knew Lyndon then. I made a million dollars with government contracts in the’40s,” Estes said. He and Johnson were not close friends, he said. “I don’t think Lyndon had any close friends,” Estes said. “I think he had associates, people he could use. If he couldn’t use you, he didn’t have time for you.” There was never a time, Estes said, that he and Johnson stopped associating, even as Estes was headed to prison. “He promised he was going to get me out of my trouble,” Estes said. “He told me if I wouldn’t talk, I would not go to jail.” Estes has had no contact with LBJ’s other long-ago associates, he said, since the book’s publication. “About all of them are dead, really. I think I’m about the last one standing.” That’s partly why, he said, he wasn’t interested in doing a book sooner. “I’ve been accused of being dumb,” he said, “but I’m not stupid.”

Estes is aware of other assassination theories. He puts no stock in any. “I’ve got the facts, and I know the story, and I don’t care what anybody else says. My deal will stand up.” One particularly popular conspiracy premise involves the Mafia. “Vito Genovese told me they didn’t have anything to do with it,” Estes said. Genovese was among the most powerful Mafia chieftains of the 20th century. “He told me that in 1966 when we were in prison together,” Estes said. “I knew him real well.”

Of John F. Kennedy, Estes has only good to say. “At the time, I couldn’t imagine why he would want to get in that political ballgame,” Estes said. “I wouldn’t want to be in it. “Looking back, I think he was a good man, and I think if he’d been left alone, he would have made a real good president. I think he would have tried to do the right thing. “His health was so bad that he had to hurry up and do what he wanted to do. It proves he wanted to accomplish something that he fought in World War II. He had all the wealth in the world to keep him out of it. Health-wise, he wouldn’t have had to go.”

Estes praises current President George W. Bush. French interviewers queried him on that subject, Estes said. “I told them he was a God-fearing man and that God was with him,” Estes said. “I had enough wisdom to answer the question that way. I wasn’t going to be like the Dixie Chicks.”

Pete Kendall can be reached at (817) 573-7066, ext. 248, or e-mail