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reclaiming history

3 january 2012

I took 12 days off from work to read Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Actually, work took 12 days off from me – my university, like many, closes between Christmas and New Year's – and I finally saw the opening, in terms of both time and space on the dining-room table, that I'd need to read a 2,776-page book too heavy to hold up. Actually only 1,648 of those pages are printed and sewn together. The extra 1,128 come on a compact disc in .pdf format: but they are pages of exactly the size and font as in the book itself, 958 of which consist of endnotes to the already copiously footnoted text (not to mention footnotes to the endnotes). I have to think that I am one of a scant handful of people to have read the whole thing, outside of the hardcore assassination-buff community. In fact I have a sinking suspicion that reading the whole thing puts you into the hardcore assassination-buff community.

It took me two years to learn of the existence of Reclaiming History, and another two to work up courage to read it, so I guess I wasn't really an inner-circle JFKist. Bugliosi identifies his book, over 20 years in the writing, as the first "anti-conspiracy" book on the murder of John Kennedy. There have been other "non-conspiracy" books, for sure – the Warren Report would certainly qualify – but Bugliosi's is the first to lay out the many competing and contrasting conspiracy theories that existed as of its publication, and systematically debunk all of them. At that, its 2,776 pages are selective; Bugliosi says that he's not going to venture onto the lunatic fringe of space aliens, Elvis, and the like. The fringes he does visit are often quite loony enough.

Despite my admiration for certain works of art that have come out of the conspiracy mindset, like Don DeLillo's Libra, I have always thought that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. For me the most convincing book had long been Gerald Posner's Case Closed (1993), and its extremely self-confident title had discouraged me from reading further debunking. Despite the fact that he comes to much the same conclusions as Posner, Bugliosi has little good to say about Posner's work, considering it sloppy and blinkered. In other words, there is about as much amity on the anti-conspiracy side of JFK-assassination historiography as there is between conspiracists and debunkers in general.

Bugliosi is perhaps unnecessarily and repetitively sarcastic in his dismissal of conspiracy theorists. He is not uncharitable, though. Most of the theories he considers and rejects are full of hot air and desperately untethered to reality. He shoots them down with zinger after zinger, long after they've wilted and are descending back to earth anyway. But as Bugliosi repeatedly points out, a lot of best-selling books that peddle the weirdest and least-possible theories have been published. Meanwhile, nobody reads the Warren Report.

I haven't read the Warren Report, for that matter. In its paperback form, it was a staple of American bookshelves when I was young in the 1960s, often next to Profiles in Courage. But my ten-year-old self couldn't get through the prefatory material, much less into the Warren Commission's prosaic explication of Oswald's acting-aloneness. As a result, I was defenseless in later life to rebut goofy postulations like those of Bonar Menninger's Mortal Error (1992), which proposed that the President was killed when a Secret Service agent fired accidentally in the wake of Oswald's shots. There are endless reasons why that couldn't have happened, including a complete lack of eyewitnesses to it among the hundreds who were watching the motorcade, and the total certainty that the two bullets that hit President Kennedy were fired from Oswald's rifle. In 1992, though, Menninger's thesis (or rather that of his informant Howard Donahue) seemed lucid compared to the batshit lucubrations of Oliver Stone's film JFK (1991). Forced into disbelief by insanity, I momentarily considered mere daffiness to be sensible by contrast.

I didn't know any better, 20 years ago, because I didn't know the facts. And my laziness in pursuit of the facts was satisfied by Gerald Posner till a few weeks ago, when I visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas again and decided to watch JFK. I'd seen Stone's film a couple of times before and always read it as a brilliant exposition of paranoia: the wonderful long unhinged monologues by Donald Sutherland and, later, Kevin Costner, that spell out the film's thesis are masterpieces of cinematic narration, and the film richly deserved its Academy Award for film editing. But I had always thought JFK to be crazy. After reading Reclaiming History, I also think it's evil, along the lines of the evil purveyed by equally brilliant films like The Birth of a Nation or Triumph des Willens. I agree with Bugliosi: JFK "has caused far more damage to the truth about the case than perhaps any other single event other than Ruby's killing of Oswald" (1355).

Vincent Bugliosi's thesis is that Oswald acted alone (beyond any doubt) and was not part of a conspiracy (beyond any reasonable doubt). Oliver Stone's is that Oswald didn't act at all, and was framed by a conspiracy involving pretty much every well-known person in 1960s America outside of Mitch Miller and Soupy Sales. LBJ, the CIA, the FBI, and several other alphabet-soup ingredients figure in Stone's JFK and in the imagination of a large percentage of Americans. As Bugliosi points out,

The automatic and ubiquitous word they employ to express their angst is the anonymous they. After employing this pronoun, they usually don't consume their lives with the issue, and go on to other matters of more immediate concern. (989)
This "easy reliance on they" (989), Bugliosi implies, has become the default mode for thought about not only the JFK assassination, but most momentous events in American life. I've seen it permeate thought about Watergate and Iran-Contra, various Middle East wars and 9/11. Stone and other conspiracy thinkers have used this pulpy notion of "they" to teach Americans that truth will never out, and that vested interests will always crush the little guy. In different ways, both Occupy and the Tea Party operate from exactly those premises, but from opposing sources of paranoia.

But in the case of JFK, what evidence is there that the President's death was brought about by "they" (as opposed to "he," Lee Harvey Oswald)? There is no direct evidence, but two elements of the assassination make it at least prima facie non-insane to suspect conspiracy. First, Oswald, who idolized Fidel Castro, tried to travel to Cuba just weeks before 11/22, and met in Mexico City with KGB agents. Second, Bugliosi's most-damaging event: Oswald was killed two days after he killed Kennedy, by Dallas know-it-all Jack Ruby, a man who seems to have stepped out of the supporting cast of a Mafia movie.

The first ground can be dismissed after considering the evidence. Castro had no reason to kill Kennedy (in fact it would have been his death warrant if he had, and Fidel Castro is one of history's great survivors). Cuban officials in Mexico refused to grant Oswald a visa. He met with the KGB officers (not knowing they were spies; they posed as consuls) in an attempt to get a Soviet visa for travel through Cuba. The KGB thought he was deranged and told him to go home.

The second, Ruby-related suspicion runs into its own evidence difficulties. The trouble with trying to connect Oswald or Ruby to "the mob" is that there's no connection. Conspiracy theorists, Bugliosi shows, try to play a kind of Kevin-Bacon game with the evidence: Ruby knew some guys who knew some guys who might have wanted Kennedy dead, and they knew guys who might have known Oswald, and QED. (Not for nothing does Kevin Bacon himself appear in Stone's JFK as an imaginary link between Oswald and various fantasized sinister right-wingers.)

There are more minor weirdnesses about 11/22/63. The Secret Service failed to see Oswald in the Texas Book Depository window, though several private citizens saw him there (even seeing him shoot, in the case of Howard Brennan). And despite Dallas's reputation for being a city of extremists, the police, FBI, and Secret Service found nobody in the city worth watching as a danger to the President (Bugliosi 778, 1246). Oswald not only didn't make the list of "usual suspects"; there was no such list. However, incompetence is not proof of conspiracy, or even of malice. Sometimes jobs don't get done right. The Secret Service has protected many another President from many another threat; they lost this one. It's really dangerous to be President.

Coincidences and glitches are part of life, logic tells us. But logic takes a hike in many conspiracy-oriented analyses of the JFK assassination. For instance, the conspiracy community likes to deride the idea that Oswald, a mediocre shot with a mediocre rifle, could have killed the President by firing three times so fast and with such accuracy. (Only the third shot was fatal.) Bugliosi devotes some time to proving that marksmen have duplicated Oswald's rate of fire and accuracy, only to draw critiques like those of James DiEugenio, who claims that only the best of the best snipers could plausibly do what Oswald is supposed to have done. But what does that matter, if Oswald still actually did what he did? Let's say he was a bad shot (though he was rated by the Marines on one occasion as a "sharpshooter"). Let's say his rifle was a poor rifle (though it served as a standard Italian infantry weapon in the Second World War). To say that, all the same, Oswald couldn't have killed Kennedy is like saying that Bucky Dent, a weak hitter who couldn't get around on a fastball, couldn't have hit the home run that won the 1978 AL East title for the Yankees. Sometimes, despite the odds, something weird happens. In Dealey Plaza, the results were infinitely more tragic than most weird occurrences.

Vincent Bugliosi has written a book of such detail, patiently debunking every remotely plausible weird story that comes his way, that his book is a completist's dream, a conspiracist's nightmare, and the sobering delight of guys like me who spend 12 days in a bathrobe at a dining room table wading through it. Did you know, for instance, that one unhinged witness claims to have seen Oswald and conspiracy suspect David Ferrie trying to win a parakeet at a carnival (endnotes 914)? Or that among the treats that Jack Ruby brought some radio newsmen early on the morning of 11/23 were some bottles of celery soda (194)? The non-parakeet is merely an example of wackiness, but the celery soda is a detail chosen carefully by Bugliosi. If Ruby was carefully taking orders from the mob, Bugliosi wonders, why would he stay up most of the night after the assassination schlepping soft drinks to random Dallas broadcasters? It does make you think.

Given all the staggering detail of Reclaiming History, I was surprised to find lots of proofreading errors. (Though perhaps I shouldn't be surprised; how many errors, in 2,776 pages, is "too many?") Especially on local geography, Bugliosi makes small error after small error, spelling names and places wrong, at one point (169) apparently putting Fort Worth east of Dallas. (Other small errors, perhaps typos: "Arlington State University" for "College" [101]; "Ammon" Carter for "Amon" [119]; saying that Benbrook is northwest of Fort Worth [it's south by southwest, 519]; "Rockwell" for "Rockwall" [613]; "Woodhall Rogers" for Woodall [1455].) Oddest of all, Bugliosi calls Texas the "Panhandle State" [1468]. It's "Lone Star State," Mr. Bugliosi; I've sometimes heard "Bluebonnet State," too, but "Panhandle," no.

Who cares about a few nonsubstantive errors in millions of words. But these are errors I caught because I've lived in DFW for nearly a quarter-century. What other errors might be in the book that I would have no chance of catching?

I carp; reviewers are supposed to. On the whole, Bugliosi makes some attempt to understand Texas, and he is not condescending, or at least not often and not very. He does sneer as often as possible at English professors and East-Coast intellectuals. I'm an Eastern-educated English professor, but I took no offense. It's hard to write a magisterial book on an essential subject without having a pet peeve here and there. And to call Reclaiming History "magisterial" is like saying that Ella Fitzgerald could carry a tune.

Bugliosi, Vincent. Reclaiming History: The assassination of President John F. Kennedy. New York: Norton, 2007.