From the Archives: He Died
By Vincent Bugliosi
Like all living things, nations accumulate scars as they grow older, and some scars are worse than others. Some wounds seem deep at the time of their making, only to heal properly and fade from attention. Like a seasoned prizefighter, the nation may look at these scars with rueful detachment, remembering a time when those wounds seemed bottomless, mortal. The War of 1812, the great Chicago fire, American dough boys fighting in the trenches of World War I, the sinking of the Lusitania, even the loss of the Lindbergh baby – all at one time engulf the nation in turmoil, and yet all are harmless history book entries now, leeched of their ability to hurt.
But time’s passage alone is no guarantor of healing, as is surely demonstrated by the American Civil War, which inflicted a wound so deep it crossed political, social, geographical, and most of all racial arenas. The cataclysmic battles, the rampant devastation, the epic heroism, the unstoppered cauldron of racial intolerance, the martyred president, all combined to create a wound so ragged it could not possibly scar perfectly, and it hasn’t. Its battlefields, most especially Gettysburg, still possess the power to hush the visitor’s heart, even a century later. And surely no nation has ever erected a sadder monument than the Lincoln Memorial.
Likewise the Vietnam War, blundered into, blundered through, and blundered out of at such grievous, bloody cost that the recoiling country failed even in its most basic moral imperative, honoring those who it sent off to fight. News footage of the last desperate Americans being evacuated from a rooftop dealt a blow to the central fabric of American self-confidence, and the country’s conception of warfare – indeed, its certainty that it could ever have such conceptions again – was abruptly ripped away.
There are race riots and lynchings; there are Iranian hostages and space shuttles exploding, and there is what must certainly be reckoned as one of the worst experienced in modern American history, the disgrace and resignation of President Nixon, which forever ended the simple trust existing between the citizens of the United States and their government.
It need hardly be added here that the list of national scars includes that awe-inspiring morning of September 11, 2001, when the nation’s foremost city suffered a wound from which the country has yet to recover. The film footage – so compulsively re-watched by so many people on that terrible morning – would forever alter America’s estimate of its own vulnerability in a new and chaotic world.
One of the worst scars the nation has ever sustained was the shooting of President Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas.
In order for a scar to irritate, something must be wrong with the healing process, and in the popular imagination, every single aspect of Kennedy’s assassination was wrong. A vigorous young leader shot dead in broad daylight by a disaffected loner with a rifle? Conflicting eye and earwitness testimony as to the number of shots fired, or their directions? A botched autopsy of the president’s body? Shadowy hints of vast conspiracies cropping up almost immediately? The government’s hand-picked investigatory commission ignoring witnesses or evidence? The hard finger pointed at new president Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of the conflict in Vietnam? Right from the beginning, there was no chance this wound would heal properly. From the instant it happened, the assassination of President Kennedy formed a scar that successive generations of Americans would feel compelled to scratch and pick at. Indeed, they would feel it was their duty to do just that.
So we go back to Dealey Plaza.
The Virgil of our descent this time around is celebrated trial lawyer and crime writer Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Charles Manson and wrote a damning account of the trial of O.J. Simpson. Bugliosi’s book, Reclaiming History, is the result of 21 years of painstaking reading and research, and its stated goal is simple: to reverse the American public’s opinion of what happened on that day in Dallas. He cites poll after poll showing that generally 75 percent of Americans believe there was some sort of conspiracy in the Kennedy assassination, and he views this as astonishing and dismaying (the unofficial straw poll I conducted on 310 people in the writing of this review yielded a far more dismaying figure: fully 100 percent believed in some sort of conspiracy, and 261 spoke of it as though it were a proven and documented fact, like the sun coming up in the morning). He pulls no punches about who he considers responsible:
… the majority of them [serious published conspiracy advocates] knowingly mislead their readers by lies, omissions, and deliberately distorting the official record. I realize this is an astonishing charge I am making. Unfortunately, it happens to be the truth. In any other field, such as the scientific or literary disciplines, even a fraction of these lies, distortions, and omissions by a member would cause the author to be ostracized by his colleagues and peers. But in the conspiracy community of the Kennedy assassination, where one’s peers have turned their mother’s pictures against the wall and are telling even bigger lies themselves, and where the American public is unaware of these lies, not only is this type of deception routinely accepted by most members of the community, but the perpetrators are treated as celebrities who lecture for handsome fees and sign autographs at conventions of Warren Commission critics and conspiracy theorists.
These critics and their theories, no matter how outlandish, are Bugliosi’s targets, and to attack each and every one of them, he has chosen to write what may well be the world’s longest book. It’s 1,612 pages long and would have been at least twice that length, except that the author has consigned his endnotes and source notes to a computer disc attached to the rear cover of every copy. These end matters constitute another 1,700 pages of Bugliosi’s book; had they been printed conventionally with the text, the book would be the size and weight of a microwave oven. It would be virtually unbindable, practically unshippable, and certainly unsellable.
Even as is, Reclaiming History is so big (it stands taller than a normal hardcover) and so heavy (nearly six pounds) that its physical dimensions reshape the experience of reading it in ways so basic and profound that they deserve brief mention at the start of any review.
The book can’t be lifted comfortably with one hand; the shape and weight make it awkward even to hold in one hand, unless it’s propped against the holder’s body in a pose reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty. Its size and weight prevent it from being read peripatetically; a commuter bringing it along would have to jettison all other luggage. Its bulk makes it uncomfortable to read in bed (that tried and true reader’s practice): the press of it is uncomfortable, and supporting body parts begin to go numb. Neither can it be placed just anywhere with impunity; my nightstand creaked audibly upon receiving it, and more than one end-table immediately buckled sideways to the floor.
The effect of all this, intentional or otherwise, is to shift the reader’s mindframe just a bit, but a crucial bit. This book’s sheer physical dimensions prevent it from being casually regarded by its reader. It must be awaredly transported and read while sitting up – in other words, it literally commands attention.
It is extremely unlikely that the 21st century publishing world will see another volume like this. Soaring publication costs and the proliferation of electronic media have already, in 2007, conspired to make Bugliosi’s monstrous tome feel distinctly anachronistic; future decades will only hasten this trend, until readers will inevitably see the true ancestor of this book: the mammoth, desk-chained, iron-bound monastery volumes of the Middle Ages. Volumes that could not be treated lightly, and rightfully so, since they were believed to hold not truths but the Truth.
Bugliosi is writing about a crime, and the path to the truth of any crime lies in evidence, so that’s where he takes us, and that’s where we follow.
The crux of any case is evidence, and nearly all murder trials are won or lost on he basis of far less evidence than is available in the JFK assassination. The deed was done in broad daylight, in front of hundreds of witnesses, with copious photographic testimony and live film taken close up. Dealey Plaza was thronged with police and Secret Service and all three people in the President’s car survived with clear memories of what they went through. A suspect who left the scene of the crime pulled a gun on the police when they tried to arrest him. These many elements should coalesce into a courtroom case of unusual certainty.
Bugliosi states over and over (there is nothing that he doesn’t state over and over) that if he, as a prosecutor, had this much evidence against a suspect, in any other trial a guilty verdict would have been an easy thing to obtain.
Bugliosi defends the findings of the Warren Commission, and since we need a place to start we will start there, with the case those eminences put together. That case runs like this:
Lee Harvey Oswald, a disaffected, antisocial radical, gets a ride to work at the Texas Book Depository (situated at the location of a slow turn on the visiting President’s announced motorcade route) on the morning of November 22, 1964, by a co-worker who sees Oswald lug a long paper-wrapped object into the building (Oswald claims it contains curtain rods for his apartment, but, it may seem faintly absurd to point out, no curtain rods were subsequently found in the Book Depository). When the building is emptying out so workers can watch the presidential motorcade pass by on its way Dallas’ Trade Mart, Oswald tells his co-workers to send the elevator down, that he’s going to continue working on the sixth floor. As the motorcade approaches the corner of Houston and Elm, multiple eyewitnesses see someone fitting Oswald’s description poised with a gun in a window of the sixth floor of the Book Depository. Indeed, several of those witnesses identified someone fitting Oswald’s description either immediately after firing or actually during the act of firing. Three shell casings were ejected during the firing (employees on the fifth floor not only heard the thunderous report of the shots but heard the casings hit the floor), and the only bullets or bullet fragments recovered were positive matches with Oswald’s rifle.
Oswald leaves the Book Depository through an increasing police cordon and makes his way to the rooming house where he lives. He pauses there for minutes only, and minutes later is seen by multiple witnesses shooting and killing Dallas Police office J.D. Tippit, who’d pulled over his patrol car and had exited it in order to speak with Oswald (almost certainly because Oswald matched the description of the President’s shooter sent over Tippit’s police radio). It’s for this crime that Oswald is later arrested, and while he’s in police custody the case against him for the murder of the President ripens into a separate charge.
Oswald is questioned at length by Dallas police (and, later, FBI and Secret Service), and a day later, while he is being transferred from one jail to another, he is shot dead by Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby.
The sad, sordid story degenerates into aftermath from that point: the arrest of Ruby, the funeral procession with its crepe-draped caissons, the black-veiled widow and the little son saluting, the eternal flame. But on this point Bugliosi is unassailably correct: the case against Oswald is so strong that were it any other suspect, having committed any other crime, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind where the guilt lay.
The Zapruder Film
The 26 seconds of 18mm film footage taken of the assassination by Abraham Zapruder has been rightly called the most famous home movie in history. Critics of the Warren Commission and defenders alike have been drawn to consider it the key to the JFK assassination. It records the whole compact nightmare in more or less viewable clarity, which would lead you to suppose it would silence more criticism than it would instigate. But of course this is not the case. Bugliosi himself points to the inherent subjectivity of film viewing, and about the Zapruder film he couldn’t be more correct. Its images have been the most hotly debated in the history of moving pictures.
The Zapruder home movie may well be the most horrifying, tragic film ever made, but in the realm of assassination studies, it has been reduced to a graph, a series of static seconds separated by obsessively counted frames. Frame 150: a smiling President waving to tumultuous, cheering crowds in Dealey Plaza; Frame 161: the first shot rings out, missing the motorcade and ricocheting to nick the cheek of James Tague (witnesses see sparks as the bullet strikes the curb, and even in the frenzied noise of the crowd, several people in the motorcade recognize the sound of a high-powered rifle); Frame 225: the President’s car emerges from obstruction behind the Stemmons Freeway sign, and the nightmare is clearly now in progress. Governor Connally is visibly shocked and stiffened, and the President is reacting violently, throwing his hands up to his throat (Bugliosi points out that this is prima facie evidence that both men were in fact hit by the same bullet, and under his relentless hammering it is hard to see how this could not be so, although like a good courtroom showman, he doesn’t draw attention to the fact that in Frame 264 Connally is both yelling something over his shoulder and holding his hat in his left hand – both of which would present challenges to a man with a collapsed lung and a shattered wrist).
Frame 313: a bullet ripping President John F. Kennedy’s head apart.
But we don’t pause, oh no – this is a courtroom, after all, an arena, and we have lots of work to do, lots of ground to cover. Far from supplying answers, the critics say, the Zapruder film asks questions, and we must answer them.
Most crucially, the reaction of the President’s body to the fatal head shot. The Zapruder film clearly shows his head jerk forward for an instant before rocketing backward, the force of it almost lifting the President out of his seat. Critics say such a reaction necessitates that Kennedy be shot from the front and right (this is the point around which Oliver Stone builds his sickly mantra in JFK: “back, and to the left, back, and to the left.”). There is much snide reference to high school physics, which is why you’ll find Isaac Newton’s name in the index of virtually every book written on the subject.
Bugliosi researches the question thoroughly, interviewing many experts and weighing all the various explanations put forward, but in the end, it’s Sir Isaac who has the final word. The President’s head is pushed forward (and downward, Bugliosi crows, further proof of the shot coming from the Book Depository’s sniper’s nest) by the impact of the bullet (the autopsy found the entrance wound, lost in a tangle of thick, blood-matted hair), and then hurled violently backward by the bullet’s explosion outward through the front right of the President’s head. The explosion hurls the body backward, no different than if a grenade had gone off in the front of the head.
Bugliosi points out that all of the bullet fragments, blood, skull fragments, and brain matter in the limousine were all arrayed forward of the President. He sounds exultant when he’s writing it: there’s no debris to the rear whatsoever. All the debris is in the front.
Bugliosi stresses repeatedly that the Zapruder film isn’t necessary to make an ironclad case against a shooter from the grassy knoll or anywhere other than the Book Depository. He reminds us of ballistics tests that prove the Oswald rifle and no other fired the bullets (and ejected the shell casings) collected from the scene. He reminds us that Oswald was seen bringing a large paper-wrapped object into the Book Depository, claiming it was “curtain rods.” He reminds us that several witnesses saw someone matching Oswald’s description crouched at a window on the sixth floor of the Book Depository at the time of the shooting, and that several witnesses saw this person shoot at the motorcade, pull the rifle back inside, and leave the window. He reminds us that the physics of the event are completely consistent with three shots being fired from the distance and elevation of the Book Depository window. He assures us that he could have convicted Oswald without ever having seen the Zapruder film.
And then he moves on to other matters, and we’re left wondering: well, what is the Zapruder film, then? Unnecessary to solving the case of the assassination, redundant to Bugliosi’s task of reclaiming history, those 26 silent seconds get shunted to the side in this enormous book, back to some evidence room where the curious can forever see a perfect sunny day bitten in half.
Bugliosi notes that there were many other, less famous films of the motorcade taken that day, as well as innumerable snapshots. Critics have generated a seemingly endless undergrowth of speculation and theorizing about every single one of these – indistinct blurs become coordinators on walkie-talkies, or riflemen leaning on car roofs, and things like purses, glasses, and umbrellas take on cryptic, mythic importance. Bugliosi never shirks from his task: none of these speculations goes unrefuted. But it’s clear he prefers less emotional evidence in the case he’s making. He’s prosecuted many murders, he tells us, and he prefers straightforward physical evidence, like bullets and bodies. Of bodies he attempts to give us our fill, when he turns his attention to the President’s autopsy.
In any murder investigation, in any questionable death whatsoever, the single most important tool is usually the autopsy. As one prominent forensic scientist (apparently one of the only ones in the country Bugliosi didn’t get around to interviewing) once commented, ultimately, bodies don’t lie.
In most criminal cases, there is no intermediary step. The victim is killed, and his body in due time shows up on the coroner’s table and begins yielding up its secrets. In the case of President Kennedy, this didn’t happen – if it had, perhaps a great deal of the confusion surrounding his death, and hence a great deal of the justification for Bugliosi’s book, wouldn’t exist. We’ll never know, because before the doctors at Parkland Hospital – where the President was rushed minutes after being shot – were concerned with autopsying their charge, they were first, for thirty heartbreaking, heroic moments, concerned with saving him. This was the rigor of the Hippocratic Oath at its least satisfying, since every one of those doctors could tell at a glance that their patient would die no matter what they did. They couldn’t help their efforts; a national tragedy of unimaginable dimensions lay on their operating table, but it was the man who occupied them – a man with a heart still beating, with a kind of a pulse, a man with a shocked, stunned family that wanted him to live.
They massaged his chest; they ran a bloodline down one leg; they called for a blood supply; and most importantly, most tragically for all future enquiries, they performed a tracheotomy to help the dying man get more air.
The tragedy arises from the fact that there was a bullet wound precisely where tracheotomies are performed, and the doctors enlarged – and mostly destroyed – that wound in order to open the President’s throat.
This moment, this act, is crucial to the question of what happened that day in Dallas, and here’s why: the Warren Commission held that three shots and three shots only were fired in Dealey Plaza. Since one of those shots went wild, chipped a curb, and nicked James Tague, and since the other is caught immortally on the Zapruder film as the fatal head shot, the remaining bullet has to account for all the other wounds in Kennedy and Connally, something Report critics claim is physically impossible. The whole “magic bullet” storyline, that has metastasized all over the critical literature, was given life the instant that trachea incision was made. After that incision, it was no longer possible to tell what that original throat-wound looked like – that is, all-importantly, whether it was an exit or an entry wound.
If it was an exit wound, the Warren Commission is exonerated: the bullet came from above, behind, and to the right, from Oswald that is. The Commission claimed – and Bugliosi pit-bullishly defends, at greater length than the Commission used – that this did indeed happen, that the bullet struck the President below his right shoulder but exited his throat because, ballistically, a) the street was declining at an increasing angle and b) the President’s suit jacket was bunched up. This is the most crucial point Bugliosi will have to deal with, and he knows it, and he rises dramatically to the challenge. He points out that both the President and Governor Connally were turned when the shot was fired. He points out that the car was tilted at a downward angle. He points out that Connally’s jump seat was not directly in front of the President (as it’s been portrayed in innumerable re-enactments, despite the visual evidence of the Zapruder film) but several inches lower and further to the right. He knows he’s making a counter-intuitive argument (that a shot entering the President’s back could exit his throat), so he takes it slow, point by point, offering charts and diagrams.
It works, and it works in large part because Bugliosi doesn’t just rely on data – he invokes logic, something Commission critics, it must be admitted, rarely do. And the single most damning piece of logic he displays goes like this: we know the Oswald rifle fired the bullets, we know a shot struck Kennedy in the back, we know it exited his throat – if the first shot missed the motorcade and the third shot killed the President, the second shot had to have hit Connally. As Bugliosi points out, there was nowhere else for it to go – the inside of the car sustained no bullet damage, nor was anyone else in the car hit: the only remaining logical possibility is that the bullet went on to hit Governor Connally (Bugliosi uses similar logic to define the throat-wound as an exit: the President was hit in the back, but aside from the traumatic head-injury, there are no other wounds to the front of Kennedy’s body but the throat wound. Since no bullet was found in the President’s body, since, in other words, it had to go somewhere, Governor Connally’s body is the only possible place it could have gone).
If it was an entry wound, as roughly half the critics claim, everything changes. An entry wound of course couldn’t be consistent with Oswald shooting from above and behind; it would necessitate a second shooter, firing from a low, flat trajectory directly at the President as he waved to the gathered crowds. The critics say this is the only possible explanation for the number of witnesses (both those called by the Warren Commission and those, for whatever reason, not) who claim that at least one shot came from the grassy knoll, from in front of the President.
The essential problem arises from the fact that the Parkland doctors were only the first set of medical personnel to examine the President’s body. At the aggrieved insistence of Kennedy’s loyal retainers Ken O’Donnell and Dave Powers (who couldn’t bear the thought of Jackie Kennedy waiting around in the hospital of the city that, as she saw it, had killed her husband), the body was taken from Parkland Hospital and moved to Bethesda, Maryland for a formal autopsy. This move may have been done for the best of motives (critics would howl in protest at this, since the body’s removal is the peg on which they hang their various governmental and military coups), but it was not only illegal under Texas law but an almost insuperable obstacle to getting at a non-debatable set of answers.
The Bethesda forensic specialists who conducted the formal autopsy have been vilified more than any other figures associated with the Kennedy assassination (although perhaps Bugliosi, with this book, will supplant them – the reader gets the impression this wouldn’t dismay him at all), and Bugliosi does his level best to restore their reputations. He digs through their various backgrounds and publication histories to demonstrate that they weren’t as inexperienced with gunshot wounds as critics have maintained from the start. This is valiant service, and these man, caught in a nightmare, no doubt deserve it. But the fact that Bugliosi’s argument is, by his own admission, counter-intuitive reduces all of this work to footnote status in the American imagination.
The Bethesda doctors were unaware of the President’s throat-wound – the emergency tracheotomy hid it and therefore forced them to come to their own conclusions. Their drawings of the President’s back wound differ markedly from such physical evidence as Kennedy’s bloody shirt, which has a bullet hole in a slightly different location. The lead pathologist at Bethesda admitted to burning his preliminary autopsy notes. And the Warren Commission was careless and clumsy in its treatment of the medical material presented to it. Paranoia creeps in at every one of those cracks, and Bugliosi cannot simply argue it away (indeed, he himself adds to it slightly, when, incredibly, he refuses to include Kennedy’s autopsy photos in his book, citing common decency – the same motive cited by O’Donnell and Powers for removing the President’s body from Parkland Hospital, and the same motive cited by Jack Ruby for shooting Oswald). His merrily combative personality is on display on every page of Reclaiming History, but never more valiantly – or perhaps more fruitlessly – than when dealing with this subject.
And it’s the subject of that personality that brings us back around to Reclaiming History itself.
The Book Again
The sheer amount of research Bugliosi has done is so staggering that the more one is aware of it, the more one stands in awe. Sifting through the fine print of his prodigious endnotes prompts amazement that even two decades would be enough time to assemble and read all this information. At the end of such labors, the reader is exhausted and would be forgiven for expecting to encounter a similar exhaustion on the page.
The single most amazing thing about Bugliosi’s book is that this never, not once happens. Even more astounding than the herculean research and preparation – indeed, far more astounding than that – is the fact that for the unimaginable stretch of some 3,500 pages, Reclaiming History is, miraculously, a wonderful read.
In large part this is due to the overall tone he takes throughout – amiable, somewhat baffled, a no-nonsense commonsense everyman. He’s fond of folksy turns of phrase (“there ought to be a law,“ for instance, or at one point saying proof of Oswald’s innocence was as rare as “a hundred dollar bill on the floor of a flophouse”), and like all good courtroom lawyers, he doesn’t hesitate to address the jury directly. He’s a bully, true – but he’s a respectful bully, a fair one. Every crackpot theory he encounters gets an even-handed recitation before he cheerfully demolishes it. Indeed, the fairness of his summations only fuels the haymakers that inevitably follow. Examples are innumerable, but one will suffice:
Even the zany [Jim] Garrison would have never believed that the latest big rage in the conspiracy community today is its charge that the [Zapruder] film, through alteration, is a forgery, created by photographic experts (hired by the “conspirators”) in an effort to conceal the truth about the shootings in Dallas and frame Oswald. Can you imagine that, folks? The deliriously wacky conspiracy buffs are now claiming that the Zapruder film itself, the film of the assassination, is a hoax, a fraud, a forgery. What’s next? Kennedy is still alive in a suite on the top floor of Parkland Hospital? G. Gordon Liddy was the grassy knoll assassin? Oswald was, as rumored, Ruby’s illegitimate son? Just stay tuned to the buffs’ wacko network.
(The special pleading here is meant to be ironic, since Bugliosi knows perfectly well that the three “wacko” hypotheticals he proposes have all been put forth by one critic or another – indeed, books have been written arguing each one.)
It’s this smart, sarcastic, personable voice that sustains the reader through such vast, unliftable tracts of verbiage, through the seemingly endless turning of pages. Bugliosi doesn’t merely write about his subject, about every single fugitive permutation of his subject – he leaps upon the task, always energetic, always enthusiastic to explore, to explain, to debunk or refute.
The book has flaws, of course – books this size can hardly avoid them (even Tale of Genji has the occasional plot-hole). In fact, its size is one of its flaws. Speaking both as a bone-weary reviewer and as a common reader, I can attest without hesitation: this thing is at least twice as long as it needs to be. Bugliosi’s fierce desire to cover his subject definitively is commendable, but the sheer length of this book can’t be seen as anything but a weapon, a truncheon designed to preemptively intimidate critics into silence. 317 pages are given over to a minute-by-minute recounting of the whole event, from soup to nuts, and although it’s purely, viscerally wonderful, only a tenth of it is necessary in a book whose specific subject is the assassination. 276 and 94 pages respectively are devoted to complete biographical details on insects like Oswald and Ruby. 464 pages are devoted to hopping from one named Commission critic to the next, even though their “theories” easily have enough elements in common to warrant at least some grouping. A book of, say, 900 pages would feel positively sleek beside this behemoth, and in the process it would avoid giving the reader the distinct impression that Bugliosi not only loves a good fight but is pretty fond of the sound of his own voice too.
Bugliosi claims to have entered upon his subject with an open mind, but this is offered with a wink and a nod, and no conceivable reader will believe it after about three pages in. His a priori stance is that the Warren Commission, though battered and dented over the years, is still fundamentally sound – in other words, that Lee Harvey Oswald killed President Kennedy, and that he acted alone. This foundation more than once leads him into logical culs-de-sac from which exit can only be gained by shouting a little louder.
Studying the Kennedy assassination for any length of time (be it 21 years or 21 days) produces a weirdly obsessive myopia on the part of the student. Dark tunnels lead to darker tunnels, and these lead to mazes and more mazes, and soon all memory of clean air is forgotten. The “wackos” Bugliosi has had to deal with in the writing of his book are all in the grip of this myopia, and the single biggest vulnerability of Reclaiming History is Bugliosi’s unwillingness to entertain the possibility that he is too.
This stubbornness forces him to repeat over and over that “no reasonable person” could possibly look at the evidence he’s assembled and fail to come to his same conclusions. If anyone can look at the evidence and still consider conspiracy a valid idea, well, then they must be a wacko. Now, months after the completion of his opus and presumably freed from the dark tunnels of its servitude, he must see that this isn’t the case. For good or ill, a great many “reasonable people” have looked at his evidence over the years and made up their minds differently as to what it all means. As the assassination’s ultimate historian, it might have behooved Bugliosi to examine this phenomenon, rather than reflexively mock it.
But the fact remains, Reclaiming History, in addition to being the longest book ever written on the subject of the Kennedy assassination, is also the most enjoyable of them all to read. That’s a singular triumph.
It might very well be that Bugliosi has written the world’s longest book; it’s certain, however, that he’s written the world’s longest completely irrelevant book. His goal, stated at the outset of this immense journey, is to reverse the polarity of public thinking, to reclaim the history of the JFK assassination for the cause of truth. He attacks this task with the zeal of a trial lawyer, and his central belief is that of a trial lawyer as well: that if he builds his case thoroughly enough, marshals his facts into mountains high enough, he will banish all reasonable doubt from the mind of “any reasonable person” he so repeatedly invokes, and a guilty verdict will be turned in.
The jury trial system inspires an often evangelical faith in its adherents, which Bugliosi obviously is: they esteem it for the egalitarian promise it holds forth. A crime is committed. Whether it’s caught on film or seen by nobody, a jury of people with nothing to gain or lose by the outcome is empanelled, and a case is made for and against the suspect’s innocence by a defense attorney and prosecutor. In the American system of jurisprudence (a slowly evolving thing, still obviously far from perfect – but if Bugliosi can deal in abstract perfections, we’re entitled to answer him in kind), they also are fundamentally disinterested – the defense counsel could be certain of their client’s guilt, just as the prosecutor could be sure of their innocence, and it wouldn’t matter. Ideally, they’ll each make the most passionate ethical case they can regardless of what they believe. They make their points without holding anything back because that’s all they need to do – the deciding is left to other people, the people in the jury box. The jurors don’t care about the histrionics on either side of the aisle, because they don’t have anything at stake but a day’s time spent.
Under this system, the truth is given a disproportionate chance of winning the day – because ideally, none of the segmented parts of the system cares about the ultimate truth of the trial except those men and women in the jury room, whose carefully-cultivated impartiality is hoped to stand fast on the side of fact, against inflamed rhetoric or snide innuendo.
This is the dream of the courtroom. But Bugliosi is fatally, querulously naive in trying to import it to the realm of cultural consciousness. A large part of his virtually supernatural verbosity on the subject is the overreaching of somebody who knows that on some level he’s preaching to a deaf audience, that on some level, he’s pleading a doomed cause.
Pontius Pilate approached the scourged Jesus and asked, “What is the truth?” Pilate famously didn’t pause for a response, but it’s easy to imagine, given our sad, ragged world’s history, how the following exchange might have gone:
Jesus: There is only one truth, and all else are vain, or parts of It.
Pilate: As the Governor General of this province, the truth is what I say it is.
And there you have it: verifiable truth vs. ordained truth, each unwilling to cede any viability to the other. In our religiously fractured age, we should perhaps hardly expect things to be otherwise, but nevertheless after 1,600 pages we hope to hold Bugliosi to a higher standard than the one he himself carves out. We have the right to hope that after all that effort – or prior to it – he himself will have known the limitations of the case he’s trying to make.
The most fatal of those limitations, the one controlling all the others, is the one Bugliosi is either deaf to or uninterested in, but it’s something his putative subject, the slain president, could have told him in one rueful sentence:
There are two kinds of truth.
There’s the truth of the courtroom, Bugliosi’s truth – it’s the logical summation of testimony and evidence, the product of disinterested inquiry and fair deliberation. Not only is it the inevitable outcome of the jury system, it’s the outcome all involved want.
But there’s a second kind of truth, and Bugliosi must know this, if he’s as familiar with national polls as he claims to be.
Americans believe a vast conspiracy acted to kill – no, to strike down – President Kennedy. They’ve seen as much evidence as they care to, and it hasn’t made a difference, and it never will.
On one level, of course, this is terrible, and Bugliosi rightly rages against it. The truth, after all, should be inviolate (he argues, and argues); it’s demonstrable, and it should be more important than anything else. He set himself the task of establishing the truth of the Kennedy assassination. He decked his results out in a tome worthy of the Abbey of St. Germaine, and he clearly expects his results to inspire the same kind of genuflection.
Useless, useless, we might tell him. Those are reportedly the last words of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth, when he was shot to death after an extensive federal manhunt. But those aren’t the words Booth shouted into acoustically perfect silence from the stage in Ford’s Theater. Those words, obviously long-prepared and shouted by a trained actor, were “Sic Semper Tyrannus” – or so they’re enshrined in America’s cultural consciousness, despite the fact that scores of witnesses said they heard something entirely different. On a level quite unconnected with the provable truth, it’s important that the slayer of President Lincoln shout something despicable to cap the deed.
And so it is with John Kennedy. Bugliosi has written a huge and harrowing book that proves conclusively the guilt of one single man, poor, pathetic Lee Harvey Oswald, who bought a cheap rifle and without much effort killed the President of the United States – a young president, charismatic, forward-thinking, not a grim-faced grandee like William McKinley but a vigorous harbinger of change, of renewal. To Americans, such a wound is bitter, unbearable – and it’s from this seeping recoil that all convictions of conspiracy spring and always will. Because to live without such convictions of conspiracy is to live in a world where right is meaningless and might can be bought for $12 from a catalogue. That may very well be the world, but no one can live in it.
Bugliosi has piled up his facts and proven his case. He has written a very long book that tears away all the cobwebs of doubt and deceit to arrive at the truth. But it’s Pilate’s truth, Roman truth, the truth of roads and aqueducts. It may be useful, but, paradoxically, nobody will ever find it satisfying. The other truth, summarized as Such Things Can’t Happen, will always live and will have its rebuttals. After which we can hope in vain for silence.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.