Three days in Dallas
The death of a president and his assassin get different readings in two new works
Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
By Vincent Bugliosi
Norton, 1,612 pp., illustrated, $49.95
Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years
By David Talbot
Free Press, 478 pp., illustrated, $28
Some murder mysteries seize the public's imagination. And then there is the murder of John F. Kennedy, which is in a class by itself.
If Vincent Bugliosi has counted right, the assassination of the nation's 35th president has been the subject of almost 1,000 books. Bugliosi himself has penned what may be the thousandth, "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy."
Despite Bugliosi's grandiose title, his book does not purport to unlock any secrets or advance a new thesis. In fact, Bugliosi says the Warren Commission had it right in September 1964, when it released its 888-page report on the assassination: Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy by himself. So one must ask what purpose yet another book about the assassination could possibly serve.
With indignation crackling on every page of "Reclaiming History," Bugliosi aims to redress, once and for all, what he sees as an outrageous imbalance between the books that deal with the assassination responsibly and those that do not. In the latter category he puts the 95 percent of JFK-assassination books contending that Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill Kennedy or that others conspired with him to do it.
Polls show at least three-fourths of Americans believe there was a conspiracy. Bugliosi attributes that perception to the outpouring by conspiracy theorists of "drivel, misinformation, and flat-out fabrications." He adds that Oliver Stone has greatly compounded the travesty by chiming in with his "loathsome and reprehensible" movie "JFK."
Hence, Bugliosi says, his goal is "to expose, as never before, the conspiracy theorists and the abject worthlessness of all their allegations."
A longtime prosecutor in Los Angeles, Bugliosi has authored best-selling books about the Charles Manson and O. J. Simpson murder cases. Now he brings his law-enforcement expertise to bear on the JFK murder case. He has worked on the book, on and off, since 1986, when he presented the prosecution's case against Oswald in a mock trial that aired on British television.
He has produced a meticulously documented, 1,612-page tome (it also comes with a CD-ROM containing another 954 pages of endnotes) of such heft that it ought to include carpentry blueprints for reinforcing the shelves of the bookstores that stock it.
When Bugliosi's storytelling skills click in -- as they do, for example, when he is profiling Oswald and Jack Ruby, the Dallas nightclub owner who gunned him down at police headquarters -- his richly textured work is as engrossing as it is convincing.
His cogency is on display when he assesses whether an organized-crime syndicate might have commissioned Ruby to whack Oswald. Ruby, he writes, was "close to law enforcement, emotionally volatile and erratic in his behavior, and someone who couldn't keep a secret, all of which would automatically disqualify him as a Mafia hit man."
But the overall structure that Bugliosi has fashioned for his book is cumbersome and disjointed. It subordinates the narrative flow to his mania for pummeling every thread in the conspiracy theorists' tapestry.
A 31 6-page opening section vividly portrays the two critical moments in Dallas, Oswald's gunfire on Nov. 22, 1963, and Ruby's two days later, and recounts the surrounding events. From there the book begins its lurching journey through 33 chapters devoted to separate, but overlapping, topics.
There is a chapter on Kennedy's wounds and autopsy. Another expounds on the murder weapon, the 6.5 mm Mannlicher-Carcano rifle found on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository building . Still another dwells on the history of the conspiracy movement. And so on.
An appendix lists, besides Oswald, 255 individuals, groups, or countries that at least one conspiracy theorist has fingered as a suspect. In all the years since Kennedy's death, however, Bugliosi insists, no "credible evidence" has emerged to implicate the Mafia, FBI, Cuba, anti-Castro exiles, CIA, or any of the 250 other theoretical suspects as a co-conspirator.
The statement appears to ignore or slight the findings of the House Select Committee on Assassinations , the blue-ribbon panel that in the late 1970s to investigate the murders of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Its report concluded that Oswald did shoot Kennedy but that he "probably" did it as a result of a conspiracy.
Bugliosi is quick to point out that the committee did not identify any co-conspirators. Indeed, it exonerated the conspiracy theorists' disparate list of leading suspects, including organized crime. Not so the committee's chief counsel and staff director, G. Robert Blakey , who singled out the mob as having likely played a role in the murder, though he did not name names. Bugliosi de-
Joseph Rosenbloom is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect. constructs at length every claim of alleged Mafia involvement.
In discussing possible underworld complicity in the murder, Bugliosi shines. But the
exhaustive, often repetitious analysis to which he subjects even the most obscure issues surrounding Kennedy's murder is likely to sustain the interest of only the most avid Kennedy-murder buffs. His book's greatest value may be as a comprehensive vetting tool.
It stands as an instructive backdrop, for example, against which to view the gossipy, pro-conspiracy ramblings of David Talbot's "Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years." Talbot, the founder of Salon.com, has interviewed several people who were close to either John Kennedy or his brother Robert. Drawing on the interviews, he chronicles what he terms Robert's "investigative odyssey" to solve his brother's murder. The odyssey does not turn out to be much more than the jawboning by Robert Kennedy, who was the attorney general, with a few aides. Talbot does not even nail down his premise that Robert Kennedy believed in a conspiracy.
A preoccupation with motive fuels Talbot's tour of the much-trod conspiracy landscape. He expounds darkly on possible motives that might have led his prime suspects -- the CIA, the mob, and anti-Castro exiles -- to murder JFK. Woefully missing is the sort of keenly scrupulous appraisal that Bugliosi, for whom motive is merely icing on the cake, applies to all the forensic and circumstantial evidence of a criminal case.
Bugliosi's own investigative odyssey is unlikely to silence the conspiracy theorists, he concedes. They remain "tenacious and desperate" to prove they are right, he says. To prove they are wrong, Bugliosi has a lot more going for him than the weight of his book. He has the overwhelming weight of the evidence on his side, as his book so amply demonstrates.