Goodbye, Grassy Knoll
The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
By Vincent Bugliosi
Norton. 1,612 pp. $49.95
It is not just that the book runs to 1,612 pages; each page is wider than one finds in a normal volume, and the print on each page is smaller. And then there is the enclosed CD with all the endnotes and source material. In Reclaiming History, Vincent Bugliosi gives you everything you wanted to know about the Kennedy assassination, whether or not you were afraid to ask. Compared to it, the Warren Commission Report, which clocked in at 888 pages, is small stuff.
To say that Bugliosi wants to strike a nail in the coffin of Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists is putting it mildly; he wants to drive a tractor trailer through their ranks and scatter everyone in sight. Is such an effort really necessary? I am afraid it is, which is another way of saying that we ought to be grateful for Bugliosi's obsession.
Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed John F. Kennedy. Absent a trial proving his guilt, Bugliosi, author of Helter Skelter, has offered the next best thing: a prosecutor's air-tight brief that leaves no reasonable doubt. A short review cannot possibly do justice to the case he assembles, so let me just offer a taste of Bugliosi's methods. The first thing he does is to describe, in exhaustive detail, everything that happened on the day Kennedy was shot. Then, in the second half of the book, Bugliosi takes each of the leading conspiracy theories -- that there was a second Oswald, that the mob plotted the assassination, that the CIA did it and so on -- and demolishes their claims.
No one can prove definitively the non-existence of a conspiracy. Still, it does not take a genius to understand, as Bugliosi puts it, that "no group of top-level conspirators would ever employ someone as unstable and unreliable as Oswald to commit the biggest murder in history, no such group would ever provide its hit man with, or allow him to use, a twelve-dollar rifle to get the job done, and any such group would help its hit man escape or have a car waiting for him to drive him to his death, not allow him to be wandering out in the street, catching cabs and buses to get away, as we know Oswald did."
If you read, or even read around in this book and still come to the conclusion that Oswald was part of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy, you are likely to believe that black helicopters have been sent by the feds to enforce the Endangered Species Act. Yet since at least one member of Congress, the late Helen Chenoweth, was certain the helicopters were up there, it is doubtful that even Bugliosi's prosecutorial skills will deter conspiracy theorists from their speculations. If anything, the publication of his book is likely to be followed by the appearance of numerous refutations. For those in the business of debunking the case that Oswald acted alone, Reclaiming History is too tempting a challenge to avoid.
Why do conspiracy theories surrounding JFK's assassination never die? One possible explanation is that even if there was no conspiracy in place to assassinate him, real conspiracies have proliferated since. Watergate, the Iran-Contra Affair, the decision to fire eight U.S. attorneys -- all of them were carried out in secret by governmental officials telling the public one thing while doing another. Perhaps we project a conspiracy back onto the Kennedy years as a way of coming to terms with the more unseemly realities of contemporary politics: Seeing evidence of sinister motives now, it is easier to attribute them to people then.
Conspiracy theorizing, in addition, offers an element of closure to an otherwise inexplicable tragedy. In their own rather odd way, conspiracy theorists insist that there is reason in the world; a person of accomplishment is killed, not because some crazy guy got hold of a rifle, but because some organized interest -- the Mafia, the anti-Mafia, the communists, the anti-communists -- wanted him killed. There may not be any evidence for the charge. But compared to those who believe that nothing is real or rational -- a position held by some on both the religious right and the postmodern left -- conspiracy theorizing is an attempt, however flawed, to bring order out of chaos.
And then there is the unavoidable political question. Kennedy's was the first of three political assassinations, and whatever your views, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., were all men of eloquence and courage cut down in the prime of their lives. With their deaths, American liberalism suffered a blow from which it has not recovered. It is one thing to mourn their deaths and another to mourn the death of ideas of equality and justice; many more Americans do the former than the latter. Still, for those Americans who find themselves unhappy with the conservative direction of American society, raising questions about Kennedy's death may be a futile, if understandable, effort to keep Kennedy alive -- and in that way to live an alternative history of the United States in which liberal ideas live on.
Bugliosi is right that this case is, and ought to be, closed. And I share his distaste for the wild finger-pointing and often paranoid reasoning of the Warren Report's critics, from the overweening New York State Assemblyman Mark Lane in the 1960s to the irresponsible filmmaker Oliver Stone in the 1990s. Still, maybe there should be a place kept for the conspiracy theory buffs. After all, they care passionately about one of the most important political events in our history. In an age of indifference, their attention to public life, however corrosive, can be more valuable than apathy and indifference. *
Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and author of "Does American Democracy Still Work?"