Bugliosi exhausts all other options
By DAVID WALTON Special to the Times
Published May 22, 2007
No single event of the 20th century touched more Americans more profoundly than the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963. Nearly 1,000 books have been written about this case, almost all arguing for some conspiracy or another.
The most recent Gallup poll (in 2003) revealed that 75 percent of Americans believe Kennedy's murder was the work of a conspiracy.
Can any one book quiet all doubts, refute all theories, end the speculation forever?
Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy certainly tries, and if any one book can make you believe the assassination was performed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone and that all alternative theories simply fail to match the evidence - this is that book.
It is huge. Bugliosi estimates that its 1,461 closely printed pages, if set in normal font, at a typical book length of 400 pages with 300 words per page, would add up to 13 volumes.
But few books are as gripping in their narrative, or as telling in their fine detail. Bugliosi was the prosecutor in the Charles Manson case and the author of Helter Skelter, a bestselling account of that case and a model in true-crime reporting.
Here, as in that book, he focuses on the evidence and the chain of events, determined to give "a comprehensive and fair evaluation of the entire case, including all the major conspiracy theories."
That's a tall order, and it accounts for the book's length. There are many theories in this case, many of them deeply ingrained, all of them difficult to refute.
A fine time line
The cornerstone of the book is its first 300 pages, "Four Days in November," which chronicle the events of Nov. 22-25 hour by hour and often minute by minute. The power of the strictly chronological report is already familiar from Jim Bishop's The Day Kennedy Was Shot and William Manchester's The Death of a President. Here, however, the grief and pageantry of those four days shift to the background, and the focus is on the who, what, where, when and how of the criminal case.
Here Kennedy, shot on page 41 and dead on page 71, is almost a minor character in the story, his body a significant but often misread piece of evidence. Its movements are one of the many ways the case developed and, just as often, went awry.
Awry - ah, what a wealth of pages are there. Reclaiming History is Proustian in its conception, scope and design. That opening section, like Proust's overture novella Swann in Love, can be read alone, and gives a satisfactory understanding of the whole. Like Proust, too, Bugliosi deals with the passageways of time - often the tiniest increments in time.
The first half of the book is devoted to the evidence, to "What Happened," and its section on Oswald is a full-length biography in itself.
Book Two is devoted to the conspiracies, to "What Did Not Happen," and these line up like pins to be knocked down: organized crime, FBI, KGB, right wing, LBJ, Cuba.
This is an encyclopedic book and sometimes feels like reading an encyclopedia. But what a story. What an assembly of characters. It's impossible to believe that events could have unfolded in exactly this way, but even harder to imagine - especially in the circumstances that allowed Jack Ruby his opportunity to shoot Oswald - any other way.
Finally, this is a book that will make anyone who lived through those four days weep. Powerfully, Reclaiming History evokes the confusion and awful fatefulness, a feeling of the world ripped asunder, that gripped millions then. The human mind turns away from such visions, searching for some rational explanation - some conspiracy to blame instead.
Bugliosi's book, which denies all conspiracies, has the ring of truth - scrupulous, irrefutable truth - and I predict it will be the line that historians a hundred years from now will take on this story.
David Walton is a writer who lives in Pittsburgh.
Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy
By Vincent Bugliosi
Norton, 1,612 pages, $49.50