Books June 2007

A Knoll of One’s Own

The most exhaustive book yet written about the Kennedy assassination should lay the conspiracy theories to rest once and for all—but it won’t.

Several years ago I spent a portion of one November afternoon in Irving, Texas, inside the home garage where Lee Harvey Oswald had hidden his rifle in the months before he killed John F. Kennedy. I had come to the house because I was writing about one of its former owners, Ruth Paine, an admirable Quaker who, as a young housewife, became innocently enmeshed in the assassination after she befriended Lee and Marina Oswald in the spring of 1963. That fall, Marina and her two small children were living in the suburban ranch house along with Ruth and her two small children; Lee joined them on the weekends. Otherwise he stayed in a rooming house nearer downtown Dallas and the Texas School Book Depository, where he’d landed a job filling orders thanks to a lead he’d gotten from Mrs. Paine.

She had long since moved away by the time I showed up, and the current occupants of the house were less than thrilled to see me, but they indulged my writerly need, however ineffable, to be inside the particular space that Oswald’s blanket-wrapped gun once shared with two metal boxes of Paine’s most personal papers, all of them attesting to her idealistic nature and fine character.

I spent perhaps five minutes in the garage (cluttered with household possessions, as it had been in 1963) before I was on my way, headed back to the Ramada that was serving as headquarters for the yearly “November in Dallas” conference. I had timed my visit to the old Paine home to coincide with NID, a conspiracists’ conclave organized around pseudo-learned presentations on subjects like the CIA’s participation (or the Mafia’s, or Lyndon Johnson’s) in Kennedy’s murder. In explaining the assassination, the conference’s registrants cast aside Occam’s razor in favor of a Texas chain saw whose hundreds of teeth were fastened together by dozens of plotters, none of whom has ever ratted out the others or gone looking for a book deal.

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Interviews: "A Single Bullet"
Thomas Mallon talks about JFK conspiracy theories and a new book that places the blame squarely on Lee Harvey Oswald.

I missed some of the proceedings, because the morning after my visit to the garage I woke up in terrible pain, unable to move my neck or shoulders. For more than a year I’d been thinking about little other than the Kennedy assassination, a preoccupation whose stress-related result was now sending me, as it happened, to the emergency room at Parkland Memorial Hospital (where both JFK and Oswald had been pronounced dead). I was prescribed muscle relaxants, and later—back in my hotel-room bed, luxuriating in their side effects—I wondered how this had happened to me. I was, after all, not a CT (“Conspiracy Theorist,” in assassination parlance) but an LN (“Lone Nutter”), a believer in Oswald’s exclusive guilt. With Ruth Paine for my subject, I was focusing on an exemplary person, and I was writing about the role that coincidence and simple oddity do play in life. (Paine’s husband, who once took Oswald to an ACLU meeting, was the great-great-grandson of Ralph Waldo Emerson.) I was rational, not a “buff.”

And yet, I was coming to realize, it was a distinction without much of a difference. Hadn’t I once tracked down the exact New Orleans Public Library copy of a Mao Zedong biography that Oswald had checked out from the Napoleon Avenue Branch in the summer of ’63? (I’d wanted to see whether he’d left any telltale marginal jottings. He hadn’t.) Didn’t I know that on November 22, 1963, Oswald had wounded not just the president, Texas Governor John Connally, and Dallas police officer J. D. Tippit, but also James Tague, who was slightly injured when a piece of Dealey Plaza curbstone flew up and cut his cheek after being struck by the assassin’s one errant shot? Did I not retain room in my memory for the name of Jack Ruby’s dog? (Sheba, a dachshund.) The truth is that I, too, had been sucked into the space-time wormhole that Oswald had long ago shot into the sky. I might not be “of” the Grassy Knoll, but I was on it.

Vincent Bugliosi, the assistant district attorney who put Charles Manson away and later produced the most merciless book on O. J. Simpson (Outrage), has in one way or another been working on Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy for 21 years, ever since he acted as the prosecutor in an elaborate mock trial of Oswald that was filmed in London and included Ruth Paine among its “witnesses.” Bugliosi got a conviction and never really left the case.

The result is a text far larger and heavier than any that Oswald may have handled in the hours before he pointed his gun out a sixth-floor window of the book depository. Indeed, Reclaiming History, whose first draft was handwritten on legal pads, is longer than the Warren Report, William Manchester’s The Death of a President, and Gerald Posner’s Case Closed—combined. After putting the book’s two sets of footnotes (which run 1,128 pages) onto a CD-ROM, the publisher, W. W. Norton, managed to get the principal 1,664 densely typeset pages into a single volume, no doubt by calling on the same compressive binding skills that allow the company to produce its massive well-known literary anthologies.

Reclaiming History is a magnificent and, in many ways, appalling achievement, a work that, for all the author’s liveliness and pugnacity, is destined to be more referenced than read. Bugliosi insists that, in the face of America’s widespread and misplaced belief in the existence of a conspiracy against JFK’s life, “overkill in this book is historically necessary.” This undue elaboration includes, one supposes, the work’s primer on the civil-rights movement (as context for Kennedy’s own activity in that realm); its long history of the Mafia that Jack Ruby was not part of; nine pages on the Bay of Pigs invasion that did not motivate Fidel Castro to kill Kennedy; and four paragraphs on the oil-depletion allowance, whose reduction, unsought by Kennedy, did not drive the Texas oilman H. L. Hunt to murder the president.

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Thomas Mallon is an Atlantic contributing editor whose books include Mrs. Paine’s Garage and the Murder of John F. Kennedy (2002) and the novel Fellow Travelers, just published by Pantheon.

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