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.

If there was no second gunman, there was, Bugliosi proves, a second soda machine in the book depository, which undermines Oswald’s claim of having gone, minutes after the assassination, from the first floor to the second in search of a bottle of pop. (Moreover, his preferred brand, Dr. Pepper, was in the first-floor machine, not the second.) Bugliosi also corrects one account claiming that in 1969, it took a New Orleans jury only 45 minutes to acquit Clay Shaw, the man Jim Garrison framed for Kennedy’s murder. (It took the jury 54 minutes.) And Bugliosi writes that my own book, while correctly assessing a piece of his strategy in the London mock trial, has him “beaming with delight” over Paine’s testimony, whereas in fact he responded with only “a measured smile.” (Trust me, he’s beaming. I’ve just gone back to the videotape, because that’s life on the Knoll, where even LNs have trouble seeing the declivity for the blades of grass.)

Bugliosi has a confidence that makes Schwarzenegger, or Popeye, seem diffident. He finds that “plain incompetence … from the highest levels on down, is endemic in our society,” and he takes up arms against the “pure myth” that one cannot prove a negative. “I am never elliptical and always state the obvious,” he declares, not without charm. He has great hopes for “the stature of this book,” which would derive chiefly from its ability “to turn the percentages around in the debate,” a reversal that would leave 75 percent of Americans believing Oswald acted on his own and only 19 percent thinking there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. “My only master and my only mistress are the facts and objectivity,” Bugliosi declares, as if once more being sworn in at the DAs office in Los Angeles.

In at least one way, he’s up against both sides, CT and LN, simultaneously. When Gerald Posner published Case Closed, in 1993—two years after belief in a Kennedy-assassination conspiracy had its widest and wildest dissemination with the release of Oliver Stone’s JFK—the book received a tremendously positive response, at least in the mainstream media. It may not have shifted those percentages, but its argument that Oswald acted alone—of which the author became convinced only midway through his labors—had a kind of weird freshness, given that the Warren Report, for most of the 30 years since its appearance, had attracted fewer defenders than the tax code. So, isn’t Bugliosi writing Case Still Closed, however many steroids he may have pumped into the original orthodoxy?

Not at all, he argues. For starters, one needs a law-enforcement background, not just Posner’s lawyerly one, to make sense of everything. Posner may have accomplished a few things—such as helping to knock down the actuarially risible belief that there have been a hundred or so “mysterious deaths” among people who supposedly knew too much—but by Bugliosi’s lights, Posner’s methods are sometimes as slippery as the CTs’. He accuses his LN predecessor of distortion and credit-grabbing, especially when it comes to rehabilitating the single- bullet theory (Bugliosi prefers calling it a “fact”).

In a passage that reads like a memo to his own publisher, arguing for the novelty of what he’s doing, Bugliosi writes that his is “the first anti-conspiracy book,” since all Posner’s does is take an “anti-conspiracy position,” devoting a mere “8 percent” of its measly 607 pages to knocking down conspiracist notions.

There’s no question that Bugliosi succeeds in scorching the CT terrain with ferocious, even definitive, plausibility. He also, by the time his admirable 2,792 pages are through, drowns himself in a kind of ghastly historical irony.

Before he can begin dispatching the CTs’ frauds and follies, Bugliosi must deal with Lee Harvey Oswald himself, who remains a ghost in even the more fantastic machines of the conspiracists. Across 275 pages of biography, and another 316 of narrative devoted to the climactic “Four Days in November,” Bugliosi’s Oswald, for all his deprivations and dyslexia, emerges as an intelligent, ill-humored, and remarkably strong-willed young man, one who lapped up ideology and had delusions of attaining power but was otherwise lacking in ordinary appetites “or any of the myriad personal characteristics or eccentricities that are so very human.”

Presented by

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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