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.

Oswald spent his childhood tagging along on the aggrieved peregrinations of his mother, Marguerite, who would one day take offense when her son was denied burial in Arlington National Cemetery. But Bugliosi’s sympathies, which can be surprisingly tender and thoughtful, extend even to her and to the attempts she made to provide for her sons in a world she believed was dead set against her. Marguerite can, in fact, be viewed as the mother not only of Oswald but of CTs everywhere.

It was to escape her that Oswald joined the Marine Corps; his older brothers had gone into the service for the same reason. Stationed in Japan at the Atsugi Naval Air Base, where kamikaze pilots once trained, he managed to be both sullen and mouthy, but no matter how much CTs may wish or declare it, he never got within a country mile of the base’s U-2 spy planes. When he arrived in Moscow, in 1959, with the intention of defecting, he carried with him no valuable secrets, only the angry alternative ideology he’d first picked up six years earlier from a handbill defending the Rosenbergs. The Soviets let him stay, though they viewed him as a nuisance—no more a recruiting prospect for the KGB than he would ever be for the CIA or the Mafia. Malcontented by nature, Oswald inevitably turned against the U.S.S.R., and once back in the U.S.A., he felt compelled to beat the pretty, sly Russian girl he’d married. (In what seems an unconscious echo of his O.J. days, Bugliosi writes that Oswald would “be physical” with Marina from time to time.)

The author gives proper centrality both to Oswald’s near-success in killing the far-right-wing General Edwin Walker in the spring of 1963—an assault much more carefully planned than Oswald’s strike against Kennedy—and to his humiliating rebuff, that September in Mexico City, by the Soviet Embassy and the Cuban consulate, when he tried to secure a visa for travel to Havana. In the weeks before the assassination, he was a man running out of flamboyant gestures.

Bugliosi says that he doesn’t read fiction, but he favors what might be called a novelist’s view of Oswald over any unified prosecutorial theory of the case and perpetrator. The same Oswald who played with his children and Paine’s after rewrapping his rifle the night before the assassination would 18 hours later fire an extra shot into the head of Officer Tippit, who had already fallen helpless to the pavement; the same Oswald who killed the leader of the free world could complain a day later about the denial of his “hygienic rights” (he wanted a shower). These were the “personal characteristics or eccentricities” that made him “so very human,” and Bugliosi, to his credit, is never rattled or deterred by their violent juxtaposition.

Bugliosi notes that incompetence is “so very common in life,” so it’s not surprising that he finds some “investigative sloppiness” to have occurred even in an inquiry headed by a chief justice of the United States. But occasional clumsiness—amid far more exhaustiveness and skill—does not equal cover-up (the usual CT charge) by the Warren Commission, whose august members shrank from fighting back when their report came under attack. Bugliosi also analyzes Kennedy’s much-flawed autopsy and finds that its “main conclusion” still stands. He even praises the Dallas police who, but for the matter of allowing Oswald to be killed, succeeded in swiftly compiling a mass of evidence against him. Captain Will Fritz, who’d once helped hunt down Bonnie and Clyde and who conducted much of Oswald’s interrogation, emerges as a kind of low-key hero.

Toward the assassination’s host of investigators, Bugliosi displays a forbearance of human frailty and simple mistakes. What he doesn’t abide are lapses in logic, against which he displays a prosecutor’s natural preference for cross-examination over direct. Once or twice his own logic flags, and he explains away some exculpatory-seeming fact as part of Oswald’s attempt to construct an alibi; but much more typically, for dozens—no, hundreds—of pages at a time, he exhilarates the reader with rat-a-tat annihilations of others’ false premises and shaky inferences. He makes clear, for instance, that Kennedy’s Parkland doctors, whose memories of their work on the president are much loved by many CTs, are bad witnesses; on November 22, 1963, they were making a futile attempt to resuscitate the president, not to do ballistic analysis. (What’s more, they were largely young and inexperienced, because most of their senior colleagues were in Galveston at a medical conference.) Similarly, and with all due respect, Governor Connally, who never believed the single- bullet theory, was hardly in a position to be a careful observer while that bullet was working its way through him. And to take one more example: On Sunday morning, November 24, Oswald helped delay his own transfer from the Dallas city lockup to the county jail by requesting a different shirt, thereby giving Ruby time to arrive at the police station and kill him—an unwitting consequence, Bugliosi reasons, “unless Oswald was a party to the conspiracy to murder himself.”

Worse than gaps in reasoning, however, are instances of bad faith, which make Bugliosi livid. He will toss the bones of compliments to any number of CTs—Walt Brown has a “good mind,” Harold Weisberg is a “decent rascal,” and Penn Jones Jr. was “motivated by patriotism”—but Lord help those he finds manipulating quotations, telling outright lies, or depending on portions of the Warren Report when they’re otherwise trashing it. Oliver Stone, always the ne plus ultra of disingenuousness, is by Bugliosi’s reckoning guilty of a “cultural crime” committed through a thousand manipulations, among them the use of a smoke machine to generate a puff of rifle smoke from the Grassy Knoll that JFK presents as being visible to people in Dealey Plaza.

In the course of all his refutations, Bugliosi frequently writes as if he were delivering the world’s longest jury summation. He asks the “folks” who are reading to “please get this,” or to sit tight and “wait awhile” for an important point he’s making. He eventually runs out of sarcastic formulations for what he’s up against—the “room temperature” IQs required to believe stuff that’s as crazy as the idea that “alligators can do the polka”—but in the end it is the weight of Bugliosi’s analysis, not his rhetoric, that crushes a long list of libels and suppositions: the sightings of a “Second Oswald”; the “acoustic evidence” (from a police Dictabelt) that some believe recorded four shots instead of the Warren Report’s three; the CT assertion that Kennedy’s head immediately moved backward (it didn’t) when he was fatally shot from the front (he wasn’t).

These last matters are at least potentially fundamental. And yet, in order to make this “the first anti-conspiracy book,” Bugliosi—who writes that “any denial of Oswald’s guilt is not worthy of serious discussion”—spends a vast acreage of print debunking the fringiest and most lunatic theories, marshaling facts to prove that Kennedy’s corpse wasn’t altered (“the conspirators would have needed at least three separate teams of plastic surgeons waiting in hiding”); that the Zapruder film wasn’t tampered with; that the president wasn’t accidentally shot from behind by a Secret Service agent; and that the shiny “Badge Man,” who in one photograph appears to be perched on the Grassy Knoll, is probably a Coke bottle. (Not Dr. Pepper?)

All this disputation may add heft, but it’s not likely to give Reclaiming History the “stature” that Bugliosi seeks for it. Its effect, peculiarly, is to magnify much of the nonsense on this subject that has cluttered the public mind for more than 40 years. The writing and preservation of history is no less replete with paradox than history itself. James L. Swanson, author of the recent book Manhunt, about the search for Lincoln’s assassin, nicely argues that the restored Ford’s Theatre is ultimately more a monument to John Wilkes Booth than to Abraham Lincoln. Similarly, in knocking down the conspiracists’ shantytown of constructs, Bugliosi has had to save the village in order to destroy it, and his book, if it has the longevity it deserves, will be a kind of eternal flame running on the very gases it thought it had capped.

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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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