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.

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.”

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.