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Thomas Mallon: 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.

[Thomas Mallon is the author of many books including Stolen Words.]

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....

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....

Related Links

  • Thomas Mallon talks about JFK conspiracy theories and a new book that places the blame squarely on Lee Harvey Oswald (Atlantic interview)
  • Read entire article at Atlantic Monthly