If at first it seems unlikely that Vincent Bugliosi’s new book on the JFK assassination, Reclaiming History (W. W. Norton, 1632 pages [yes, 1632 pages], plus CD, $49.95, ISBN 978-0393045253), otherwise known as the Norton Anthology of Conspiracy Theories Debunked, is an unlikely subject for a movie column, note that Mr. Bugliosi has included a chapter — if a section of a book that is itself book length can be called merely a chapter — that is devoted solely to Oliver Stone’s JFK and its perceived sins against history and truth about the national nightmare that occurred on Elm Street in 1963. Also, Bugliosi plans a TV documentary about the contents of the book.
I haven’t read the whole book yet, mostly the JFK chapter (and I suspect that an early reviewer of the book writing in a national monthly also only read this chapter, as most of the lines quoted come from it), plus some random sections read while poking around in the rest of the book, but I suspect that the JFK chapter gives a good example of Mr. Bugliosi’s strategy throughout Reclaiming History. What he has created is four books in one, and if Norton weren’t such a refined firm, I’d suggest that when the book goes paperback that they plug it on the cover with the words, “Four Books in One: Four Days in November! The Life of Lee Harvey Oswald! Stone’s JFK! All Conspiracy Theories Debunked.
It is true that conspiracy theories are easy to weave regarding the JFK case. For example, reading Bugliosi’s book, I was reminded of the fact that on the floor below Oswald at the Book Depository, there were several African American co-workers, hanging out the window and watching the procession. Now, what if they did it, rather than Oswald? Then, what if the assassination of Martin Luther King was a revenge on African-Americans by the government that couldn’t do anything about the real JFK killers because it would have started a race riot. Then, later that year, African-Americans struck back by killing RFK (a black security guard is charged in some conspiracy books with shooting RFK in the kitchen). This is all nonsense, of course. Why would African-Americans kill Kennedy, the closet thing they had ever had to an ally in the White House? But there. I’ve put it out there. How long will it be before a book based on it comes out?
I’m loathed to contradict Mr. Bugliosi. In most other ways I am a fan. He is the author of the best true crime book, Helter Skelter, so superior to Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. His book on the Simpson trial is an endlessly fascinating read, if for no other reason than the peek it offers about what goes through a good prosecutor’s mind. He is a fine writer, and Reclaiming History is a sterling example of good, solid, impassioned American rhetoric (though he acknowledges some assistance). The footnotes (and the footnotes within footnotes) are as interesting, and more detailed, than the book itself, and there are further notes on the CD. Over 20 years in the making, and sparked by a Showtime-sponsored 1986 mock trial that Mr. Bugliosi appeared in as a prosecutor opposite Gerry Spence as Oswald’s defense lawyer, Reclaiming History is the perfect book to crawl into a warm bed with on a long cold winter night — or at least it would if you didn’t feel like you were dragging a piece of luggage instead of a book into bed with you.
But let’s look more closely at his JFK chapter, which occupies pages 1347 through 1436. First Mr. Bugliosi begins with a summary of the Garrison case against Clay Shaw. As he might to a jury, Mr. Bugliosi paints Shaw as a literate, modest, New Orleans booster. Opponents to Shaw, such as Garrison, Perry Russo, or David Ferry are all painted in prosecutorial terms, in heavily biased thumbnail portraits using words like “cartoonish.” In fact, my main criticism of the book is that instead of weighing and sifting facts before coming to a reasoned conclusion, Bugliosi went into it with his mind made up, seeing everything through the Warren Report’s eyes, tilting his arguments toward the accounts that happen to support his bias. When that fails, he makes a plea to the reader’s (i.e., the juror’s) common sense, with rhetorical questions such as “Does that seem plausible to you?”
Bugliosi then goes on to “dismantle” Stone’s film via 32 specific points or inaccuracies: 1 That in real life, Garrison wasn’t the saint the movie portrays; 2 Stone’s Rose Cherami episode is full of errors and exaggerations; 3 Stone presents Oswald as a right winger posing as a Marxist because he is an undercover agent, for which, Bugliosi says, there is no evidence (and when Bugliosi says this, he means there is no evidence presented in the Warren Report or the later House Committee hearing); 4 Stone drops all evidence of Oswald’s culpability in the assassination (such as being seen carrying a rifle sized package into the Book Depository); 5 Stone offers biased Dealey Plaza witnesses; 6 Stone “lies” about the number of Tippit witnesses; 7 Dealey Plaza witness Bowers’s testimony is more inconsistent over time than the movie allows; 8 Julia Mercer and … 9 Jean Hill are not credible witnesses; 10 Senator Russell Long’s statement about the FBI’s inability to replicate Oswald’s shooting pattern is “a lie”; 11 There were no foliage … 12 nor tree obstructions at Dealey Plaza at the time of the shooting; 13 Despite what Stone says, Oswald was rated a sharpshooter by the Marines; 14 The bolt action of Oswald’s rifle is only slow if you use a telescopic sight; 15 Contra Stone, there weren’t three teams of shooters in Dealey Plaza; 16 Connally was not seated directly in front of Kennedy; 17 There is no evidence that the magic bullet was planted; 18 The Umbrella Man was not a spotter; 19 No warning was teletyped to the FBI days before the event; 20 Dean Andrews was a poor witness; 21 There is no evidence that Shaw and Ferrie knew each other; 22 There is no evidence that Ferrie died of anything but natural causes; 23 Jack Martin was not a credible witness; 24 There is no evidence that Guy Bannister was involved in the assassination; 25 Beverly Oliver is not a credible witness to any Oswald-Ruby sightings; 26 The film distorts what Ruby said to Earl Warren; 27 Stone’s composite character Willie O’Keefe disguises flaws in Perry Russo’s testimony that Stone didn’t want to acknowledge; 28 The character X didn’t exist and in the film gives a distorted account of Kennedy administration history; 29 The New Zealand newspaper report is not as outlandish as Stone and X make it seem; 30 Bugliosi maintains that the Washington, D. C. phone lines did not go dead for an hour; 31 Stone is inconsistent about who Oswald was working for; 32 Stone wants the viewer not only to believe that Oswald was innocent, but to feel sorry for him.
What this litany of errors fails to acknowledge is that Stone himself often inserts counter arguments against his own thesis, such as when Garrison’s wife complains that Garrison is only going after Shaw because he is gay. Nor does Bugliosi take on all of Stone’s charges, only some of them (at least in this chapter). And he doesn’t do nuance well. He has a straight arrow cop type attitude toward human psychology that denies ambiguity of motivation or that people can remember different, new things at different times. If it is not on the record and under oath, he doesn’t want to hear about it. Moreover, he lambasts Stone for suggesting that Shaw was a CIA agent without any proof, and then goes on to admit in a footnote that, well, yeah, he did report to the more or less informal domestic service division, where prominent Americans who had gone abroad would report back interesting intel.
What it may come down to in this chapter is that Bugliosi doesn’t understand movies much. He frets over the virtual crime of blending documentary footage with recreated moments, as if the audience can’t tell the difference or grasp that there is a higher purpose involved. He thinks that Joe Pesci has “marquee value.” In his unwillingness to concede even one point to the conspiratologists he fails to clarify simple if always vexing points, such as, Was Oswald a good shot or not, and what does the sharpshooter ranking really mean in the Marines?
Still, Bugliosi has marshaled several file cabinets worth of facts and figures, enough to keep the conspirotologists busy composing refutations for the next decade, or at least until 2013, the 50th anniversary of the assassination. If it is not yet the definitive book on the JFK assassination, it’s only because his prosecutorial tone prevents some readers from fully trusting him.
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