by Gary L. Aguilar, 21 Dec 2007
Ed note: This review first appeared in the Nov/Dec issue of The Federal Lawyer.
"[A]lthough there have been hundreds of books on the [JFK] assassination," Vincent Bugliosi writes in the introduction to Reclaiming History, "no book has even attempted to be a comprehensive and fair evaluation of the entire [italics in original] case, including all of the major conspiracy theories." Indeed, no book has – not even this 1612-page book, supplemented by a CD-rom containing 958 pages of endnotes – although not because it is too short.
The gigantic swing that Bugliosi takes is easily the most ambitious one-person undertaking ever published on the Kennedy assassination. Bugliosi, the famous Charles Manson prosecutor, devotes more than 1400 pages of text and endnotes to "reclaiming" the lost truth as first set forth by the Warren Commission. He then devotes 900 more pages of text and endnotes to pounding myriad “conspiracy theorists” whose efforts over the years, Bugliosi claims, have wrought a grave injustice on the Commission and performed a "flagrant disservice to the American public."
It is not just that critics have convinced 75 percent of Americans (Bugliosi’s figure) to reject the official truth, which he says happens to be the real truth. These critics, Bugliosi contends, are also responsible for a widespread loss of faith in once-respected institutions. Such widespread skepticism, "gestating for decades in the nation’s marrow," he writes, "obviously has to have had a deleterious effect on the way Americans view those who lead them and determine their destiny. Indeed, Jefferson Morley, former Washington editor of the Nation, observes that Kennedy’s assassination has been 'a kind of national Rorschach test of the American political psyche. What Americans think about the Kennedy assassination reveals what they think about their government.'" To those who might wonder if more than 1600 pages of text and 900 pages of endnotes were really necessary, Bugliosi says that the problem is so severe that nothing less would have sufficed.
Although Warren Commission skeptics might not welcome this gargantuan new salvo, there is no denying that Bugliosi’s Herculean effort is an historic and important contribution. It is valuable not only as a reference for the myriad facts in the case and for debunking some of the pro-conspiracy codswallop that has not elsewhere already been debunked (most of it has been, if one has the time to find it). The book’s use also lies in demonstrating that it may not be possible for one person to fully master, or give a fair accounting of, this impossibly tangled mess of a case. In fact, despite Bugliosi’s pugnacious pummeling, he hasn’t laid a glove on major elements of the case for conspiracy.
And, regrettably, it must be said that the most distinguishing characteristic of this book is its demagogic pugnacity. Bugliosi cleaves the world of opinion holders neatly in two – sensible Warren Commission loyalists and conscious evildoers, the "conspiracy theorists." He allows, however, for the occasional sincere dupe. Although his prosecutorial, conclusions-driven style is redolent of Gerald Posner’s in Case Closed, the last attorney-written book to defend the Warren Commission, Bugliosi’s endless self-congratulation and his arrogant condescension make his book far more insufferable.
These traits may have served Bugliosi well as a Los Angeles County prosecutor where, he boasts, he won felony convictions in 105 of 106 jury trials. They may have helped him knock out true-crime books, including his famous book about the Manson murders, Helter Skelter. But his arrogance is of little use in untangling the hopelessly conflicted facts in this 44-year old national tragedy. His incessantly hurling slurs such as "deranged conspiracy theorist," "crackpot," "con man," "kook," and "huckster" at virtually all critics inevitably carries a whiff of buffoonery and anxious self-promotion about it. And that’s particularly the case when he’s flat-out wrong on the facts.
A typical example is Bugliosi’s mocking of skeptics who say that Robert Kennedy was, to borrow from Bugliosi, a "conspiracy theorist." He counters not with an informed discussion, but by producing an RFK quotation of support for the Warren Commission. Ironically, in the very week that Bugliosi’s book premiered, a new best-selling book by David Talbot, Brothers, was published proffering book-length documentation of something skeptics have long known and Bugliosi could have known if he had really looked: While RFK toed the official line in public for the obvious, political reasons, in private, and until the day he died, he remained active as, to borrow from Talbot, "America’s first assassination conspiracy theorist."