Attorney Vincent Bugliosi, perhaps best-known as the prosecutor of Charles Manson and co-author of “Helter Skelter” an account of that case, spent 20 years researching “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy ” which, with 1,600 pages and almost 1,000 pages of endnotes on the accompanying CD-Rom is about three times the size of the abridged version of the Warren Commission report, which it stoutly defends.
Bugliosi wants to put paid to the idea, for once and for all, that anybody other than Lee Harvey Oswald was responsible for the killing of the president on Nov. 22, 1963.
Meanwhile, in an entirely contrasting approach and with radically different conclusions, David Talbot, a former San Francisco Examiner staffer and founder of the online magazine Salon, argues for the investigation to be revived. “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years” looks at that dark episode in American history principally from the perspective of Robert Kennedy, relying on interviews with aides or their surviving relatives. The administration’s attorney general, who was elected a U.S. senator for New York in 1964, embarked on a secret quest to find out who was behind his brother’s murder.
He believed, though, he would likely have to become president himself to get to the truth. With his own death on the night of his greatest political victory, the 1968 Democratic primary in California, that vigorous pursuit of justice came to an abrupt end.
Writes Talbot: “One would have to go back to ancient Rome to find a precedent in the stunning back-to-back assassinations of two brothers at the height of their political glory – all the way to the second century B.C. when Tiberius Gracchus and then his younger brother Gaius were viciously hacked to death after each was elected tribune of the people and antagonized the Roman aristocracy with their democratic reforms.”
The atmosphere after Watergate led to a new investigation by Congress and the House Assassinations Committee concluded that JFK was “probably” the victim of a conspiracy. There’s been noticeable shift since then. Seventy-five percent of Americans continue to doubt the official version as represented in the Warren report, but the conspiracy view has became a somewhat less respectable view amongst the intelligentsia or what the British call the “chattering classes.”
That can partly explain the tone of the reception for Bugliosi’s gargantuan work in some of the nation’s biggest papers. Vanity Fair writer Bryan Burrough wrote in the New York Times review that conspiracy theorists should be ‘ridiculed, even shunned” and “marginalized the way we’ve marginalized smokers.’
“‘Reclaiming History’ may finally move those accusations [against various persons and agencies] beyond civilized debate,” said the Los Angeles Times’ reviewer, the editor of its editorial pages._
Some of Bugliosi’s admirers were realistic though, saying that his couldn’t expect to be the last word. Alan Wolfe in the Washington Post doubted that the 72-year-old’s “prosecutorial skills will deter conspiracy theorists from their speculations.”
As if to prove the point, a week later the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette printed a less than glowing review of “Reclaiming History” by someone who has long been familiar with the case.
Indeed, back in 1967 when he was a young philosophy professor at Haverford University, Josiah Thompson authored a much-regarded critique of the Warren Commission’s report called “Six Seconds in Dallas.”
Wrote Thompson about Bugliosi’s book: “Many historical events draw wacky theories. The proper response is to ignore them; it is not to write a 1,660-page book exposing their wackiness.
“On the other hand, the Kennedy case is remarkable in that the growth of conspiracy theories has come to obscure the basic evidence. It is as if opinions and wacky theories have grown like a fungus into the basic pattern of facts,” continued Thompson, who these days is a private investigator on the West Coast.
“From the outset, this growth threatened serious research into what actually happened in Dealey Plaza. Bugliosi has performed a useful function by scrubbing away a number of nutty theories that have surfaced since Nov. 22, 1963,” he said.
But Thompson used his expertise to challenge Bugliosi’s presentation of evidence in a number of key areas.
List of doubters
Clearly the 1.5 million-word “Reclaiming History” wasn’t going to have it all its own way. In fact, in the same May 20 issue of the New York Times Book Review that Burrough called for the marginalization of conspiracy theorists, historian Alan Brinkley praised Talbot’s “Brothers,” as “fearless,” even if he didn’t quite embrace Talbot’s reinterpretation of the Kennedy presidency. _
Soon afterwards, Talbot, Anthony Summers — the County Waterford-based writer whose 1980 “Conspiracy” is one of the most influential works on the case — the Washington Post journalist Jefferson Morley and Norman Mailer, who died on Nov. 10, signed a letter to the Times attacking Burrough’s “superficial and gratuitously insulting” review. They then named 23 personalities who were close to events or familiar with the evidence and who believed, or at least suspected, that John Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy. Their list included two presidents — Johnson and Nixon — Jackie Kennedy, Sen. Richard Russell, who was a member of the Warren Commission, Richard Schweiker and GaryHart, who served on the Senate Intelligence Committee in the 1970s; FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover and Secret Service agent Roy Kellerman who rode in the car with the president.
Talbot’s fascinating, compelling and highly readable account puts Kennedy’s assassination in the context of its time – when hawks like Gen. Curtis LeMay, the air force chief of staff, believed that the U.S. would have to fight a nuclear war with the Soviet Union soon rather than later. The tensions between hardliners like LeMay and the young president inspired a novel by two Washington journalists about a military coup in the United States. Kennedy encouraged the making of “Seven Days in May” into a movie as a warning to the generals. (The film directed by Kennedy family friend John Frankenheimer and starring Burt Lancaster was released in 1964.)
Irish mafia’s view
Talbot takes on JFK biographer Robert Dallek who has said that whether he would have acted differently than President Johnson on Vietnam “is something that will never be settled.” Rather, Talbot says, “a conclusive body of evidence indicates that JFK formally decided to withdraw from Vietnam,” beginning in December 1963 and finishing in 1965._
Talbot upbraids the media generally for its failure to investigate the killing of Nov. 22, 1963. His discussion about JFK friend Ben Bradlee, whom he interviewed for the book, is particularly interesting.
He also criticizes another media star, Seymour Hersh, the author of “The Dark Side of Camelot,” for his reliance on an intelligence source whose primary interest was to tarnish the Kennedys in order to protect the CIA.
Members of Kennedy’s “Irish mafia” figure prominently in Talbot’s account. Two of them, Kenny O’Donnell and Dave Powers, were in the car immediately behind their leader in Dallas. “[B]oth World War II veterans, [they] distinctly heard at least two shots come from the grassy knoll area in front of the motorcade,” Talbot writes. After he saw the impact of the fatal bullet and the president fall from view, O’Donnell said to Powers: “He’s dead.”
The author interviewed O’Donnell’s son but the most dramatic source here is Tip O’Neill’s autobiography. The late House speaker recalled how O’Donnell told him he’d changed his story for the Warren Commission under pressure from the FBI. Powers, who was less amenable, wasn’t called to testify.
At the heart of the mystery, of course, is Lee Harvey Oswald. He makes a very plausible assassin; but those who reject the lone-gunman theory usually suggest that the official version of his biography doesn’t quite add up.
For instance, Marxists have invariably been a clubbable and fractious lot, yet the alleged assassin never as much went to a meeting in this country despite an interest in the ideas going back to his mid-teens. In contrast, his personal ties to the far right were in some ways rather more tangible.
Talbot says that the disrupted plots against the president planned for Nov. 2, in Chicago, and Nov. 18, in Tampa, each featured an individual with Oswald-type histories (one of them was also a returned defector).
So, it might be argued that Kennedy, just like French President Charles de Gaulle, was the subject of a rolling conspiracy, with at its center, allegedly, right-wing militants from a community (in this case Cuban) that had recently been transplanted from its native land. The terrorist group OAS, comprising Algerians of European descent and their supporters, came closest to killing de Gaulle on Aug. 22, 1962, when the car in which he and his wife were traveling through the Parisian night was hit by machinegun fire.
The forces arraigned against Kennedy were far greater than those against de Gaulle, in the conspiracy theorists’ view. Talbot doesn’t favor any one theory. Like many others, he wants the files of controversial CIA agent George Joannides declassified. Joannides was called out of retirement to be the agency’s liaison to the House Assassinations Committee in the late 1970s. Its members and staffers didn’t know until after the agent’s death in 1990 that he’d been deeply involved with some of the forces they were investigating, including people who had contact with Oswald. Bugliosi and others who’ve defended the lone-gunman theory have also demanded that this matter be resolved.
Which of these books – Bugliosi’s or Talbot’s – will have a longer shelf life is impossible to stay. The L.A. Times’ admiring review said Bugliosi’s was a “book for the ages.” Certainly for its recreation of Nov. 22, 1963 alone, it has been hailed as a valuable document.
But for his admirers, Talbot’s work contains essential truths about what was happening in America during the Kennedy presidency — even if you allow that Oswald alone committed a monstrous crime of opportunity.
They’d rather these issues be discussed more fully. For these critics, the Warren Commission was flawed from the outset. It was based on the idea that if some others were involved, whether foreign-based or not, the truth would be too shocking for people to bear. Ignorance was better.
Don Hewitt, the man behind “Sixty Minutes,” told Talbot that when a top Republican once asked Richard Nixon what he knew about the Kennedy assassination, Nixon simply replied: “You don’t want to know.”
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