Friday, December 31, 2010

Rewriting History

The post below is a quasi-review of Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History. I wrote it about five years ago. Then as now, I consider Reclaiming History a thoroughly dishonest piece of crap. I didn't say that quite so explicitly in the following, however.

The review is meant to be insulting. I hope that comes across.

"An Ass of You and of Me" has appeared here and there on the Internet, but I don't think many people ever read it.

An Ass of You and of Me

or, Buyer Beware: Initial impressions, but not really a review, of Reclaiming History

One must assume that Vincent Bugliosi is honest, and that his new book on the JFK assassination is likewise honest. Reclaiming History is Bugliosi's long awaited entry into the war of words over what really happened to John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963.

This is a massive book, so massive that the publisher, W.W. Norton, elected to put all of its end notes and other source notes onto an accompanying CD-ROM. At more than 1,600 pages, Reclaiming History gives the appearance of a comprehensive and minutely detailed study of the crime that shook the world four decades ago. Bugliosi says he devoted twenty years to his book. I'm devoting about twenty minutes to writing this essay.

Vincent Bugliosi, of course, is the former Deputy District Attorney from Los Angeles, best known for prosecuting Charles Manson and members of his murderous "family" some thirty-five years ago. Bugliosi's resulting book Helter Skelter (written with Curt Gentry) became a best seller, and according to the press materials accompanying Reclaiming History is the best selling true crime book of all time. Bugliosi has since written several other true crime books that have also been best sellers.

Why did the former prosecutor decide to tackle the Kennedy assassination? "Over 95 percent of the books on the case happen to be pro-conspiracy and anti-Warren Commission," he says. "So certainly there is a need for far more books on the other side to give a much better balance to the debate."

Well, maybe. But what was the purpose of the Warren Report? Sylvia Meagher once observed that if the Report cannot stand on its own – if it requires additional books to prop it up – that in itself is "a total default" to its critics. In Bugliosi's case, it may be a double fault. For sheer bulk, Reclaiming History is nearly twice as long as the 888 page Warren Report it defends.

Taking Bugliosi's numbers at face value, there are still plenty of books attempting to legitimize the Warren Report, and they are typically welcomed with great praise by the mainstream media. To name just a few, Gerald Posner's Case Closed, which appeared at the time of the assassination's thirtieth anniversary, was featured prominently in U.S. News and World Report and Posner was all over the boob tube for months. Commission member Gerald Ford published a book on the case, Commission attorney David Belin published two, and Arlen Specter devoted many pages to defending the Report in his 2000 memoir. William Manchester was contracted by the Kennedy family to write a book on the assassination before the Warren Report was even published. Jim Bishop wrote a book that did not question the official story. Richard Warren Lewis and Lawrence Schiller proved two heads aren't always better than one in a book attacking the critics. And Jim Moore published a pro-Commission book in 1989. (Commission attorney Wesley Liebeler announced he was writing, but never completed, a book on the case. And former Yale University professor Jacob Cohen also announced but never published a book defending the Warren Report.)

And then there are the television networks. The electronic media convicted Oswald the weekend of the assassination and has never let up in the forty-something years since. CBS has produced multiple documentaries supporting the official story, as have NBC and ABC. Don't even get me started on Time-Life. Methinks Vince Bugliosi's protestations are without merit.

Spoiler alert! I'm going to give away the ending to Reclaiming History. Like the butler in a hackneyed murder mystery, Oswald did it. "Oswald," Bugliosi writes, was "an emotionally unhinged political malcontent who hated America [and] was as guilty as sin."

And that, really, is about all you need to know of Vincent Bugliosi's book. But I'll add that one of his objectives is to deconstruct and debunk every theory offering an explanation to the assassination – every one, that is, but the lone nut theory. If Bugliosi's comment on Lee Oswald intrigues you, or if you like to read everything you can on this case, then by all means spend the fifty dollars that is the book's suggested retail price. Otherwise, hang on to your money.

In spite of Bugliosi's explanation for why he wrote Reclaiming History – what he sees as a dearth of books supporting the official account of the assassination (again, why wasn't the Warren Report adequate?) – I can only understand his undertaking of a project such as this in the context of an ideological war. Oswald, after all, "hated America," Bugliosi says. In a section of his book describing the earliest Commission critics, he emphasizes their politics, which were mostly, but not exclusively, left-leaning. The first published book on the assassination, Bugliosi writes, was by "an expatriate American Communist living in Paris." Another early author was "a German Communist party member." The next two books were written by "leftists sympathetic to Marxist ideology." This is fifties-style red baiting, and if such criticisms are valid, then it is equally valid to argue that Vincent Bugliosi, as a former big city prosecutor, is a thoroughly entrenched Establishment figure who is parroting the party line, and summoning his considerable rhetorical skills in an effort to bully skeptical readers and reassure others.

As noted at the outset, this commentary is not really a review of Reclaiming History; I have not read the book in its entirety and do not intend to. Its point of view is plain as day, and taking the time to dissect and expose its fallacies is, for me, an errand of too few returns. I leave that necessary chore to others.

But in the interest of full disclosure, I must note that I am the author of a forthcoming book related to these matters. Praise from a Future Generation is the story of the early, "first generation" Warren Commission critics. Documents released by the Assassination Records Review Board show that the activities of virtually every one of these critics were monitored to some degree. I will briefly describe just one example, and leave it to the reader to decide whether Bugliosi's characterization is fair and impartial. The "German Communist party member" Bugliosi refers to is Joachim Joesten, the author of Oswald: Assassin or Fall Guy? [Marzani and Munsell, 1964]. Bugliosi happily acknowledges (on p. 990) that his sources on Joesten include, via the Congressional Record, Gestapo documents seized by British authorities at the end of World War Two. Copies of these Gestapo records were provided to the Warren Commission by then-CIA Deputy Director for Plans Richard Helms. One of these Gestapo documents, translated by the CIA, was a memorandum from 1937 stating that while living in Copenhagen, Joesten published an article in a French newspaper warning of Germany's military threat to Denmark. So Joesten's life work included opposing Hitler, and in Reclaiming History, Vincent Bugliosi relies on documents prepared by Hitler's Nazi regime to pass judgment on his political reliability. This, I think, is just a tad questionable.

But, one must assume that Vince Bugliosi is honest, and Reclaiming History represents his true feelings on the Kennedy assassination. His motives, surely, are pure as the driven snow.

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