Thursday, 22 December 2011

Vincent Bugliosi, "Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy" (2007)

I worked on Bugliosi's epic (more than 1,500 pages, as well as a full CD of notes and sources) on and off from 2008 through to the end of 2011 (more off than on, I'll admit). It is compelling, if at times annoying, reading. It is to be expected that anyone who treads into such a storied and controversial subject will anger many, and 'speak truth' to others. Bugliosi gives short shrift to the abundant conspiracy theorists. He denies, flat out and without any apology, the prospect of any conspiracy being involved in JFK's death. He attacks, sometimes in quite vitriolic terms, the arguments and even sometimes the reputations of many conspiracy theorists.

Bugliosi has an impressive history as an American prosecutor. He successfully tried, for instance, Charles Manson. In the 1980s, he was hired by a British media firm to engage in a mock trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. The budget for the project was fairly large, and resulted in something close to 15 hours of television. Bugliosi's preparation for the case likely forms the foundation for this book.

Part of what makes Reclaiming History so compelling is simply the weight... or should I say, the volume... of the text itself. It's hard to argue with a book that offers such a comprehensive, overwhelming amount of text, and that appears to be based on an exhaustive search of primary and secondary documents related to the case. Bugliosi also, like a good prosecutor would, not only provides an overview of what he understands the events related to the case to be, but devotes chapters to demolishing a multitude of positions related to conspiracy proposals, including questions regarding Oswald's ownership of the gun used for the assassination, sightings of other shooters, irregularities of the autopsy, etc. For this, the book's encyclopedic coverage is tremendously useful.

Bugliosi's writing style is - to be kind - indulgent. The text often wades into annoying rhetorical questions, petty name-calling, and unnecessary speculation about other authors' motivations. The worst chapter for such indulgence is the second-last, which explores Oliver Stone's film, JFK, in depth. With much of the rhetoric and excess excised (something a good editor could and should have done, if they could have gotten through the whole of the text in less than a year) the book would have run to perhaps a far more manageable 1,000 pages.

The length of the text is its central shortcoming for casual readers. The book is not for the faint of heart, nor for the weak of arm. For those with a deep interest in the Kennedy assassination, you will get what you most need in the first ten chapters or so. Some may also find it useful to read the chapter devoted to the film JFK.

Bryan Burrough wrote a very good review of Reclaiming History for the 20 May 2007 New York Times:

You can watch or read the transcript of a 2007 talk by Bugliosi on the book:

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