Sunday, August 12, 2007


To understand how completely comprehensive, thorough and exhausting Reclaiming History -- Vincent Bugliosi's book on the Kennedy assassination -- ultimately is, one need only to reflect upon the fact that Bugliosi, the famed Los Angeles prosecutor and the man who put Charles Manson away forever, over forty years after the president's killing, phoned one of Lee Harvey Oswald's co-workers at the Texas School Book Depository to ascertain whether or not there was a soft drink machine on the first floor lunchroom of the Depository building, and whether that particular soda machine was, in fact, a Dr.Pepper one.

Oswald told police that he was having lunch in the first floor lunchroom at the time of Kennedy's killing, and had gone up to the second floor to get a Coke from the Coca-Cola machine located there. This was where he was spotted by a policeman and Oswald's boss, Mr.Truly, only ninety seconds after the killing. Conspiracy theorists have long maintained that Oswald couldn't have possibly raced down from his supposed sniper's spot on the sixth floor and reached the second floor in time. Besides, he was there to buy a Coke, just like he said. Was even holding it in his hands.

But Bugliosi noticed that throughout the testimonies contained in the Warren Commission's mammoth report there remained a consistent, though seemingly insignificant thread: Oswald liked to drink Dr.Pepper. His wife, his temporary housemates, his co-workers -- many of them, at some point in their testimony, in passing, would mention how Oswald would be drinking a Dr.Pepper, or had gone out for a Dr.Pepper, or whatever. Not to highlight the fact -- only as part of a larger point.

This triggered something in Bugliosi's mind.

So he contacted Gary Mack, who runs the Assassination Museum now located on the sixth floor of the former Texas School Book Depository. Bugliosi asked: Was there a soda machine on the first floor, where Oswald said he was having lunch, in November of 1963? Mack said that he didn't think so. Bugliosi, undaunted, telephoned one of Oswald's old co-workers -- a young man then, an old man now -- who said that there sure was a soda machine in that lunchroom. And what kind was it? Bugliosi wondered. It was a Dr.Pepper machine, the co-worker answered.


If Oswald was in the first-floor lunchroom having lunch (though nobody credible recalled him eating there at that time), and if there was a Dr.Pepper machine in that same room, and if Dr.Pepper was his favorite drink, as had been readily established through various witness accounts, why would Oswald then walk up to the second floor to buy a Coke, when Dr.Pepper, his favorite soda, was only a few feet away from where he said he was on the first floor? Was that likely? Possible, yes, but given what we know about Oswald, and his consistent drinking habits, was it likely? It's more likely, then, that Oswald raced down the stairs and stopped at the second floor lunchroom when he heard the policeman and his boss heading up from the first floor.

Reclaiming History is built up upon a thousand and one details like that, and for the interested reader, the one who makes it all the way through its 1,500 pages of small print, any sane person can only come to one conclusion: Oswald killed Kennedy. Alone. End of story.

As a long-time conspiracy buff, I'm more than a little, well, saddened to come to that conclusion, odd as it sounds. Bulgliosi's case is so solid, his reasoning so sound, his evidence so overwhelming, that a reasonable, rational person can only conclude, after reading this valuable tome, that Oswald did it. Fired the shots. Killed the dream. Changed the world.

"Yes, but what about --"

That's what everyone always says, (and what I always say, too) and, believe me, you can insert any aspect of the case into this equation, and rest assured that Bugliosi has the answer.

"Yes, but what about the mob?the Russians? the C.I.A.?Castro? Jack Ruby?Jimmy Hoffa?the Second Oswalds?the F.B.I.?the military-industrial-complex?the K.G.B.?the magic-bullet?the bungled autopsy?"

Bugliosi goes into it all. At length. Exhaustively, almost ridiculously.

The first part of the book takes us through those four horrible days in Dallas, from Kennedy's killing to Oswald's execution by Jack Ruby; the second part focuses on the physical evidence against Oswald; the third part is a lengthy biography of Oswald; the fourth is an intensive examination of every major conspiracy theory -- and even many minor, not to mention loony ones.

What tipped the scales for me is the evidence against Oswald, which Bugliosi assembles with the meticulous, careful craft emblematic of the masterful prosecutor that he is. I'd long believed that Oswald played a part, but that he was the victim of larger forces, that he was in concert with others more able and capable than himself: the C.I.A., perhaps; the mob, more likely.

But when we examine Oswald's actions in the weeks and months leading up to the assassination, when we truly examine what an odd, disturbed individual he most certainly was, we realize that he would be nobody's idea of a 'patsy'. He could barely hold down a minimum wage job. He was a bright young man who became enamored of an alternative way of life early one. He was, in essence, a loser who could do nothing right.

The biography section of the book is brilliant in its own right, especially its damning conclusion: Oswald fits the profile of a presidential assassin to a tee. This misguided, Marxist sympathizer was not an identity created by the Warren Commission -- it's who he was, who he had been, who he longed to be, as evidenced by his friends and families and employers. We come to understand Oswald. (A little. He is certainly one of American history's most oddball characters. And so young, too! Only twenty-four at the time of his death.)

And Ruby. Jack Ruby, Oswald's own assassin. Another mentally unstable character, one who, in essence, was in the right place at the right time to fire the shots that he did. It's really that simple.

"Yes, but..."

This is the essence, the mantra, the lifeblood of the conspiracy arguments, but Bugliosi goes into all aspects of the case, ad infinitum. No stone is left unturned. No trail is left unexplored. He even admits some troubling loopholes in the case, and examines where they lead, or don't lead, and why.

And what I asked myself while reading this absorbing work was: If I was on a jury, and the evidence against Oswald was presented to me, would I, in good conscience, beyond a reasonable doubt, be able to convict him?

The answer is unquestionably yes.

And that's what Bugliosi does best: He presents the evidence. He says, in essence: "Look. Here's the case against this guy. It's so solid that the case was essentially solved within five hours by the Dallas police on November 22, 1963, but the past thirty, forty years have muddied the waters so much that we can't see clearly or think clearly anymore. But look at the evidence against Oswald. It's unquestionable. And look at the evidence FOR conspiracy: there isn't any. There, is, NOTHING. There are possibilities, probabilities, grudges, vendettas, but where is the evidence? It's not there. Where's the evidence against Oswald? It's EVERYWHERE."

And that's that.

A truly remarkable work of detection and investigation, this book is, a compilation of everything that's intrigued me about this case for the past fifteen years. (It even features a brief interview Bugliosi has with Oswald's Russian widow, Marina, still living in Dallas, who now believes that her husband was part of a conspiracy.)

In essence, it's a book about logic, and rationality, and common-sense. Let's look at what's before us, Bugliosi is saying. Not what we hear, or feel, or believe, but what's right here, before our eyes. Directly in front of us. Which is more believable: what we see or what we feel? Let's put aside our own pet-theories, and let's look at this case as a criminal case, and then let's see what we find.

What we find is Oswald, and Oswald alone, the sad, dark heart of this American mystery.

And, just to make sure, we'll double-check about that Dr.Pepper machine.