Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

May 20, 2007

The New Assassination Books (2):Trying to Prove Too Much

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 7:16 am

The problem with Vincent Bugliosi’s anti-conspiracy theory book, Reclaiming History–despite its many virtues is that it appears he’s allowed the conspiracy theorists to drive him crazy.

The problem manifests itself in Bugliosi’s conflation of two cases. There is the case that Oswald fired the only shots that day, a case which I believe Bugliosi has massively established. But then he tries to establish the case that, in addition to shooting alone, Oswald acted alone.

There’s a difference. Oswald could have been the lone gunman but not the lone conspirator. Establishing that Oswald had no confederates, no cohorts, no infliuences–essentially no motive but a pure personal psychological one unrelated to politics, for instance–is far more difficult and it is in this portion of the book–where Buglioisi attempts to demolish the idea that Oswald might have had any motive for killing Kennedy that might have involved others that Bugliosi overreaches, flails and stumbles.

Oswald may have fired his shots alone, but who pulled the trigger in his head? Bugliosi doesn’t persuasively rule out the possibility that others may have been i involved in egging him on or paying him off. He does not persuasively paint a portrait of what did motivate Oswald if it was purely personal. Bugliosi mistakenly is determined to destroy every motive sugggested, because he fears any one of them could open the door to a “conspiracy theory”.

Consider the way he attempts to argue away any organized crime theory of the assassination. the way he substitutes hectoring lawyerly argumentation for evidence.

The organized crime theory has always had the most plausibility of any of the conspiracy theories to me. The Kennedy brothers crusade against the mob dated back to the mid fifties when JFK was Senator and RFK was gung ho counsel to the Senate Rackets Committee attack on mob influence on organized labor. They made jimmy Hoffa into a national villain and symbol of mafia corruption.

When they resumed the crusade when JFK became president and RFK attorney general they made targets of some of the most vicious murderous figures in America, Jimmy Hoffa, Carlos Marcello, Santos Trafficante–and, thus, themselves. Various mobsters were heard by associates and on tape talking about killing one or both Kennedys. They had personal grudges.

The highly respected chief counsel of the House Select committee on Assassinations which re investigated the Kennedy murders in the late 70s, G. Robert Blakey lays out the mob hit case in The Plot to Kill the President which was published by New York Times Books in 1981,. It is a sober prosecutor’s brief. Nearly two decades later an ex mob lawyer Frank Ragano wrote a book in which he claims he was present when new Orleans mafia head Carlos Marcello and Miami crime boss Santos Trafficante agreed to kill JFK on behalf of Jimmy Hoffa. Wild as this story sounds, it was thoroughly checked out and believed by two respected investigative reporters I know, the late Jack Newfield and Nick Pileggi, and Pileggi told me recently he still believes there’s merit to it. Bugliosi attempts to poke holes in the story but doesn’t entirely demolish it.

The only problem in the mob case to my mind is the weakness of the link between Oswald and the mob. (Yes Jack Ruby had mob connections, but, as Buglioisi demonstrates not as close as conventional wisdom has it). There is some slender evidence linking an uncle of Oswald to an associate of New Orleans crime boss Carlos Marcello. But Bugliosi argues that the mob wouldn’t have been foolish enough to hire a flake like Oswald to carry out a task of such utmost gravity. On the one hand he says they’d use one of their own because of of training and experience, on the other hand he says they’d never use oneo fo their own becuase it might be traced back to him.

Maybe yes, maybe no. The leaders of the mob were not rocket scientists. Bugliosi argues that the mob made it an established practice never to kill cops or public officials for fear of a backlash. maybe yes, maybe no. There wa no precedent for anything like the Kennedy hit. On the other hand there was no precedent for anything like the Kennedy attack on the mob. And in matters of precedent there’s always a first time. And using a flake like Oswald who might not be identified as a mob associate, a flake who had his own Cuba related reasons to do the job might have made Oswald a smart chocie.

One thing you can’t argue with: if th emob did it, howeer ilogical and unprecedented and poorly thought out, they got away with it, so post-hoc arguments about how theywouldn’t do it because it would backfire and they wouldn’t get away with it are null and void.

Here’s an example of the kid of argumentation Bugliosi employs to deny a mob hit possibility;

“Would [the Mob] hire someone who is an expert gunman with a track record of successful murders, a reliable professional hit man with a proven history of being close mouthed. Or would they get a nut to do it, increasing the likelihood the nut would simply pint the finger at them, and their only defense would be that they could say to the authorites, ‘Why would I get a nut to do something like this.?'”

But this is exactly the argument–the mob wouldn’t have used a nut like Oswald, so the mob couldn’t have done it–that Bugliosi buys intoto get the mob off the hook, so maybe a mob choice of Oswald is not so stupid as he posits.

Nor is his argument that the mob wouldn’t have dared kill JFK because RFK would go after them like a mad dog convincing. Because, in fact after killing of JFK, Bobby Kennedy soon resigned as Attorney General and Justice Department prosecutions of mob figures dropped off dramatically. Just the opposite of what Bugliosi contends the mob was thinking in abstaining from killing JFK. If it was a mob hit to relieve unrelenting Kennedy assault on them, it worked.
He gets all twisted up trying to read the mind of the mob to find reasons why they wouldn’t do it, but this is not evidence–it’s amateur psychologizing.

He even says that if the mob wanted to get Kennedy they would have used sexual scandal blackmail rather than murder. And to bolster this he even buys into JFK’s reputed remark that if he didn’t have sex constantly he got severe headaches. Isn’t that true of everyone? (Kidding).

By the end of the chapter his desperation and illogic is evident. This is what he calls an argument:

Quite apart from the absence of any evidence as well as the illogic, that organized crime killed Kennedy we know that this theory by conspiracy theorist is absolutely negated by many other theories they cherish…” Then he goes into a litany of all the conspriacy and cover up theories that he’s largely disproved.

But this is so transparently a flawed logical gambit: just because mob theory contradicts other demonstrably false conspiracy theories it must be false as well, merely because it involves a conspiracy? No. if mob theory turns out to be true it’s irrelevant that the other conspikracy theories are false. Their truth or falsity has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of mob conspiracy theory.

This seems so obvious that you wonder why someone as intelligent and scrupulous-at least in the majority of the book, devoted to proving Oswald was the lone gunman could advance it with a straight face.

My theory of Bugliosi’s theory of theories: conspiracy theory drivel that passes for evidence in most conspiracy theory books has made it impossibile for him to consider objectively the notion that oswald fired alone but wasn’t a “lone nut” but rather a politically motivated, or pay-off motivated hitman.

Bugliosi has done a great service with he first two thirds of his book (O. fired the only shots). He has not convincingly proved a negative; that Oswald had no allies or confederates. What went on in Oswald’s head is still an unsolved mystery.



  1. Dan Moldea’s 1997 book on the assassination of Bobby Kennedy (which posits a mob hit) has a glowing blurb from Bugliosi. Has he changed his mind on RFK’s killing?


    Comment by I.K. Blandings — May 22, 2007 @ 4:44 pm | Reply

  2. I’ve been a huge fan of your work since the happy day I stumbled across Travels with Dr. Death. I really enjoy your blog (and let me give you a belated thanks for introducing me to the work of Charles Portis!)

    I think you’re a bit off base on your critique of Bugliosi- but what surprises me most is that the guy must have REALLY annoyed the hell out of you. This entry is crammed full of typos and that’s really unlike you…

    Comment by Kevin — May 22, 2007 @ 4:46 pm | Reply

  3. Dear Ron: Thanks so much for blogging the book. My wallet and my arm cannot afford it! Regarding “Or would they get a nut to do it, increasing the likelihood the nut would simply point the finger at them, and their only defense would be that they could say to the authorites, ‘Why would I get a nut to do something like this.?’””,
    if the mob was planning to have Ruby kill the killer all along, then the choice of assassin would not be so important. Well, at least not to the mob…

    Comment by Jude — May 22, 2007 @ 6:39 pm | Reply

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