Bugliosi vs. "Brothers"

The attorney's massive new tome gets Bobby Kennedy wrong.

Published May 18, 2007 12:15AM (EDT)

Since Los Angeles celebrity attorney Vincent Bugliosi's book on the JFK assassination was published on the heels of mine, the two books are naturally being pitted against each other in the media. There will be cheek-by-cheek reviews of the two books in this Sunday's New York Times. I haven't had the chance to read much of Bugliosi's book, "Reclaiming History," which -- following in the footsteps of Gerald Posner's bestseller, "Case Closed" -- attempts to debunk for all time conspiratorial views of Dallas. Frankly, the book, which weighs in at over 2,700 pages, including end notes, presents a formidable challenge. It's Posner on steroids. Simply picking up the book risks physical injury. Perhaps Bugliosi is bypassing the general public and hoping to impress -- or intimidate -- critics and opinion-makers, who, wilting under the weight of the task and their looming deadlines, will simply conclude he must be right and call it a day.

I do plan to read the book in its entirety (although it might have to wait until I do a long prison stretch). In the meantime, I felt it my duty to at least read Bugliosi's introduction and sections of the book related to Robert Kennedy's views of the assassination, since that is central to my own book. What I read did not inspire confidence. "Reclaiming History" is clearly the result of exhaustive labors. But Bugliosi is a courtroom lawyer, not a historian or investigative journalist. He is clearly more interested in arguing his case than in sorting with an open mind through the piles of evidence that have been amassed over the years. His tone is hectoring and tendentious. Conspiracy theorists are "kooks" and "hucksters" who "knowingly mislead" the public. His claims for himself are filled with courtroom bombast: "My only master and my only mistress are the facts and objectivity." Trying to claim the anti-conspiracy corner as his own, he attempts to muscle Posner off his turf, attacking his fellow conspiracy critic for his distortions and omissions. But Bugliosi is equally guilty of cooking the facts to make his case.

Let's look at his passages on Robert Kennedy, which underscore the superficiality of Bugliosi's approach. The attorney uses RFK's public support for the Warren Report to bolster his case for the widely discredited blue-ribbon investigation. "Perhaps one thing speaks louder than any words, however, with respect to RFK's feelings," Bugliosi writes. "During the entire Warren Commission period, he was the nation's attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer in the land with jurisdiction over the FBI, the main investigative arm for the Commission. If at any time he had sensed that the Warren Commission and the FBI weren't doing enough or the right things, wouldn't he have automatically put pressure on them to do so? But he never did." The ignorance and naivete on display in this statement are stunning. Bugliosi apparently spent more than 20 years looking into the case, but he has no understanding of RFK's true feelings about the Warren Commission probe or Bobby's poisoned relationship with the FBI. Bobby's power to "pressure" the FBI -- under the control of his hated enemy J. Edgar Hoover -- evaporated the minute his brother died in Dallas. RFK immediately concluded, on the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, that any real investigation into the terrible crime would have to wait until his family again had the power of the presidency.

Despite Robert Kennedy's routine statements of support for the Warren Commission in public, in private he dismissed the investigation as a public relations exercise. This has been known for years, reported in the major biographies of Bobby Kennedy, including those by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Evan Thomas. And, indeed, any conversations with still-living Kennedy intimates like Dick Goodwin and Frank Mankiewicz (whom Bugliosi interviewed) quickly give a researcher a clear picture of Bobby's grave doubts about the official version of his brother's death.

Bugliosi acknowledges that Bobby did suspect a conspiracy immediately after the assassination. But "after the coffee cooled" and the FBI and Warren Commission had completed their "distinguished" work, according to Bugliosi, RFK was reassured, serenely accepting the fact that lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald had killed his brother. Again, the skin-deep nature of Bugliosi's research is striking. The reality, as my book documents, is that Bobby Kennedy spent the rest of his life exploring leads on his brother's murder -- sometimes tracking down information himself, as far away as Mexico City, and sometimes dispatching trusted surrogates like former FBI agent Walter Sheridan. He was determined to reopen the case if he became president, as he told those close to him.

Bugliosi seems generally aware of some of this information about Bobby, but he spins it or minimizes it. This is not history, it's courtroom trickery. The attorney belabors his argument for more than 2,500 pages. But, if his insights into Robert Kennedy and the Warren Report are representative of his book, he still can't close the case.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

MORE FROM David Talbot

Related Topics ------------------------------------------