The case for conspiracies

GovernmentNational GovernmentJohn F. KennedyArlen SpecterRichard NixonFord Motor Co.

Since the May release of his 1,612-page book, "Reclaiming History," criminal prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi has been appearing on everything from C-Span to "The Colbert Report" telling the world that JFK's death had nothing to do with a government conspiracy. By most accounts, he's made a pretty airtight case.

Bugliosi, famous for prosecuting Charles Manson and for coauthoring the book about the case, "Helter Skelter," has spent 20 years examining just about every theory ever put forth about the assassination. "It's my view that it's impossible for any reasonable, rational person to read this book without being satisfied beyond all reasonable doubt that Oswald killed Kennedy and acted alone," Bugliosi told the New York Times in May. Since then, overwhelmingly favorable reviews have suggested that the days of the grassy knoll-Mafia-missing bullets conspiracy theories might at last be over.

Despite the sense that Bugliosi's is the final word, for some people the simple explanation remains less compelling than the labyrinthine alternatives. It was notable that Tuesday, the print edition of the New York Times published a two-page ad, an "open letter" from one Paul Kuntzler, declaring that "President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was murdered by vice president London [sic] Baines Johnson in a widespread, incredibly complex and brilliantly planned conspiracy. . . ." The letter went on to implicate Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Arlen Specter, the United States military, the Ford Motor Co., Life magazine and something Kuntzler called "big Oil of Midland, Texas," among many others.

Who is Kuntzler? Since he included his telephone number at the bottom of his letter, I called him to find out. As you might imagine, I learned more than can possibly fit in this space, but the basics are these: He's 65, a former exhibits and sales director of the National Science Teachers Assn. and once a prominent D.C.-based gay activist. He first became interested in the JFK assassination in 1991 after reading Jim Marrs' book, "Crossfire: The Plot that Killed Kennedy" (this was also, incidentally, the year of Oliver Stone's film "JFK," which Kuntzler calls "98% accurate").

In 2004, Kuntzler's longtime partner, Stephen Miller, died of complications from AIDS and left him Miller Reporting Co., which had transcribed documents that Kuntzler believes are relevant to the assassination. Following the company's demise (Kuntzler referred to "millions in estate taxes"), he sold the building that housed it, using the money to pay off his credit card debts (including $25,000 he spent organizing an assassination panel discussion last year) and spent $186,000 on the New York Times ad. Altogether, Kuntzler estimates he's spent a quarter of a million dollars on what he calls "the last opportunity for the American public to have confirmation on what happened on Nov. 22, 1963."

"I don't have much money left," he added. "I expect that once the truth comes out, I'll go on a speaking tour. If not, I'll have to take out another mortgage on my house."

After I talked to Kuntzler, I called Bugliosi, who listed for me many of the same points he made on C-SPAN and "The Colbert Report," including his belief that the Stone film is "one continuous lie, [other than] he did have the correct date and the correct victim."

"I didn't read [Kuntzler's letter] carefully," Bugliosi told me. "But I went through it enough to see that he was regurgitating all the old hoary theories that even those in the mainstream community have rejected. He's not even reading mainstream conspiracy dogma."

We then spent some time talking about why, despite the conventional wisdom that the simplest explanation is usually the best explanation, the human mind seems so naturally drawn to the complexities and innuendoes of conspiracy theories. Bugliosi admitted that they are usually more interesting than the truth. In the case of President Kennedy, he said, they point to a kind of collective inability to accept that such a monumental, historical event could be caused by a single, ordinary person.

"It gives more meaning to his life and death," Bugliosi said, "to believe dark forces are responsible for his death. Jackie herself said we don't even have the satisfaction of him being killed for a cause."

That makes sense. But speaking of simple explanations, what about the fact that every once in a while a conspiracy theory comes along that has some truth to it? Take, for example, this particular moment in this particular nation. You don't have to believe in fake moon landings or even stolen elections to sense that we're experiencing one of the most secretive periods in recent political history. When it comes to the current state of things, smelling a rat isn't necessarily contingent on living in your mother's basement and wearing T-shirts that say things like "Inside Job!" It's simply a matter of paying attention.

Then again, there's such a thing as paying too much attention. "If you're a parent and your child gets interested in the JFK case, it's toxic," Bugliosi told me. "It's caused divorces, bankruptcies and suicides."

"My mother and my sisters received copies of the ad via FedEx," Kuntzler told me. "They knew how much I was spending. Well, actually, I haven't told my mother yet."

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

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