Trial is reconstruction of the past by means of the most reliable evidence and most compelling narrative tools available. But we never really know the past. Any trial lawyer will tell you that the proof of a fact is a thing of considerable difficulty. In that regard, trial work and historiography have a lot in common.
Two of the best pieces of historiography I've read in the past couple of years are the first volume of Quentin Skinner's Visions of Politics and the first volume of John P. Meier's biography of Jesus, A Marginal Jew. Both scholars address boldly the central problem in historical scholarship: What can be known about the past, and with how much confidence? Either volume can be read with profit and pleasure by anyone who makes a living trying to reconstruct the past for consideration by others.
The answer, of course, is not all that much can ever really be known. Of Jesus, we know next to nothing, if one were to apply the canons of evidence applicable in a courtroom. We have no contemporaneous evidence. The gospels were written decades after the crucifixion, and each has a narrative focus designed to give meaning to a life and events which were, at the time, matters hardly noticed in the larger world. Similarly, our knowledge of Renaissance Florence is also a matter of reconstruction; although there is more evidence of the era and its leading figures, matters of interpretation predominate.
Both Skinner's and Meier's works challenge me as a trial lawyer. Context is key. The assumptions we bring to the interpretation of the event limit what we see and how we see it. There is no escape from the web of interpretation. To recast the content of a mind in terms comprehensible to those not present when intention and action coalesced is not simple. Trial lawyering is really master storytelling, hence the success and appeal of a figure like Gerry Spence: Warts and all, the man is still a master at telling tales.
I was tossing and turning one night not long ago trying to put into focus hard truths about history, trial and narrative structure. I wanted a case study near at hand and broadly considered to see what I could learn from the works of others. What event in recent history has stirred passionate disagreement and interpretive chagrin? It struck me at once: The assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Assassination of a political figure is never merely murder. The meaning attributed to the death-dealing blow is wrought with political significance. For every man pulling a fatal trigger there are a thousand men who wish they had been the assassin, and many more who applaud the consequences while appalling the deed.
So I rented Oliver Stone's JFK. I ridicule Stone, and often, using his name as a synonym for the sort of hyperactive imagination that knits fascinating narratives out of the isolated detritus of history. Yet I find his work compelling. If only there really were forces of good and evil at contest in the world. A Manichean universe yields simple narrative possibilities; it gives meaning to random events. The compulsion to find meaning in a silent universe is something I cannot shake. Would that there were a God to beseech in the starry silent night.
I have no difficulty believing that JFK was killed as part of a conspiracy. I have no trouble believing that the military-industrial complex wanted him dead. Stone tells a persuasive tale. But forever the contrarian, I then jumped immediately into the hands of Vincent Bugliosi, who champions the lone assassin theory. His work, too, is persuasive. Contrasting the various theories of who killed Kennedy and why becomes a task of political interpretation: what am I prepared to commit to and why?
In college I once tried to read all 26 volumes of the Warren Commission Report on the Kennedy assassination. I made it into the second volume, and lacked the discipline or skill to see the project through. Lee Harvey Oswald's dental records as an exhibit? I am tempted now to give it another go. But first, I want a better sense of the range of debate about theories of who sponsored the assassination and why. So I've been ordering material to lay in for a long bout of reading on this near bit of history.
I am all ears just now. Anyone have any recommendations on what they have read or seen? I will add them to the list. I recall the day JFK was shot, and all I truly know is that on that day the world seemed to stand still if only for a moment. Why he was shot fascinates me as much as why an itinerant Jewish preacher became one of the most compelling figures in world history. Trying to discover the truth about either Kennedy or Christ has the collateral benefit of making me a better historian in the courtroom.