Why is it that millions who were not even alive on November 22, 1963, are still fascinated by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy? And why do so many—a staggering 75% in a recent poll conducted by accomplished pollsters Peter Hart and Geoffrey Garin—question the findings of the Warren Commission that the killing was the work of one lone nut, Lee Harvey Oswald? As the 50th anniversary of his murder in Dallas’s Dealey Plaza nears, readers interested both in Kennedy’s life and the circumstances of his death have a lot of new options, ranging from widely differing assessments of his record in the Oval Office to a panoply of conspiracy theories.
It seems obvious that his death would have had less of an impact if Kennedy had been less admired during his lifetime, and had not been the bearer of the hopes of a generation for a better future. And that admiration continues a half-century later, with surveys ranking him the most highly rated president of the last 50 years. How come? Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, sums up the phenomenon as follows in The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy (Bloomsbury, Nov.): “The American people’s idealization of John Kennedy, their determination to overlook his obvious flaws, and successive presidents’ use of the Kennedy record for their own ends have been the sparks that have repeatedly reignited JFK’s influence.” Sabato was amazed to conclude from his research “just how much Kennedy had been cited by Republican and Democratic presidents alike. In fact, other than Lyndon Johnson, the most skillful use of Kennedy was made by Ronald Reagan, in pursuit of his tax cuts and anti-Communist policies.”
Reagan’s utilization of J.F.K. as a political tool would come as no surprise to readers of JFK, Conservative (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Oct.) from Ira Stoll, the former editor of the New York Sun and the Forward. The book launches a full-bore assault on the popular prevailing view of Kennedy as a liberal: “JFK’s tax cuts, his domestic spending restraint, his military buildup, his pro-growth economic policy, his emphasis on free trade and a strong dollar, and his foreign policy driven by the idea that America had a God-given mission to defend freedom all make him, by the standards of both his time and our own, a conservative.” For Stoll, we continue to be interested in Kennedy “for some of the same reasons we are fascinated by Lincoln, and by the Founding Fathers. He understood the American idea that rights come from God and not from the state, and he articulated it in a way that inspired people at the time and that continues to inspire a lot of people.”
For those who consider J.F.K.’s ranking as one of our top presidents the result of valuing style over substance, U.N. Special Advisor Jeffrey Sachs focuses attention on what he believes was the president’s greatest achievement. In To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace (Random, June), Sachs studies in detail Kennedy’s leadership in the aftermath of the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. “Through an astounding combination of soaring vision, stunning eloquence, and masterful political tactics, Kennedy forged the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with his Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev, and moved it through Senate ratification,” Sachs writes. “Kennedy’s leadership not only helped save the world, but also provided enduring lessons on the arts of world leadership.” That accomplishment could offer hope for today’s seemingly intractable foreign policy challenges. Sachs notes that in early June 1963, “peace with the Soviet Union seemed just as unlikely as U.S.-Iranian rapprochement or Israeli-Palestinian peace does today.”
Historian Thurston Clarke, author of The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America (Holt), offers another positive take on the Kennedy presidency in JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President (Penguin, Aug.). While Clarke does not consider his subject to have been a great president, he does think that J.F.K. “gave every indication that he was becoming one.” Clarke writes, “His civil rights and American University speeches, given on successive days in June, addressed the two greatest threats to the United States: nuclear war and racial inequality and conflict.” For Clarke, “what Kennedy intended to do” was clear. That to-do list was boggling in its ambition: improved relations with the Soviet Union, a comprehensive test ban treaty, a joint U.S.-Soviet Moon mission (proposed just two months before his death), diplomacy intended to improve relations with Cuba and China, a poverty program, and civil rights legislation. But Clarke notes that over his entire career, J.F.K. “succeeded at what he intended to do,” and thus believes that much of that ambitious agenda would have been realized. Along with other historians, he is “convinced that JFK would never have sent combat units to Vietnam, as Johnson did. He resisted doing this throughout his presidency despite recommendations from Maxwell, McNamara, Bundy and others.” From this perspective, the fatal gunfire in Dallas may very well have led to the escalation of the Vietnam War, with its horrific butcher’s bill and its blows to the psyches of both the right and the left.
Kennedy (and L.B.J.) biographer Robert Dallek offers a new look at the deliberations of the best and the brightest in Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House (Harper, Oct.), which offers a more skeptical take on what Kennedy’s next steps as president would have been. J.F.K.’s road to the White House gets a fresh assessment in John T. Shaw’s JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency (Palgrave Macmillan, Oct.); it includes details on an obscure, but to Shaw significant, chapter in Kennedy’s senatorial career—his work on a committee to name the country’s five greatest senators. And the paper of record’s reporting about J.F.K. is reproduced in The Kennedy Years: From the Pages of The New York Times, edited by Richard Reeves (Abrams, Oct.), featuring selected articles preceded by intelligent essays putting them in context.
A more down-to-earth view of Kennedy the man is afforded by The Letters of John F. Kennedy, edited by Martin W. Sandler (Bloomsbury, Nov.), the first collection of correspondence to and from J.F.K., starting with a letter from the 12-year-old Boy Scout pleading with his father, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., for an increase in his allowance from 40¢. Barely a decade later, the younger Kennedy was giving his father political advice. Sandler was surprised to find how many letters and telegrams Kennedy and Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev exchanged. His study of them revealed that “it was Khrushchev, not Kennedy, who wrote that the magnitude of the holocaust that would follow if the two leaders could not lead the world back from the brink of war would be such that ‘the living would envy the dead.’ ” For Sandler, the letters are an underrated historical source, and more than just further evidence of the legendary J.F.K. wit, charm, sense of humor, and command of the language.
On the speculative side, there’s Jeff Greenfield’s If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy: An Alternate History (Putnam, Oct.). Greenfield addresses such topics as how Kennedy would have approached Vietnam, civil rights, and the Cold War in a hypothetical second term.
For British investigative journalist Anthony Summers, the preoccupation with the president’s murder is due to its perception “as having been a dark pivotal moment after which Americans’ trust in government withered, when certainties were replaced by doubts.” Summers is one of the most respected authors asking whether the Warren Commission got things right, and October brings a thoroughly revised edition of his Not in Your Lifetime: the Defining Book on the JFK Assassination: Fifty Years On, Weighing the Evidence (Open Road), which incorporates thousands of relevant documents released in the past few decades, “some of which dispose of red herrings that once seemed important, some of which supply fresh facts and insights.”
Other credible revelations, conveyed in a similarly balanced approach, are expected in an embargoed and as-yet-untitled book that explores the Warren Commission’s work by Philip Shenon, a former New York Times reporter and author of an eye-opening behind-the-scenes look at the 9/11 Commission, to be released in October by Holt. According to Holt president and publisher Stephen Rubin, Shenon’s work “will rewrite much of the history of both the Kennedy assassination and the most controversial murder investigation of the twentieth century. No one who picks up Philip Shenon’s astonishing book will ever view the Kennedy assassination or the Warren Commission in the same way.”
Has Shenon found proof of a plot, or just a cover-up aimed at hiding the government’s dirty secrets (elaborate schemes to murder Fidel Castro, for example) and its failure to keep closer tabs on Oswald, who was known to the local FBI office? Holt isn’t saying for now. But plenty of other writers are using the 50th anniversary to offer new variations on the conspiracy theme.
Clarke’s book is evidence that historical researchers not focused on the assassination can still uncover facts that some will find relevant to the murder. Clarke had always been skeptical that just three days before the fatal trip to Dallas, Kennedy told his personal secretary Evelyn Lincoln that he did not plan on keeping L.B.J. as his running mate in 1964. But his research uncovered Lincoln’s shorthand notes of that conversation. In the light of that corroboration and the revelations in two other recent books, Ted Sorensen’s Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (Harper) and Caroline Kennedy and Michael Beschloss’s Jacqueline Kennedy: Historic Conversations on Life with John F. Kennedy (Hyperion), which suggest that Kennedy had doubts in Johnson’s ability to succeed him, Clarke is convinced that Kennedy meant what he said.
Could that view of his v-p have played a role in what happened in Dallas, providing a motive for the man who did succeed Kennedy in office? While Johnson has been fingered before as the man who orchestrated the assassination, the theory gets new life in Roger Stone’s The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ (Skyhorse, Nov.). Stone assumes the reader agrees that the existence of a murderous conspiracy “has been fairly well established.” He points the finger at many of the usual suspects: “the Mob, the CIA, Cuban exiles,” throwing in “the Secret Service and the vice president’s staff” for good measure. But “the moving force and linchpin” was Lyndon Johnson, who used his total control of the Dallas police and sheriff to make sure that the plot unfolded as planned. Stone’s evidence includes the sensational claim that a “fingerprint found on a box in the so-called sniper’s nest in the Texas School Book Depository” was a match for Mac Wallace, labeled by some as L.B.J.’s hit man. A PW review of a similarly themed book, Barr McClellan’s Blood, Money, & Power: How LBJ Killed JFK, reprinted in 2011 by Skyhorse, found the theory “overwrought,” and the partial fingerprint evidence inconclusive at best.
But if you don’t buy L.B.J. as the evil mastermind, Skyhorse has still got you covered—between new books like Stone’s and reprints of conspiracy classics such as Sylvia Meagher’s well-respected Accessories After the Fact and Gaeton Fonzi’s The Last Investigation: A Former Federal Investigator Reveals the Plot to Kill JFK, the publisher has about two dozen titles due out this year on the killing, including a second L.B.J.-did-it, by Philip F. Nelson: LBJ: Mastermind of the Kennedy Assassination (July).
Skyhorse’s voluminous roster of relevant titles include They Killed Our President: 63 Facts That Prove a Conspiracy to Kill JFK by Jesse Ventura, with Dick Russell and David Wayne (Oct.), which also defiantly rejects Occam’s razor and takes the kitchen-sink approach in its theorizing, adding the military-industrial complex and “Texas Oil” to Stone’s cast of plotters. The title of The Poison Patriarch: How the Betrayals of Joseph P. Kennedy Caused the Assassination of JFK, by Mark Shaw (Oct.), pretty much says it all. Shaw believes that the president’s father’s relationship with organized crime, and his push for Robert Kennedy to serve his brother as Attorney General, led him to reap “what he had sown in a scenario tantamount to a Greek tragedy with a complex moral structure where abuse of power and broken promises pervaded at every turn, culminating in betrayals, revenge, and ultimately, murder.” A connection between Dallas and the murder of Robert Kennedy in 1968 is made in November’s CIA Rogues and the Killing of the Kennedys: How and Why U.S. Agents Conspired to Assassinate JFK and RFK by Patrick Nolan.
Skyhorse is not putting all its eggs in the second-gunman basket. We Were There: Revelations from the Dallas Doctors Who Attended to JFK on November 22, 1963, edited by Allan Childs (Nov.), is an original work of oral history, while the same month’s November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination, and Legacy of John F. Kennedy, edited by Dean R. Owen, collects interviews and commentaries about the murder from prominent figures such as Tom Brokaw and Congressman John Lewis.
But Skyhorse is certainly putting itself out there with its unparalleled volume of assassination-related books. Associate publisher Bill Wolfsthal says that he’s not concerned that sales of individual titles will be adversely affected by competition from within the same publishing house. “Every major bookseller has committed to carrying the new titles, and we’re pleased that we spread publication out from September to November. Some retailers will carry the reprints and some will not. But because such a large percentage of bookselling is either print books online or e-books, shelf space is not the issue it would have been five or 10 years ago.”
Other assassination-related titles likewise avoid the conspiracy issue. When the News Went Live: Dallas 1963 (Taylor Trade, Oct.) reprints the accounts of four journalists—Bob Huffaker, Bill Mercer, George Phenix, and Wes Wise—who provided some of the initial reports on the tragedy; Wise was part of history directly since Jack Ruby actually approached him a day before Oswald’s on-the-air murder.
A unique take on the case comes in Dallas 1963 (Twelve, Oct.), Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis’s look at what Dallas was really like during the Kennedy years. The pair capture the drama of the lead-up to the killing, with the flames of hatred directed against the president fanned by a motley crew of haters, including “a defrocked military general, the world’s richest oil baron, the leader of the largest Baptist congregation in the world, and the media mogul Ted Dealey, whose family name adorns the plaza where the president was murdered.”
Given the wild success of James L. Swanson’s Manhunt, about the pursuit of Lincoln’s killers (no one disputes that John Wilkes Booth was part of a plot), the author’s take on the Kennedy assassination is likely to be a hot title. In November, Morrow will publish End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, a present-day version of Jim Bishop’s The Day Kennedy Was Shot, providing a minute-by-minute account of the tragedy. For Swanson, the fact that so many doubt the Warren Commission findings is unsurprising: “Conspiracy theories are as American as apple pie. Throughout our history, for more than 250 years, we have turned to numerous conspiracy theories to explain catastrophic events or troubled times. It is not unusual that such theories arose after Dallas. We cannot accept that a peasant killed a king. Many people refused to believe that such an inconsequential man as Lee Oswald could change history is such a monumental way. The JFK assassination upset our national faith that the universe—and our own lives—can have order, meaning or predictability. If JFK can die, than random chance can strike any of us down.” Swanson has also written a YA title on the assassination, which will be published by Scholastic Press in October.
Finally, there’s Marina and Lee: The Tormented Love and Fatal Obsession Behind Lee Harvey Oswald’s Assassination of John F. Kennedy (Steerforth, Sept.), by Priscilla Johnson McMillan. According to Thomas Mallon, the author of Mrs. Paine’s Garage: And the Murder of John F. Kennedy (Pantheon), this reissue, which includes a new introduction by the author and a foreword by Joseph Finder, is “the single best book ever written about the Kennedy assassination.” For those who find the conspiracy arguments unpersuasive, McMillan provides all the important answers.
"One Brief Shining Moment"
For many, each picture of J.F.K. and his photogenic family is worth many more than a thousand words; iconic images, ranging from the new father playing peek-a-boo with daughter Caroline, to her brother John F. Kennedy Jr.’s heartbreaking salute at the funeral procession, are reproduced in Life magazine’s The Day Kennedy Died: 50 Years Later: LIFE Remembers the Man and the Moment (Oct.). The text includes a facsimile of the November 29, 1963, issue that appeared the week after the assassination, extensive commentary on individual frames of the Zapruder film, and personal reminiscences from notables, including Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Bill O’Reilly, and Barbara Streisand. A highlight is Jacqueline Kennedy’s post-assassination interview with Theodore H. White, which helped define how her husband’s administration would be viewed. She quoted the lyric from the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot, a favorite of J.F.K.’s—“Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot”—forever creating an association between Camelot and the Kennedy White House.