In case you missed it, November marked the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The city of Dallas spent more than a year preparing for the occasion, scheduling exhibits and lecture series and memorial ceremonies. The Frontiers of Flight Museum constructed a life-size walk-through replica of Air Force One as it looked on the fateful day of November 22, 1963, complete with “a highly detailed cockpit, the president’s bedroom, and the stateroom in which Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office.” The Sixth Floor Museum, located in the former Texas School Book Depository, offered the artwork of the Dallas LOVE Project, intended to rewrite the city’s 1963 reputation as a “City of Hate.” On November 22 itself, some 5,000 privileged ticket holders gathered in Dealey Plaza, where the shots rang out, to hear historian David McCullough recite from the former president’s speeches and observe a moment of silence. To commemorate the day, The Dallas Morning News offered a memorial box set with the sleek title “JFK50,” featuring a full edition of the paper from the morning after the assassination along with three “collectible JFK50 cards.”
Those of us who couldn’t make it to Dallas were nonetheless able to relive the assassination thanks to a months-long media blitz. In October, director Peter Landesman released Parkland, a feature film depicting the minute-by-minute chaos at Parkland Memorial Hospital on the afternoon of the assassination. Not to be outdone, Oliver Stone re-released his 1991 conspiracy film JFK, still the single most influential work in shaping how Americans think about the events of November 22. On the smaller screen, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, TLC, TCM and the Military Channel all broadcast documentaries, while National Geographic presented Killing Kennedy, a new docudrama starring Rob Lowe as JFK. On still smaller screens, CBS News streamed its 1963 assassination coverage in real time, while several iPhone apps (“JFK Assassination,” “JFK in Dallas 50,” “Ask a Conspirator”) promised to complete the picture with access to all manner of Kennedy minutiae.
And then there were the books—rafts of them—covering nearly every aspect of Kennedy’s life and death. According to Amazon, more than six dozen books related to the Kennedy assassination were scheduled for release in October and November alone. As Jill Abramson observed in The New York Times, no single one of these is likely to be the final word on an event and a presidency that seems ever more “elusive” as the decades pass. Together, though, these books can tell us an awful lot about what we want to remember, and what we might prefer to forget.
* * *
The latest batch of Kennedy books can be divided into two categories, each with its own rules and traditions. The first and most obvious focuses on the assassination itself, presenting the events of November 22 as a grand who-done-it mystery. The second examines the Kennedy presidency and its lost promise—instead of who-done-it, the what-might-have-been. To some degree, both of these categories rest on irresolvable questions. The who-done-it literature tends to worry the evidence, circling around the same set of tantalizing ballistics, witness deaths and missing files. The what-might-have-been books grapple with Kennedy’s inner longings and outer stylings, attempting to puzzle out significant patterns in his presidential record. In both cases, the subject tends to fuel overstatement, with authors declaring again and yet again to have discovered The Truth about Kennedy and his death. This, in turn, provokes yet another set of questions: Why, fifty years on, is Kennedy still an icon, and why do we seem so stuck in the same old debates about his presidency?
Most of the basic hypotheses about the assassination have lingered for decades. Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of Kennedy’s murder is how quickly certain conspiracy theories emerged, and how persistent they have been over time. If Oswald did not act alone, his most likely allies remain the same dizzying cast of characters first suspected in 1963: pro-Castro Cubans, anti-Castro Cubans, Soviet intelligence, the FBI, the CIA, the Mafia or Vice President Lyndon Johnson. (There is, of course, the possibility that Oswald was a patsy, framed by any or all of the above for a murder he did not commit.)
The first wave of assassination literature addressed most of these possibilities, either as catechisms of facts or as vague dark suspicions. In the 1960s, attorney Mark Lane was first out of the gate with Rush to Judgment, an attack on the Warren Commission report as a high-level government whitewash. Congress itself took up the case in the 1970s, when the House Special Committee on Assassinations concluded that the single-bullet theory was hopelessly flawed. In 1980, investigative journalist Anthony Summers followed up with new research suggesting that gangsters, anticommunist Cubans and the CIA may have each played a role in Kennedy’s death. In 1989, conspiracy and UFO guru Jim Marrs took the argument a step further, claiming that Lyndon Johnson and J. Edgar Hoover wanted Kennedy dead and went out of their way to make his murder possible. Marrs’s book was a source for Stone’s 1991 film, which in turn inspired a backlash led by investigative journalist Gerald Posner, who returned to the Warren Commission’s original argument that Oswald, indeed, acted alone. Optimistically, Posner titled his book Case Closed.
Far from closing the case, though, these early works of assassination research mainly served to raise new questions—and, not incidentally, to force the opening of additional archives. In 1992, in response to the public outcry unleashed by Stone’s JFK, Congress passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, ordering the “immediate disclosure” of all possible assassination records. To the frustration of many researchers, the disclosure process remains incomplete, an ongoing cycle of FOIA appeals and denials. But the act did have the important result of releasing thousands of new documents and establishing a central repository for assassination-related records. Today, assassination researchers can perform their work in a dedicated, climate-controlled room at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, which houses an estimated 5 million pages of relevant material. The collection also includes physical artifacts ranging from Jackie Kennedy’s bloodstained pink-wool Chanel suit to Oswald’s 6.5-millimeter Carcano carbine rifle.
What have we learned from this avalanche of new data? Unfortunately, not much. The most popular Kennedy assassination book of recent years has been Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Kennedy (2012), a lightweight nonfiction thriller awkwardly written in the present tense. The book asserts nothing new about the assassination, either as a cultural symbol, political cataclysm or criminal plot. Its central premise seems to be that Oswald was bad while Kennedy, relatively speaking, was pretty good. “There will be no second inaugural,” the book declares in a typical passage. “For John Fitzgerald Kennedy is on a collision course with evil.” To mark the fiftieth anniversary, O’Reilly has released a brightly illustrated children’s book that makes the same obvious points.
To their credit, most of this year’s assassination books probe further. They nonetheless find themselves mired in many of the same debates that have long plagued assassination literature: single bullet or multiple shooters, Oswald as lone wolf or pawn in some high-level conspiracy. What has changed over the past fifty years is not so much the outline of these theories as the public’s willingness to believe them. In 1964, when the Warren Commission issued its report, 51 percent of the American public questioned its conclusions. By 1992, in the wake of Stone’s film, that number had jumped to 77 percent and has remained relatively steady ever since.
Many recent assassination books attempt to capitalize on these suspicions. For sheer chutzpah, top honors must go to Republican political consultant Roger Stone, who purports to prove in The Man Who Killed Kennedy that “LBJ was not only involved in JFK’s assassination—but was in fact the mastermind.” A close runner-up is defense attorney Mark Shaw, who argues on the website for his new book, The Poison Patriarch, that “Joseph Kennedy Killed His Son John, The President”—though Shaw acknowledges that this may only be true “figuratively speaking.” Former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura wins an honorable mention for sheer completism, offering “63 reasons to believe there was a conspiracy to assassinate JFK.” Many of these claims, such as that “Oswald Had a Look-Alike Intelligence Double,” have been debunked repeatedly over the years only to resurface yet again.
For the uninitiated, the vehemence of the conspiracy literature can be disconcerting. (When my 10-year-old son saw Roger Stone’s book sitting on the kitchen counter, he looked at me accusingly: “You never told me LBJ killed JFK!”) Even experienced journalists trained to avoid conspiratorial thinking sometimes find themselves drawn in. In A Cruel and Shocking Act, one of this year’s most rigorous assassination books, former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon set out to write a critical history of the Warren Commission, based on interviews with its former staffers. Along the way, he grew fascinated with Oswald’s September 1963 trip to Mexico City, where the future assassin spent time in the company of Cuban diplomats and alleged spies. Shenon’s book really comprises two different works—one about the failures of the Warren Commission, the other about the possibility that Oswald was part of a Castro-led conspiracy. To his credit, Shenon never adopts the false certainty that characterizes so much conspiracy literature. Instead, as a dogged professional reporter, he is left agonizing about the “dual curse” of assassination research: “too little information and too much.”
Perhaps seeking to get out from under this curse, the most compelling and original of this year’s assassination books, Peter Savodnik’s The Interloper, sidesteps the assassination altogether, focusing instead on Oswald’s life as a defector in the Soviet Union between 1959 and 1962. That Oswald lived in the USSR at the height of the Cold War is well known, one of the deeply strange and endlessly tantalizing facts behind nearly every theory about his motives and associations. Until recently, though, surprisingly little was known about what he did there, or why he came and went. Norman Mailer explored the subject in the early 1990s, producing the darkly intriguing Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, but his book blended novelistic techniques with the few known facts. Savodnik has adopted a reporter’s approach, traveling to Russia to interview the men and women who once knew Oswald in the flesh.
The resulting discoveries are at once utterly fascinating and painfully mundane. As a 20-year-old self-proclaimed Marxist dissident, Oswald arrived in the Soviet Union in late 1959 prepared to renounce his American citizenship and get to work building a communist utopia. When the Soviets refused his offer, he slit his wrist, half hoping to create an international crisis. At that point, the Soviet authorities took him in, but with reluctance: in early 1960, they shipped Oswald off to the far-west city of Minsk, described by Savodnik as a godforsaken backwater still recovering from the devastation of World War II. There, Oswald spent two years as an ordinary communist worker in a radio and television factory, trying to blend in with his comrades despite the highly peculiar fact that he happened to be an American. The experiment failed. Almost universally, his Russian co-workers viewed Oswald with suspicion and contempt, as a lazy “interloper” whose mere presence threatened to disrupt their tenuous postwar security.
According to Savodnik, the idea that Oswald was an “interloper,” always moving, always on the outside, is the key to understanding both his personality and his motivation for killing the president. As a boy, Oswald never had a home, dragged by his mother through some twenty different households, including a brief stint in an orphanage. As an adult, he sought to settle down but found himself unbearably restless, first seeking out Marxism, then joining the Marines, then fleeing to the Soviet Union. In Savodnik’s view, it was Oswald’s disappointment with life in Russia—the place that was supposed to fulfill his dreams of fitting in and finding a home—that led to his final bout of rage and violence. When Oswald was forced to begin “interloping” once again, returning to the United States with his Russian wife and baby daughter, he gave up normal life and instead decided to do something dramatic.
Savodnik ends his narrative in October 1963, a month before the assassination. In doing so, he avoids the usual rites of assassination literature: the blow-by-blow account of the awful event, the speculation about Oswald’s secret intelligence ties, the painstaking analysis of the evidence. All that, he suggests, is really beside the point: we know Oswald shot the president, and now we have a clearer sense of his possible motives. “It is the facts of [Oswald’s] life, and especially his life in the Soviet Union, that tell us what we need to know to conclude that he alone was responsible for killing President Kennedy,” Savodnik writes. Only by rejecting the temptation of those millions of pages of documents, he suggests, can we hope to get closer to the truth.
* * *
The second wave of JFK books flooding the market this year concerns neither Oswald nor the assassination, but Kennedy himself. Many of these fall into the what-if school of history, in which historians and journalists attempt to project an alternative future from a muddy past. The baldest of these attempts is pundit Jeff Greenfield’s If Kennedy Lived, a self-described “alternate history” of a two-term Kennedy presidency. Other authors take a more modest approach to thinking through their counterfactuals. Like the assassination theories, the core speculations about Kennedy have remained remarkably consistent over the years: Would he have saved the nation from the Vietnam War? Would he have fully championed the civil rights movement? Would he, finally, have been faithful to Jackie? The answers, of course, are even more unknowable than the truth about the assassination. But this seems unlikely to stop some from seeking them.
Kennedy was always a popular political figure—except, perhaps, during the 1960 election. He barely won the presidency, squeaking into office with 49.7 percent of the popular vote, to Richard Nixon’s 49.6. Once there, his popularity rose quickly, with an average approval rating of 70 percent. At the time of his assassination, his numbers had fallen somewhat in reaction to his endorsement of civil rights legislation. Today, we are inclined to narrate the civil rights struggle as a national morality tale, a story of citizens coming together to right a historical wrong. Kennedy’s stand was far more reluctant, and far more controversial. Many of his allies saw his civil rights pronouncement—accurately—as Democratic suicide in the white South, a problem his visit to Dallas was intended to correct.
This accident of timing has made it almost irresistible for authors to speculate about Kennedy’s future greatness: Would he have embodied the conscience that the nation needed in 1963? His youth and vaunted good looks have only further tempted writers to romanticize him. JFK was 43 when he was elected, 46 when he was killed. Jackie was 34 when she went to Dallas, mother to a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son. These numbers are well known, but they seem to have retained rather than lost their pathos over the decades. By comparison, our own youthful president—52-year-old Barack Obama—seems almost like an elder statesman.
These factors—Kennedy’s youth and good looks, his tentative liberal awakening, his untimely death—probably made it inevitable that he would be remembered with affection and a deep sense of loss. Still, the sheer adulation reflected in recent polls is hard to explain. As historian Robert Dallek notes in his new book, Camelot’s Court, Kennedy regularly appears near the very top in popular rankings of American presidents; a 2010 Gallup poll put his approval rating at a whopping 85 percent. Among twentieth-century presidents, this places him not only above Ronald Reagan, the perennial conservative favorite, but also FDR, who served more than twelve years in the White House and guided the nation through depression and war. Kennedy served less than three years (his storied “One Thousand Days”). And while he managed to enact a tax cut and avert a nuclear war, he can hardly be described as one of the giants of political accomplishment. “I saw ample reason for enthusiasm about parts of his performance,” Dallek notes in the introduction to his book, “but 85 percent?”
This apparent disjuncture inspired Dallek to return to the Kennedy archives, searching for hints of real leadership and effective decision-making that would explain his revered status. One of the deans of presidential scholarship, Dallek made a splash in 2003 with An Unfinished Life, still the best biography of Kennedy. Camelot’s Court covers at least some of the same ground, depicting Kennedy as a man beset by crises—the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam—and often unsure what to do about them. The main players are Kennedy’s brash, young Ivy League–trained advisers: 34-year-old Harris Wofford, 29-year-old Richard Goodwin, 41-year-old McGeorge Bundy, 36-year-old Robert Kennedy. As a group, Dallek argues, these men gave Kennedy decidedly mixed advice, pulling him in multiple directions when he could not forge a direction of his own. Think The Best and the Brightest meets Team of Rivals.
Many of this year’s books strike a more hopeful and expansive note, imagining alternate futures in which Kennedy would have set America on a better course. In To Move the World, economist Jeffrey D. Sachs argues that Kennedy spent most of 1963 in pursuit of a “sustainable peace” with Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. “Let us…learn and marvel at how Kennedy helped humanity to take one more step on the path of survival and human achievement,” he writes. Historian and journalist Thurston Clarke lauds JFK’s Last Hundred Days as a time of personal transformation, in which Kennedy allegedly put aside his playboy ways and cautious policies in the service of presidential greatness. Rather than ask “who killed him,” Clarke writes, we should all focus on that second “tantalizing mystery”: “who he was when he was killed, and where he would have led us.”
In the end, both Clarke and Sachs see what they want to see: a crusader for peace and justice, a son of privilege just “beginning to realize his potential as a man and a president.” But lest it be said that only liberals are subject to such wishful thinking, it is worth noting that conservatives, too, have put in their bids on Kennedy this year. The most straightforward title on offer is former New York Sun editor Ira Stoll’s JFK, Conservative, which depicts Kennedy as a great free-market-loving, tax-cutting Cold Warrior for the modern age. Stoll isn’t wrong, exactly: Kennedy was a liberal and a conservative, a Cold Warrior and a peacemaker, a cautious pragmatist who eventually embraced civil rights. Like his youth and beauty, these chameleon politics may help to explain his ongoing allure. In death, even more than in life, Kennedy seems to have the politician’s ability to be all things to all people.
* * *
With an estimated 40,000 books printed about Kennedy and his assassination, there may be a temptation for future authors to think small: to find some tiny, unexamined niche and let their efforts rest there. And yet the greatest challenge of the Kennedy literature remains that of synthesis, of finding a way to make sense of both the presidency and the assassination as parts of a single story. For all their apparent comprehensiveness, this year’s books rarely speak to each other across the divide of Dallas: Kennedy books talk about Kennedy, assassination books talk about the assassination, and the two cleave at November 22, 1963. Nor do they contend fully with the vexing issue of public opinion. As political scientist Larry J. Sabato points out in The Kennedy Half-Century, Americans in 2013 continue to report overwhelmingly high opinions of Kennedy’s “courageous” and “inspirational” leadership. At the same time, three-quarters of them continue to question whether the Warren Commission got its facts right.
How to make sense of these two conclusions side by side? Sabato argues that they reinforce each other, that the untidy circumstances of Kennedy’s death make it all too easy to valorize his life. Even fifty years out, there can be no denying the emotional power of the assassination imagery: the motorcade brilliant in the Dallas sun; the gunshot pops and “pink cloud” of blood and brain matter bursting above Kennedy’s head; a bewildered Jackie crawling onto the convertible’s trunk to retrieve scraps of her husband’s skull; little John-John in his blue coat a few days later, delivering a final salute to his father’s body. The story is sad and wrenching enough that, even at a half-century’s remove, we seem to be stuck writing the same polite obituary, glossing over Kennedy’s weaknesses and mistakes, thinking mostly of his grieving family and supposedly lost promise.
All the same, there is something puzzling about the public’s unwillingness to contend seriously with what Seymour Hersh has termed “The Dark Side of Camelot”—the lies and unsavory dealings and intelligence subterfuge that shaped so much of the Kennedy presidency. Over the past five decades, there have been a relentless succession of such revelations, from Kennedy’s ties to organized crime to the CIA’s aborted plans to assassinate Fidel Castro. We have learned, too, about Kennedy’s personal deceptions, and about the ways his reckless behavior fostered an atmosphere of suspicion and dishonesty within the White House. Among historians, this has led to a decided reassessment of Kennedy’s legacy. Over the past fifty years, as journalist Adam Clymer recently noted, high-school history textbooks have gone from portraying Kennedy as an unblemished hero to presenting a more mixed portrait of his presidency. “In general,” Clymer writes, “the picture has evolved from a charismatic young president who inspired youths around the world to a deeply flawed one whose oratory outstripped his accomplishment.”
The puzzle, then, is why so little of this seems to have damaged his popular reputation. This may be where the conspiracy theories, along with the vast industry of assassination books, matter most. Rather than revise their views of Kennedy or his presidency, Americans seem to have channeled the barrage of new information into an ever-growing willingness to believe in some sort of conspiracy against him. Kennedy’s affair with Judith Exner, also mistress to Mafia boss Sam Giancana, has not noticeably tarnished the president’s image; but it has produced countless theories as to why Giancana might have wanted Kennedy killed. Similarly, Kennedy’s disastrous Bay of Pigs operation never much damaged his popularity, but it has spawned thousands of hours of speculation about which Cubans might have wanted him dead. As Reason magazine editor Jesse Walker points out in The United States of Paranoia, this is how conspiracy theories have often worked in American history. “A conspiracy story that catches on becomes a form of folklore,” he writes. “It says something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe and repeat it, even if it says nothing true about the objects of the theory itself.”
In that sense, although conspiracy theorists are often seen as the nutjobs and wackos of the Kennedy oeuvre, they are responding to a set of all-too-real concerns about how Cold War politics operated, and about how our government still chooses, far too often, to conduct its affairs. In the final reckoning, the supposed facts of any given assassination theory may or may not be correct. But the anxieties and paranoia at the heart of the vast Kennedy literature—both the fear of high-level deception and the longing for transformative leadership—are unlikely to disappear anytime soon.