An Unforgettable Moment in History, 50 Years Later
Dallek, Robert. Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House. Harper. Oct. 2013. 512p. photos. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780062065841. $32.50; ebk. ISBN 9780062065865. HIST
Dallek (An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963) adds new insights beyond those in his excellent 2003 biography of JFK. Here is a compelling view of the president’s often frustrating interactions with cabinet members and high-placed government officials. Kennedy encouraged this “ministry of talent” to speak their minds, but their advice was often ignored as JFK gained the confidence to rely on his own instincts, learning that the best-intentioned advisers could present bad options. Dallek discusses Kennedy’s major challenges: U.S.-Soviet relations, nuclear disarmament, Castro’s Cuba, Vietnam, and to a lesser extent, civil rights. His chief adviser and confidant was Robert F. Kennedy, who is depicted in detail, as are many others whom JFK either relied upon or mistrusted (e.g., figures from the CIA or military). As expected, Dallek focuses on the brinksmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis. He weighs whether Vietnam was an important or peripheral Cold War front. Dallek concludes that Kennedy realized that since he could not control events in nearby Cuba, he would certainly not be able to do so in faraway Vietnam; he would likely have found a way out of Vietnam had he served a second term. VERDICT Readers who keep up with the body of work on JFK will appreciate Dallek’s page-turning style. Historians will value his excellent scholarship as he, in effect, revisits David Halberstam’s classic, The Best and the Brightest.
Kennedy, John F. The Letters of John F. Kennedy. Bloomsbury. Nov. 2013. 384p. ed. by Martin W. Sandler. illus. index. ISBN 9781608192717. $30; ebk. ISBN 9781608193660. HIST
Sandler (formerly history, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst; Kennedy Through the Lens) culled these letters from more than two million pieces at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. The book is a first, containing not just JFK’s letters but the other side of the correspondence as well. Sandler does fine work selecting representative letters from each phase of Kennedy’s life: his early years; the political campaigns; a crisis-filled presidency; and, through a small selection of condolence letters to Jacqueline Kennedy, his legacy. Each chapter is prefaced by a four- to five-page overview, and each letter is preceded by explanatory comments. Readers will appreciate how fine a writer Kennedy was in an era when letter writing was still considered an art. They will enjoy his sense of humor revealed in the many letters from children to which he responded. There’s also correspondence with world leaders, U.S. politicians, civil rights advocates, and officials and celebrities who later burnished the Camelot mystique. Several secret letters to and from Nikita Khrushchev attest to the importance of high-level communication in preventing nuclear war. Interestingly, Sandler ponders whether JFK would have lived through a second term given the life-threatening illnesses he endured from childhood. VERDICT This lively, well-chosen compilation offers meaningful portraits from life in the Kennedy years. It will fascinate general readers as well as scholars of the era.
LIFE Eds. The Day Kennedy Died: 50 Years Later LIFE Remembers the Man and the Moment. LIFE: Time Home Entertainment. Oct. 2013. 192p. photos. index. ISBN 9781618930743. $50. HIST
JFK was a perfect fit for LIFE magazine, possessing both the glamour for its alluring photographs of charismatic celebrities and the standing for its serious photojournalism. Upon Kennedy’s assassination, it was LIFE that purchased the Abraham Zapruder film and published portions of it. Now, each Zapruder frame will be published in a special gatefold section of this oversized volume, and there are gripping photographs throughout. The book’s mostly unnamed LIFE authors write in a casual style (e.g., “We need to scoot ahead….”). They cover JFK’s life in fewer than 40 pages before covering the 1963 trip to Texas. Readers follow President and Mrs. Kennedy around the state and to the tragic afternoon. The book then provides various perspectives on the assassination (e.g., “Who Was Oswald?”), with “LIFE Is on the Story” and “LIFE Stays on the Story” reminding readers just how much has changed in news gathering and journalist access. Alexandra Zapruder’s piece on her grandfather’s legacy is eloquent and affecting. The section titled “‘Where Were You When You Heard?’” has little overlap with Where Were You?, below. Several pages then cover conspiracy theories. The work closes with follow-ups on members of the Kennedy family and a removable full reprint of the November 29, 1963, issue of LIFE magazine. VERDICT This title is for both veterans of and those new to its subject. Although the gatefold and removable facsimile may present library circulation challenges, this work should be considered essential for most JFK collections. With a foreword consisting of a conversation with David McCullough
Minutaglio, Bill & Steven L. Davis. Dallas 1963. Twelve: Hachette. Oct. 2013. 384p. photos. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781455522095. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781455522118. HIST
Not everyone in 1963 Dallas hated John F. Kennedy, but unfortunately the power brokers there who controlled politics, the media, and business did. In this absorbing account, Minutaglio (Sch. of Journalism, Univ. of Texas at Austin; First Son: George W. Bush and the Bush Family Dynasty) and Davis (Witcliff Collections, Texas State Univ., San Marcos; J. Frank Dobie: A Liberated Mind) reveal how those such as billionaire oil man H.L. Hunt; the Rev. Wallie Amos Criswell of the Dallas First Baptist Church; Ted Dealey, editor of the Dallas Morning News; GOP congressman Bruce Alger; and Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, united by their hatred of liberals, socialism, communism, and civil rights, welcomed right-wing radical movements, reinforced segregation, and stirred up contempt for the president. Together, they fanned the anger of their legions and made 1963 Dallas a city that Kennedy had been warned by Adlai Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson not to visit. However, not all of Dallas’s leaders were against JFK. The authors portray Stanley Marcus, manager of the Neiman Marcus department store, sympathetically as a wealthy man who worked hard to bring integration and the arts to Dallas. The Rev. H. Rhett James and Juanita Craft of the NAACP toiled tirelessly for civil rights despite recurring death threats against them. VERDICT This engrossing narrative vividly captures the tensions in the Kennedy-Dallas crucible from 1960 until the president’s death and will grip readers interested in the roots of Kennedy’s political challenges and his assassination.
Owen, Dean R. November 22, 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination, and Legacy of John F. Kennedy. Skyhorse. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9781626360341. $24.95. HIST
Former Washington, DC, reporter Owen has compiled an uneven collection of remembrances he solicited from over 100 men and women about JFK’s death and legacy. The book is divided into eight sections: “Members of the Kennedy Administration and White House Staff”; “Civil Rights Leaders”; “Children of Kennedy Advisors and Others”; “Celebrities”; “Family and Friends”; “Journalists and Commentators”; “Political Figures”; and “Those with Humorous, Poignant, Quirky and Tragic Encounters, and Connections.” Readers will find the memories offered by those closest to Kennedy the most meaningful, e.g., by longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas, who contributed the foreword before her death this summer; retired secret service agent Clint Hill, who was on duty in Dallas; White House usher Nelson C. Pierce; Harris Wofford, special assistant to President Kennedy on civil rights; and Congressman John Lewis, former chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. There are only two entries by relatives—and one of those is a reprint. Other memories, e.g., from children of advisers, a major league baseball player, and a game show host, offer fewer insights. A common thread is that JFK gave his supporters hope for a better country and inspired the contributors to lead lives of public service. VERDICT Readers, especially those who lived through the Kennedy years, will be unimpressed by stories from those with only a superficial connection to JFK. Only for hard-core Kennedy junkies.
Sabato, Larry J. The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy. Bloomsbury. Oct. 2013. 352p. notes. index. ISBN 9781620402801. $28. HIST
More than the other books this reviewer has assessed here, Sabato’s (director, Ctr. for Politics, Univ. of Virginia; A More Perfect Constitution: Ideas To Inspire a New Generation) work gratifyingly describes the ways JFK’s assassination has affected both our historical memory of his life and our estimation of his legacy. Sabato includes a helpful overview of the Kennedy administration, followed by a detailed review of the many prominent assassination theories. He skewers the Warren Commission for allowing itself to be pressured into concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman; although Sabato endorses no specific assassination theory, he considers a conspiracy involving Oswald and organized crime, angry CIA officials, or anti-Castro Cubans to be plausible. He concludes with coverage of the way Kennedy’s presidential successors struggled with and made use of his myth-driven record. Interestingly, he believes that of the presidents succeeding Kennedy, it was Ronald Reagan who inherited the Kennedy mystique. Reagan, like Kennedy, was a charismatic orator, possessed a sense of humor that connected with the public, and advocated conservative politics similar to Kennedy’s. (See, in this context, Ira Stoll’s JFK, Conservative.) Intriguingly, Sabato promises that new revelations about the assassination will be forthcoming at a press conference on October 22, 2013. This thought-provoking title will pique the interest of Kennedy fans and historians of the era.
Shaw, John T. JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency. Palgrave Macmillan. Oct. 2013. 256p. photos. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780230341838. $26. HIST
There has never been a “full reckoning” of John F. Kennedy’s career in the U.S. Senate, writes congressional journalist Shaw (senior correspondent, Market News International) in this first book entirely devoted to JFK’s years (1953–60) as the junior senator from Massachusetts. Shaw covers Kennedy’s domestic record in the Senate, including his interests in the ailing New England economy, the St. Lawrence Seaway, and labor legislation, as well as his cautious approach to civil rights and the activities of Joe McCarthy. Shaw also assesses the senator’s record on foreign affairs, which were of higher interest to Kennedy, who became a frequent critic of the Eisenhower administration. However, Shaw’s emphasis is not on Kennedy’s record, which he agrees with others was modest, but on his growth as he evolved into a “statesman-scholar,” especially through his engagement with Senate history (albeit with the help of Theodore Sorensen and other staff) in his book Profiles in Courage and in his chairmanship of the Kennedy Committee, which in 1959 selected and honored the five most outstanding senators of all time. VERDICT While Shaw’s focus is new, his conclusion, that Kennedy used the Senate “as a forum, a platform, and finally, as a launching pad to win the presidency,” is not. Shaw’s contribution on the Kennedy Committee is the only part of this book that may be new to some academics. More than a few JFK experts have been stylists able to delight general readers in a way that Shaw will not. An optional purchase.
Where Were You? America Remembers the JFK Assassination. Lyons: Globe Pequot. Nov. 2013. 416p. compiled & ed. by Gus Russo & Harry Moses. photos. index. ISBN 9780762794560. $29.95. HIST
On November 22, NBC will air a two-hour documentary hosted by Tom Brokaw in which notable men and women are filmed sharing their memories connected to the fatal day 50 years before. Each person spoke on camera for about 45 minutes; a great deal of footage was left on the cutting room floor. Hence this book, with full transcripts of each participant’s words. Sections titled “Dallas,” “Solemnities,” “Politics,” “Controversy,” and “Culture” together hold over 50 pieces, each with a brief biographical intro at the top. The “Dallas” narratives, by those who were there, are the most riveting. Dan Rather’s vivid three-plus pages in which he sees the president’s car go by oddly fast and take a turn away from the expected route show the confusion of those present and a journalist’s attempt to gain some control of the situation. Marie Tippit, widow of Officer J.D. Tippit, Oswald’s other victim that day, speaks here publicly for the first time. Other highlights: Robert Caro’s present-tense portrait of Lyndon Johnson; Joseph Califano on arranging Arlington burial details and on the Kennedy administration’s tangles with Fidel Castro, not investigated by the Warren Commission; and former actress Nancy Olson Livingston on being the momentary focus of JFK’s appetites. In the “Culture” section, the number of people believing that Oswald did not act alone reflects a common view but still may surprise. VERDICT These intense episodes of remembrance make for a gripping collection that most people with an interest in JFK will want to read.
Reston, James, Jr. The Accidental Victim: JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, and the Real Target in Dallas. Zola. Sept. 2013. 146p. photos. notes. ISBN 9781939126108. $23.95; ebk. ISBN 9781939126092. HIST
Reston elaborates on the assertion he made in his 1989 biography, The Lone Star: The Life of John Connally, using circumstantial evidence to posit that lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald (Reston does not believe in a conspiracy) wasn’t intending to hit JFK but was aiming to kill the Texas governor and former secretary of the navy. Reston takes readers through the assassination narrative but with a focus on John and Nellie Connally, who sat in front of President and Mrs. Kennedy in the motorcade car. The shot that passed through JFK’s throat continued through Gov. Connally’s chest and wrist, coming to a stop as it barely entered his thigh. Reston reminds us that JFK had his customary back brace on: unlike Connolly, he was kept from flopping down from the first hit and remained upright for the next shot. He relates Oswald’s short adult life, noting that the man’s one source of pride was his honorable discharge from the marines. After Oswald defected to Russia in 1959, the U.S. Department of the Navy downgraded his discharge to dishonorable; Oswald appealed to its cabinet secretary, John Connally, to reverse the decision. Connally did not. The rest, says Reston, is history. Connally had a part in Oswald’s loss of status as Oswald had written directly to him requesting a review and Connally had officially declined the request. At the same time, Reston points out, those who knew Oswald stated that he admired President Kennedy. VERDICT Certainly, on this subject that will never be exhausted, this will again provoke discussion.—
Shaw, Mark. The Poison Patriarch: How the Betrayals of Joseph P. Kennedy Caused the Assassination of JFK. Skyhorse. Oct. 2013. 288p. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781626360600. $24.95. HIST
Using as his fulcrum Melvin Belli’s role as Jack Ruby’s defense attorney at Ruby’s 1964 trial for the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald, Shaw (Melvin Belli, King of the Courtroom) notes the degrees of separation among Ruby, Belli, and JFK’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy. Where does responsibility for JFK’s murder lie? You can either be satisfied with the title’s answer or dig in! Shaw zealously explains his reasoning: Belli was a personal-injury lawyer, not a criminal defense attorney. So why was he selected to defend Ruby? Because he had ties to mobster Mickey Cohen, who had ties to mobster Carlos Marcello, who had ties to mobster Sam Giancana. These mobsters had underworld ties to Jack Ruby and his lowbrow Dallas nightclub. For them, Belli could defend Ruby as deluded and insane. You see, JFK was elected with the alleged help of Giancana’s labor bosses bringing out votes. But then JFK’s father made “an ill-fated decision…, one that changed the course of history….” It would be “hearsay” in a court of law, but Shaw quotes someone who quotes someone who quotes JFK that it was his father who told him to appoint brother Robert as attorney general. RFK’s expanded mob prosecutions then made the mob feel betrayed. RFK thought he might be putting himself at risk in pursuing racketeers, but the mob decided to shoot the “dog” instead of its “tail.” So it was all Joe’s fault. VERDICT Shaw says that his information is “fresh,” but it sounds familiar. Voracious conspiracy theorists can read it and decide.
others. They Killed Our President: 63 Reasons To Believe There Was a Conspiracy To Assassinate JFK. Skyhorse. Oct. 2013. 256p. notes. ISBN 9781626361393. $24.95. HIST
Having spent time in professional wrestling, acting, and politics, Ventura (coauthor, 63 Documents the Government Doesn’t Want You To Read) has now turned to conspiracies. He is the host of truTV’s Consipracy Theory with Jesse Ventura. For this book, coauthored with David Wayne (coauthor with Richard Belzer, Hit List: An In-Depth Investigation into the Mysterious Deaths of Witnesses to the JFK Assassination) and Dick Russell (On the Trail of the JFK Assassins), Ventura focuses on what is arguably the most obsessed-over historical event in U.S. history. It should come as no surprise that Ventura rejects entirely the findings of the Warren Commission. Picking apart everything from the type of gun Lee Harvey Oswald actually used to the silencing of numerous witnesses, Ventura cannot seem to find anything worth believing from the official account of the event or subsequent studies. His “reasons” are divided among “The Evidence,” The Cover-Up,” “The Witnesses,” and “The Why, Who and How” —with dozens of magazine articles, websites, and other JFK conspiracy titles cited. Ventura writes in a bombastic voice that grates before long. Evidently Russell and Wayne did little to clean up his turgid style. VERDICT Despite the short entries for each “reason,” it will be a challenge for all but hard-core JFK conspiracy readers to get through this volume. However, as there are many such readers, as well as fans of Ventura, public libraries should have it on hand.
Willens, Howard P. History Will Prove Us Right: Inside the Warren Commission Report on the Assassination of John F. Kennedy.Overlook. Nov. 2013. 400p. notes. index. ISBN 9781468307559. $29.95. HIST
Fifty years on, our efforts to come to grips with Kennedy’s murder continue. Often at the center of the conversation—or shouting match—is the 1964 report of the commission, appointed by President Johnson and chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren, to investigate the assassination. The commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin and that there was no credible evidence pointing to any conspiracy. The report was received with criticism, skepticism, and, in some quarters, outright dismissal. There had to be a conspiracy, some critics contended: a loner like Oswald could not have brought down the leader of the free world. Willens, then an attorney in the criminal division of the justice department, and now the only surviving member of the commission’s supervisory staff, contends that the commission got it right. His book, based on a personal journal he kept during his work then and on correspondence files he maintained, focuses in minute detail on how the commission was formed, went about its work, sought the truth, and came to its conclusions. Willens takes readers step by step through the investigation. While he does not assert the work of the Warren Commission as infallible, he does argue assiduously that had a conspiracy existed, the commission would have found it and that proof of such a conspiracy would have surfaced by now. VERDICT This work likely will not change the mind of any hard-core conspiracy believer; however, Willens’s account deserves close and careful scrutiny by anyone interested in the Kennedy assassination.
Greenfield, Jeff. If Kennedy Lived: The First and Second Terms of President John F. Kennedy; An Alternate History. Putnam. Oct. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780399166969. $26.95. F
Greenfield (Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternative Histories of American Politics; JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan), an Emmy-winning political analyst, speculates how much different the nation and the world would have been if Kennedy had been only wounded by Oswald and gone on to serve two full terms. Here, Kennedy recovers from a serious chest wound and ushers in a relatively peaceful era—compared to the real 1960s—in which the Cold War ends, the United States avoids entrapment in Vietnam, and student protests call for more progressive politics than JFK is already advocating. Yet Greenfield shows that all choices have their price. South Vietnam falls to North Vietnamese forces and Cold War treaties come at the expense of racial progress, as JFK signs a devil’s bargain with Southern senators who reluctantly agree to support his diplomatic initiatives in return for limited civil rights legislation. Greenfield grounds his fictional history in research and interviews with some of the era’s experts and, as in his previous excursion into alternative history, offers an ending that the reader will not see coming. VERDICT Although character development is not strong, and readers will have to decide if Greenfield’s ironic view is plausible, Kennedy-era followers will enjoy this book, an alternate alternate history, if you will, to Stephen King’s massive novel 11/22/63.
Lehrer, Jim. Top Down: A Novel of the Kennedy Assassination. Random. Oct. 2013. 208p. ISBN 9781400069163. $26. F
Lehrer (former executive editor & anchor, NewsHour) has written ten times more fiction than nonfiction. This new entry increases the imbalance, but, as with his other novels, it’s rooted in Lehrer’s own life. In the “‘Where Were You When You Heard?’” section of The Day Kennedy Died, above, Lehrer writes of his time as a Dallas Times Herald reporter assigned to cover the Kennedy arrival in the city. Lehrer asked the secret service agent there, Forrest Sorrels, in charge of the Dallas office, whether the Kennedy motorcade car would have its bubble top on. Upon hearing that downtown Dallas weather had cleared, Sorrels ordered the top removed. As Lehrer states in his “Author’s Note” here, that episode formed the establishing circumstances for Top Down, which takes place five years after the assassination. Reporter Jack Gilmore is called upon to follow up about secret service agent Van Walters, who has blamed himself for Kennedy’s death in an open car. This title will be most satisfying to those seeing some of Lehrer himself here: Will the reporter create a major news story, divulging the details of that agent’s decision? Or will he hold off, aspiring to some brand of nobility? If he holds off, perhaps he’ll get to write about it all in years to come, maybe in fictional terms. VERDICT Recommended to Lehrer’s many fans and to all who are keen for the what-ifs that both reality and fiction can bestow.