On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet as his motorcade rolled through Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, violently ending the era of American self-assurance. It is the quintessential Where were you? moment, maybe the most written about event ever, but the moment and circumstance were pivotal, so let’s revisit: America’s post-WWII supremacy was being challenged on multiple fronts as communism crept into her backyard, and the embarrassing failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion indicated that while America might be the planet’s most powerful and influential nation, it couldn’t control events just 90 miles south of Key West. Not long after, the Soviets were installing missiles in Cuba, and while that crisis was “won,” Americans became fully aware of the stakes of an escalating Cold War. Ich bin ein Berliner. At home, the country edged toward the cultural seachange of the ‘60s and Vietnam War backlash. Everything won seemed to be crumbling into chaos.
At the top of it all sat one of the most charismatic (or at least photogenic; ask Nixon) president the country had seen, at a time when media, especially television, was coming into its own as tool to spread (and homogenize) information on a mass scale. He was the first president who wasn’t dad (or at least an inscrutable uncle), the first president to bring an aura of glamour to the White House, with his attractive family and rumored dalliances with famous blondes. Oswald’s ringing shot heralded a new world, one in which all rules seemed destined to be broken and America’s future hung in the balance.
So there’s no mystery why Kennedy, his brief administration, his personal life (both secret and otherwise), and—of course—the assassination have inspired tens of thousands of books, including several new novels and children's books. The 50th anniversary of his death has spawned dozens more, several taking fresh looks at the inner workings of Kennedy’s White House. Robert Dallek—author of what many consider the definitive JFK biography, An Unfinished Life—penned the best of that bunch: Camelot’s Court shifts focus to Kennedy’s trusted advisors and their influence on the administration’s successes and failures, revealing the often sharp fractures sustained in the arena of clashing ambitions and ideologies. It's an ambitious Team of Rivals approach, but Dallek provides a fascinating, one-of-a-kind look inside the messy mechanics of policy.
For a lively, challenging reconsideration of that policy, Ira Stoll’s JFK, Conservative examines Kennedy’s legacy through a red lens, concluding that the liberal lion had more in common with Ronald Reagan than many liberals would prefer—or remember. While Democrats point to his progressive stances on health care and education, Stoll notes that his positions on tax cuts (for) and communism (staunchly against) would have rung like church bells in conservative ears. It’s a clever and audacious spin.
Beyond governmental nuts and bolts, The Letters of John F. Kennedy collects correspondence from the Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, spanning notes to and from cultural and world leaders (including Martin Luther King, Jr., Harry Truman, and Nikita Krushchev) as well as children and private citizens that demonstrate a warmth not often associated with Commanders in Chief. Those looking for salacious details of his private life best look elsewhere, but editor Martin W. Sandler’s selections track Kennedy’s development as a leader in an insightful, personal, and unprecedented way.
For some, it’s the image of Camelot that endures. Like so many rock stars, JFK died before he got old, before his legacy was tarnished or torn down, and well before the shriek-cycle of modern “journalism,” which builds and destroys political careers sometimes within weeks. Several new volumes revisit the Camelot years in pictures. The Kennedy Years: From the Pages of The New York Times reprints many of the newspaper’s articles and photographs from its coverage of the administration and the events that surrounded it—fascinating for real-time assessments of historically significant events. For a glimpse behind Camelot’s curtain, The Kennedy Years: A Memoir captures unguarded “off-camera” moments through the snapshots of JFK’s personal photographer, Jacques Lowe, accompanied by his personal account to provide a unique, behind-the-scenes perspective, independent of political spin. JFK: A Photographic Memoir by influential photographer (and selfie pioneer) Lee Friedlander poignantly captures public reactions to JFK, from impromptu celebrations of his election to despairing memorials following November 22. For a dramatic record of November 22, 1963, LIFE: The Day Kennedy Died presents its coverage of that fateful day in Dallas, including the recollections of many celebrities, as well as reproductions of every frame of the infamous Zapruder film that launched countless conspiracy theories about the assassination.
Speaking of which: the grassy knoll. Magic bullets. Castro. LBJ. Jack Ruby. CIA. JFK assassination theories are a roiling alphabet soup of plots and motives, and rather than diminish the hysteria, the fifty years since the assassination have given them room to multiply, becoming ever more convoluted. Those books are well represented in 2013’s new crop, including wrestler/governor/actor/special-ops bad-ass Jesse Ventura’s They Killed Our President: 63 Reasons to Believe There Was a Conspiracy to Assassinate JFK and the Little Book of JFK Conspiracies, available in a deluxe edition for the discerning conspiracy theorist. Then again, maybe it was LBJ, after all.
But the most interesting new angle isn’t a conspiracy theory at all. Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis casts the city as a character in the plot, a place made inherently dangerous to JFK by so many enemies of the administration—political, religious, criminal, and in the media—that the environment itself was hospitable to tragedy, and perhaps invited it. It’s a dramatic cautionary tale about how extreme ideologies can combine to create a toxic brew. While Dallas 1963 takes in the view from on high, James Swanson hits the streets for a blow-by-blow account of events. End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy begins three days before Dealey Plaza through Oswald's shocking, audacious murder at the hands of Jack Ruby on November 24. Like his previous book, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, End of Days reads like a thriller while providing meticulous detail--the true-crime counterpart to Don DeLillo's masterful, speculative novelization, Libra.
Kennedy warned that “those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” As it turns out, this is not true for Kennedy himself. There are still lessons to be learned within JFK’s story, lessons about tragedy and resilience, dogma and pragmatism, and what can be achieved when politics of inclusion are chosen over exclusionism. The books will keep coming as long as interest in Kennedy’s ideals and achievements—real or perceived—persists, and as long as we ask What might have been?
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