A New JFK Canon Carries the Torch
Anniversaries may be arbitrary milestones by which to reflect on the past, but the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination offers an irresistible marketing hook for publishers, spurring a slew of books on the man, his presidency and his untimely demise in Dallas.
“Texas is the reason / that the president’s dead,” Glenn Danzig sang in “Bullet,” The Misfits’ obscene ode to the JFK assassination. The couplet brings into stark relief the question that has bedeviled Texans for five decades: Could the assassination have happened anywhere but Texas, and Dallas in particular?
Dallas 1963 (Twelve Books), forthcoming in October from UT journalism professor (and Observer media columnist) Bill Minutaglio and Steven Davis, curator of the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos, promises a riveting exploration of that question. The book is not another search for shadowy conspirators, but rather a primer on the political and cultural flora and fauna in plain view in Dallas circa November 1963, including a combustible mix of arch-conservative worldviews armed with untold wealth and topped with a heavy dollop of zealotry.
At a May appearance at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., Jim Lehrer, who was working as a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald on Nov. 22, 1963, recounted Dallas’ palpable dread in advance of the Kennedy visit, a pervasive worry that “some right-winger would do something.” According to Minutaglio and Davis, the president’s camp had similar worries. But few of the hundreds of books on the assassination have tried to plumb the contemporary character of Dallas, which at the time, the authors told Publishers Weekly, was a “perfect storm of outsized figures.”
JFK was infamously welcomed to “Big D” with a full-page advertisement in The Dallas Morning News accusing the president of treason. That ad was financed in part by one of the richest men on earth, Dallas’ H.L. Hunt. The newspaper’s publisher, Ted Dealey—whose family name adorned the plaza where JFK was shot—was himself an outspoken opponent of the president and had pointedly confronted him at a White House event. “We need a man on horseback to lead this nation,” Dealey told Kennedy. “And many people in Texas and the Southwest think that you are riding Caroline’s tricycle.”
A month before Kennedy’s arrival in Texas, Ambassador Adlai Stevenson was shouted down, spat upon, and struck on the head in Dallas by anti-United Nations zealots. Stevenson later warned the president not to visit the city, which was also home to Reverend W.A. Criswell, the JFK-hating, pro-segregation head of the largest Baptist congregation in the world. Disgraced Army Major General Edwin Walker also had found a home in Dallas after JFK relieved him of duty for disseminating right-wing John Birch propaganda. Dallas Mayor Earle Cabell personally welcomed the former general to the city. Cabell’s brother was Charles Cabell, the Air Force general who had served as deputy director of the CIA and been forced by Kennedy to resign in the wake of the Bay of Pigs fiasco.
Minutaglio and Davis also remind readers of local counterweights to Dallas’ fanaticism, figures such as Reverend H. Rhett James, who brought Martin Luther King Jr. to town; civil rights leader and City Councilwoman Juanita Craft; and JFK fan Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus.
It’s hard to read Dallas 1963 without seeing parallels to today’s corrosive national politics, in which an obstreperous right wing reacts angrily to any proposal by a largely centrist Democratic president. For better or worse, some of today’s most extreme voices still belong to Texans.
Minutaglio and Davis are the lone reporters focused specifically on Dallas in this season’s JFK sweepstakes. Other entries collectively cover the gamut of JFK obsession. Many burnish the Camelot hagiography and ponder what might have been had the young president lived to see a second term. Others delve deep into the assassination itself, still a subject of fervent controversy.
Longtime JFK historian Robert Dallek’s new book, Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House (Harper), focuses on JFK’s cabinet and how “the best and the brightest” navigated personal agendas, ambition and rivalry during the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, and the early days of the Vietnam War.
Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days (Penguin) and Christopher Andersen’s These Few Precious Days: The Final Year of Jack with Jackie (Gallery Books) both examine promising improvements inside the Kennedy White House in the administration’s final months. Clarke claims that JFK underwent a personal and political transformation in his final months, due partly to the death of his infant son Patrick in August 1963. The serial-philanderer-in-chief recommitted himself not only to his marriage, Clarke argues, but to civil rights initiatives, while also maneuvering to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam and end the Cold War.
Andersen’s book, which concentrates on the first couple’s relationship, made headlines this summer with the revelation that Marilyn Monroe harbored delusions of becoming first lady (allegedly even phoning Jackie about the possibility), and the claim that both Kennedys were dependent on weekly amphetamine injections from “Dr. Feelgood,” Max Jacobson. Andersen asserts that Jack’s chronic back pain led to steroid injections that kept the presidential libido on high alert. Yet even though Jackie was well aware of Jack’s infidelities, their final year in the White House saw the couple growing closer. Andersen also says the president had premonitions about Dallas and tried to get out of the trip.
Longtime television commentator Jeff Greenfield will publish If Kennedy Lived (Putnam) in October, exploring the prospects of a second Kennedy administration: Would JFK antagonist J. Edgar Hoover have used the president’s womanizing against him? Would JFK’s health problems have overwhelmed him? How would he have dealt with the expanding civil rights movement and the Vietnam War?
Also in October, Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia, will publish The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy (Bloomsbury USA), which will be accompanied by a PBS documentary. Sabato explores the ways in which JFK’s presidency continues to resonate through his successors’ administrations, even to the current day. (Without nods from Ted and Caroline Kennedy, Obama was unlikely to have defeated Hillary Clinton—the wife of another president who made political hay from JFK’s legacy.) Sabato says both LBJ and Nixon were haunted by JFK (literally in LBJ’s case; Sabato repeats the tale of the non-teetotaling LBJ running from the Oval Office claiming to have seen JFK’s ghost). Sabato also promises “a new perspective” on the assassination, which he thinks remains an “open wound” for the nation. He told The University of Virginia Magazine that the Warren Commission “is part of the foundation of our modern cynicism, and it must be addressed.”
Directly addressing the Warren Commission—and the assassination that prompted it—is respected former New York Times investigative reporter Philip Shenon and his much-anticipated book, A Cruel and Shocking Act: The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination (Henry Holt). Shenon trained his critical eye on the 9/11 Commission in The Commission, and advance word says he’s no less rigorous in his critique of the Warren Commission’s infamous post-assassination report, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone—a point of contention whose advocates and adversaries remain as passionate as ever. Shenon says he set out to write an insider’s take on the commission, but as his research revealed that the investigation was compromised by “powerful” entities withholding evidence, the book became a critical look at the commission’s conclusions.
Supporters of the official story need not despair. History Will Prove Us Right (Overlook), by commission staffer Howard P. Willens, takes its title from Chief Justice Earl Warren’s response to criticism of the commission’s investigation. Willens’ book attempts to repudiate the conspiracy community and reclaim the commission’s credibility and conclusions.
Perhaps the oddest new contribution to assassination lore comes from James Reston Jr., son of the late Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist James “Scotty” Reston. The Accidental Victim: JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, and The Real Target in Dallas (Zola Books) makes the case that Texas Gov. John Connally was Oswald’s intended target. According to Reston, Oswald had written to Connally asking for help to restore his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps. When Connally brushed him off, the theory goes, Oswald’s ire grew murderous.
As history-upheaving as Reston’s argument is, the winner of this season’s Kennedy bibliography bomb-throwing contest is probably Roger Stone, a longtime Republican consultant who worked in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations, and his unsubtly titled The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ (Skyhorse), complete with a photo of the alleged conspirator-in-chief on the cover.
Stone is by no means the first to finger LBJ as the man with the diabolical plan. That there was no love lost between the Kennedys and their Texan vice president is not news, nor are the whispers that JFK was considering dropping LBJ from the 1964 ticket as charges of corruption—and worse—levied by convicted swindler Billy Sol Estes threatened to bring down the most ruthlessly ambitious of politicians. But press material for the book, forthcoming in November, hints at new allegation-backing information gleaned from discussions with Nixon and others in the White House.
James Swanson, author of the bestselling Chasing Lincoln’s Killer, will release two JFK books this fall: End Of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (William Morrow) and, for young adults, The President Has Been Shot! The Assassination of John F. Kennedy (Scholastic Press). Swanson, reaffirming the official story, told The Washington Post that he planned his take to be “definitive.”
Less definitive is Who Killed John F. Kennedy?, published in January by Austin’s Despair, Inc., best known for its “ demotivational” posters. A parody of the “choose your own adventure” series of children’s game books, the illustrated paperback’s satirical premise may hew closer to reality than its more substantive shelf-mates: “The detective is you! The victim is JFK! And the mystery is utterly unsolvable!”
If all this attention to a politician dead for half a century seems exhaustive, not to say exhausting, remember that books on Lincoln’s assassination still fly off shelves 148 years after the fact. And the seemingly ceaseless revisitations are indicative of an ongoing tug-of-war over the historical narrative of the Kennedy assassination that’s been afoot since Mark Lane’s 1966 book Rush to Judgment (Thunder’s Mouth Press) first challenged the Warren Report. The pendulum swings back and forth. To this day, polls show that a majority of Americans believe Kennedy’s assassination resulted from conspiracy, though the percentages holding that opinion dip a bit each year.
The Oswald-did-it-alone camp blames the 1991 Oliver Stone film JFK for poisoning the well, but in recent years it’s been the anti-conspiracy books—by celebrity authors—that have enjoyed the most success. Charles Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s Reclaiming History (W.W. Norton) and FOX News tool Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Kennedy (Henry Holt) both stand firmly behind the official story. Just two years ago Stephen King took the plunge with the novel 11/22/63 (Gallery Books), in which a character named Oswald pulls the trigger of his own volition.
Celebrities do conspiracy, too. Earlier this year, comedian/actor Richard Belzer released Hit List (Skyhorse), enumerating the suspicious deaths of assassination witnesses in the years after the event.
The tension between such widely differing views on what happened that fateful day are reflected in absentia in the official program the city of Dallas is preparing to mark the anniversary. The official story will be the only one acknowledged, and everyone’s favorite mainstream historian, David McCullough, will be on hand to validate that version of events, lest anyone continue to harbor any doubt.