Camelot Revisited
Three new books look at the life and death of the most highly rated president of the past half century.

President John F. Kennedy


James Rosen

Sunday, November 22, 1964, some 40,000 Americans — a crowd greater than the capacity at Boston’s Fenway Park — visited Arlington National Cemetery to pay their respects on the first anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Stung by the numbingly cold air of that crisp, sunny day, the mourners paused, one by one, to gaze upon the “eternal flame” that flickered, and still burns today, at the gravesite of our 35th president.

That same month, Redbook magazine, its stark white cover adorned with a charcoal sketch of JFK, carried a special 14-page tribute. Therein liberal literary critic Diana Trilling asked whether Americans glued to their television sets a year earlier hadn’t been “indulging ourselves in our extreme of mourning . . . not from devotion to Kennedy himself but from the need to know the gratification of strong feeling . . . while again and again we rehearsed our emotions of devastation.” No, Trilling concluded; the outpouring of grief stemmed from a deep affinity with JFK himself, whom she described as “all romance . . . all romantic heroism.” While conceding that Kennedy was “a man of whom it was possible to guess that he could be ruthless,” Trilling nonetheless saw in the slain leader not just “a figure of political dominance and authority [but] also the fulfillment of our dream of what a human being can be”:

He demonstrated that it is possible to be concerned with power without capitulating to its brutalizing influences; to be intelligent without being disarmed for practical affairs; to be practical without being earthbound; to be earnest and yet at the same time humorous and high-spirited, dignified and yet relaxed, daring and yet cautious and responsible. By his own examples, that is, he promised us our full complex humanity.

In ways that Trilling never envisioned, the passage of five decades has served to acquaint us, in ever more granular detail, with the overwhelming complexity of JFK’s humanity, including perhaps especially his capacity, in and out of the political arena, for ruthlessness. To the estimated 40,000 volumes already written about JFK, the 50th anniversary of his murder reportedly brings us a few hundred more; and two of them — James L. Swanson’s End of Days, a concise tick-tock account, and Larry J. Sabato’s more ambitious The Kennedy Half-Century, a multi-disciplinary effort that weighs in at 603 pages — bring into sharp relief once again these contradictory traits in mid-century America’s proudest son. Perhaps fittingly, the anniversary also brings us only one new book about the president’s killer — Peter Savodnik’s The Interloper — but it is an important work, for it illuminates, as never before, the complexity of humanity that also graces the most wretched assassin.

Sabato is the most prominent political scientist of our age. Virtually every Beltway reporter, including this one, has more than once quoted the plainspoken, nonpartisan purveyor of Larry J. Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the electoral-analysis website affiliated with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, where Sabato teaches. Five years in the making, The Kennedy Half-Century clearly reflects a long-held obsession. The author repeatedly quotes his father’s contemporaneous reactions to the televised horrors of November 1963, and provides 153 pages of dense footnotes that encompass thousands of old and new sources. And Sabato’s immersion in the subject enables him to reach a unique sort of meta-harmony with it, achieved through the unusual presence, in advance copies of the book, of blacked-out passages. It is as if Sabato felt he could not make an authentic contribution to the literature of the Kennedy assassination if his book did not physically resemble a redacted CIA document.

This precaution was taken to protect until publication what Sabato regards as his sexiest finding. Arrived at with the help of a Connecticut-based “sonar analysis” firm, this mini-bombshell concerns the scratchy Dictabelt recording made from the open microphone of a Dallas police officer’s motorcycle on the day of the assassination. Technicians retained by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) in 1979 discerned from this piece of acoustical evidence that four shots were fired at the Kennedy motorcade, one more than Oswald could possibly have squeezed off with his World War II–era rifle in the time frame established by the Zapruder film.

The Dictabelt accordingly stood at the heart of the HSCA’s controversial conclusion that the assassination was likely the result of a conspiracy, a finding that directly challenged that of the Warren Commission, which determined in September 1964 that Oswald alone had shot and killed Kennedy and wounded Texas governor John Connally.

JFK Remembered
As the nation remembers the presidency of John F. Kennedy on the 50th anniversary of his death on November 22, here’s a look back at images of Kennedy from his 1960 campaign and during his time as the 35th President of the United States.
THE CAMPAIGN: Kennedy arrives at Los Angeles International Airport on his way to the Democratic Party convention.
Kennedy announces his candidacy for president to convention delegates at the Los Angeles Coliseum, July 15, 1960.
Kennedy aboard his campaign plane.
Kennedy talks with a farmer during a campaign visit to Fort Dodge, Iowa.
Kennedy speaks to garment workers at a factory in downtown Los Angeles, Calif.
Kennedy with Republican nominee Richard M. Nixon during one of their historic presidential debates.
Kennedy (lower right) greets a rally of some 20,000 supporters outside a hotel in Minneapolis, Minn.
John and Jacqueline during a ticker-tape parade in New York City.
CHIEF EXECUTIVE: Kennedy delivers his inaugural address in Washington, D.C.
John and Jacqueline share a moment in the Capitol Hill rotunda shortly after he was sworn in as president.
The First Couple attend the inaugural ball.
Attorney General Robert Kennedy and President Kennedy talk during escalating tensions with the Soviet Union over missile emplacements in Cuba.
Kennedy stands before a large map of Laos during a televised news conference on foreign policy.
Vice president Lyndon Johnson (left), President Kennedy, and Jacqueline stand in the White House secretary’s office as they watch news coverage of astronaut Alan Shepard becoming the first American in space.
News crews fill the Oval Office for a presidential address on Kennedy’s talks with Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev and French President Charles de Gaulle.
Kennedy at his desk in the Oval Office after signing a presidential proclamation concerning the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Kennedy with Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev at the Vienna Summit in Austria.
Kennedy speaks to a cheering crowd at City Hall in West Berlin, Germany.
Kennedy delivers his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in West Berlin, Germany.
Kennedy (third from right) meets with civil rights leaders prior to the March on Washington in August, 1963. The Reverend Martin Luther King is seen at left.
FAMILY MAN: The First Family and their dogs at Hyannis Port, Mass.
Kennedy in the Oval Office with Caroline and John Jr.
Kennedy and three-year-old daughter Caroline exit a White House elevator.
John and Jacqueline watch the 1962 America’s Cup competition aboard USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., off Newport, R.I.
The Kennedy Clan (from left): Robert, Edward, and John Kennedy in Washington, D.C.
PRESIDENTIAL AFFAIRS: Kennedy on the tarmac in West Palm Beach, Fla., on his way back to Washington after a tour of Latin America.
Kennedy with Mexican president Adolfo Lopez Mateos during a ticker-tape parade in Mexico City.
Kennedy greets residents of Galway during a visit to Ireland.
Kennedy inspects the Friendship 7 Mercury-program space capsule with astronaut John Glenn (left) and Vice President Johnson at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Kennedy watches a Polaris missile launch in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Kennedy prepares to throw the ceremonial first pitch in Washington, D.C.
Kennedy speaks at a Democratic Party dinner at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C., in front of a birthday cake in his honor.
Kennedy in the Oval Office.
A 16-year-old Bill Clinton shakes Kennedy’s hand during an American Legion Boys Nation event.
Kennedy cracks a smile during an interview with CBS Television.
Kennedy jokes with reporters in the White House Rose Garden.
The Kennedys greet well-wishers at Houston International Airport before travelling to Dallas the next day.
The Kennedys arrive at Love Field in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.
The Kennedys, joined by Texas Governor John Connally and his wife, depart Love Field in the presidential motorcade, November 22, 1963.
Updated: Nov. 21, 2013