Camelot Revisited

by James Rosen
Three new books look at the life and death of the most highly rated president of the past half century.

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.

Ever since, dueling teams of American and European scientists and engineers, using every new technology as it came along, have alternately validated and rebutted the HSCA’s Dictabelt analysis. In a novel twist, Team Sabato concludes that the recording was in fact made from a police motorcycle positioned more than two miles away from Dealey Plaza when the shots rang out. “Therefore, the long-hoped-for Rosetta Stone of the Kennedy assassination is nothing of the sort,” Sabato writes. “And the much publicized conclusion of proven conspiracy by the [HSCA] was deeply flawed and demonstrably wrong.”

Yet The Kennedy Half-Century hardly dismisses the possibility of a conspiracy. “I do not presume to know for certain what happened on November 22, 1963,” Sabato concedes. Indeed, he writes of how Oswald “may have undertaken the assassination” and makes jarring reference to “the shooter(s).” Yes, Sabato acknowledges the “mountain of evidence” that establishes that Oswald was “at least one of John F. Kennedy’s assassins,” but the author, having mastered the primary and secondary sources and conducted noteworthy interviews and correspondence with surviving figures, cannot rule out a broader plot. Sabato remains troubled by credible eyewitness testimony asserting that shots emanated from the famous grassy-knoll/picket-fence area, and by similarly credible testimony, from independent witnesses, asserting that men in that same area were flashing Secret Service credentials and confiscating eyewitnesses’ camera film, at a time when the president’s motorcade was arriving at Parkland Hospital and no Secret Service officers had yet returned to the crime scene.

Sabato also wrestles with the “slapdash” and highly politicized work of the Warren Commission, and with the outright deception and obstruction the CIA exhibited in its dealings with the Warren Commission and the HSCA — manifest even today in the agency’s continued withholding of up to 50,000 related documents. “Maybe these questions, and others that we have posed, have innocent explanations, but they have eluded honest investigators,” Sabato writes. “A smoking gun for conspiracy has never emerged. . . . But the chance of some sort of conspiracy involving Oswald is not insubstantial. . . . There remains the possibility of a second gunman in the grassy-knoll area.”

Even as he discounts the prospect that CIA vaults, when opened, will disgorge anything of determinative value, Sabato still nourishes certain notions that “may prove true with time,” and that can only be categorized as: conspiracy theories. Assaying the many disparate facts that never added up — the photograph the CIA released of the “Oswald” who visited the Soviet and Cuban embassies in Mexico City two months before the assassination, but who looked nothing like Oswald; the pro-Castro leaflets Oswald distributed in New Orleans, with an address that housed CIA fronts and other dubious tenants; Oswald’s extraordinary travel — Sabato can sound like a writer for High Times in the 1970s:

The more one studies the possible relationship of Oswald to the CIA, the more legitimate doubts spring forth. . . . The pieces of the Oswald puzzle stamped CIA may be ill-fitting, but they could reasonably create a portrait of covert action. CIA headquarters might have found a good use for Oswald. . . . This reasonable interpretation of the evidence does not require a belief that a “rogue element” near the top of the CIA was preparing Oswald to assassinate Kennedy. It is more likely that the agency could have viewed Oswald as a malleable potential low-level operative with an unusual combination of background experiences and contacts. . . . It is [also] impossible to rule out the possibility that a small, secret cabal of CIA hard-liners, angry about Kennedy’s handling of Cuba and sensing a leftward turn on negotiations with the Soviets and the prosecution of the war in Vietnam, took matters into their own hands.

Still another theory — relegated by Sabato to the footnotes and there deemed (almost) impossibly unlikely — is that a second shooter fired at the same time as Oswald without knowing the 24-year-old ex-Marine was firing, too.

The Kennedy Half-Century is really three viable short books aggregated into a single unwieldy one. The first third, a concise account of JFK’s presidency, is a sound but tedious prologue to the more probing material that follows. The second, Sabato’s exhaustive and even-handed treatment of the evidence surrounding JFK’s murder, anchored by the author’s original and penetrating analysis of critical audio recordings, constitutes a valuable contribution to the literature of the assassination. The final third offers a keen survey, deeply sourced in archival materials and original interviews, of how the nine men who have succeeded Kennedy have sought, with varying success and often at their peril, to tap into the JFK mystique. Here, Sabato is more in his element: a shrewd political scientist assessing the modern presidents, judiciously weighing their successes and shortcomings with polling data and fresh insights from the likes of Ted Sorensen, Harry McPherson, and Jimmy Carter.

Talented though he is, James Swanson in his wildest dreams probably never imagined that Manhunt: The Twelve-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killers (2006) would be the smash hit it became. The book logged 13 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and spawned traveling museum exhibits, several spinoff books (including a children’s version), and an HBO series. Now Swanson, an erudite lawyer and historian affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, has sought, with a certain unassailable logic of conceptualization and marketing, to apply the minute-by-minute style of Manhunt to the 20th-century event that most forcefully evoked Americans’ institutional memory of the Lincoln assassination.

The result is predictable: Powered by spare prose and skillful plotting, Swanson’s narrative gifts inject fresh suspense into the story of JFK’s slaying, the apprehension of his killer, and the assassin’s own murder on live television. With his keen eye for detail, Swanson makes smart use of Warren Commission testimony and less familiar sources, such as Oswald’s radio interviews and jailhouse interrogations. Younger generations seeking an authoritative yet digestible account of the events will find it in End of Days.

What readers will not find in Swanson’s book is any new research or evidence, which distinguishes it from Sabato’s effort. At times Swanson also expresses a contempt for his subject that is unbecoming of the dispassionate chronicler. He describes Oswald as “a classic wife beater,” a “compulsive criminal,” “a fool who has no idea what he is talking about,” “[a man of] corrosive obsessions [and] long-simmering resentments, frustrations, and grievances” with a “murderous heart” — all before the Kennedys arrive at Love Field and, by Swanson’s own determination, Oswald has even decided to kill the president. Swanson also ridicules Oswald for mangling large words and dismisses his attempted assassination of retired general Edwin Walker, in April 1963, as “an absurd failure,” even though — having opened the book with the episode, to demonstrate early on Oswald’s capacity for political violence — he has already told us that Oswald “missed Walker’s head by less than an inch.” Even less engaging is Swanson’s snap summary of JFK’s presidency, so simply written as to resemble schoolbook prose: After quoting the famous “ask not” refrain, Swanson helpfully explains, “It was a patriotic call to the people of the United States to be civic-minded and politically active.”

The hero in End of Days is the first lady, whose Gothic suffering is touchingly evoked. Swanson captures Jacqueline Kennedy’s extraordinary stamina and savvy, showing how swiftly and surely she moved, amid intense shock and grief, to chart her husband’s funeral and then, immediately thereafter, to frame the historical view of the Kennedy presidency, with the aid of fawning journalists, in the noble and romantic vision of “Camelot.” Even here, however, Swanson (like Sabato) perpetuates the myth that after the tragic death of the Kennedys’ two-day-old son, Patrick, in August 1963, the first couple “might have been more in love with each other this November than they had been since the year they married. Once they returned from Texas, they could begin again.”

This account ignores the revelations of Once upon a Secret (2012), the well-documented and well-received memoir of Mimi Alford (née Beardsley), the former White House intern whose lurid two-year affair with Kennedy had included his deflowering of the 19-year-old girl on Mrs. Kennedy’s White House bed and, in an even more grotesque scene, the president’s watching as Beardsley, at his instruction, performed oral sex on one of his Irish-mafia buddies in the White House swimming pool. The affair ended on November 15, 1963, in a rendezvous at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. There, JFK told her, in a final embrace: “I wish you were coming with me to Texas. I’ll call you when I get back.” When Beardsley noted that she was about to marry her college sweetheart, the president replied: “I know that. But I’ll call you anyway.”

Halfway through The Interloper, we find the American defector, a mostly unimpressive character whose unusual background makes him a novelty in the USSR, chatting up a young woman at a cello recital in his adopted city of Minsk in the fall of 1960. With the girl looking straight into Oswald’s eyes and “earnestly considering what Lee was saying,” a Russian friend of Oswald’s suddenly approaches to tell him something — but the American slyly wiggles his right foot, without the girl’s noticing, and the Russian friend, taking the hint, backs off.

That Oswald hit on girls, knew how to handle pesky wingmen, had friends in the USSR who cared to tell him things: The accumulation of quotidian detail in The Interloper will startle even hard-core assassination buffs. The rendering of Oswald as a real man, a fathomable character with grandiose thoughts and primal urges, favorite books and private hurts, a tragic childhood and a diffident personality, is Peter Savodnik’s great accomplishment. If there existed between Oswald and the Belorussians he met during his nearly three years in Minsk what one of them described as “a strange film,” an impermeable layer of emotional distance, Savodnik’s exquisite prose and command of the evidence, including Oswald’s diaries, allow the reader to peer through it and see the doomed killer as he was: “fascinating,” as Savodnik writes, but also “grotesque, pitiful, and self-involved.”

It is untrue, as Savodnik claims, that writers have heretofore “avoided delving deeply into Oswald the man.” To Priscilla Johnson McMillan, the Moscow-based reporter who interviewed Oswald shortly after his arrival there, in October 1959, he confided that “he had never in all his life talked to anyone so long about himself.” In 1977, McMillan published the groundbreaking Marina and Lee, the paperback edition of which accurately stated: “For the first time, the assassin’s wife reveals the innermost secrets of her life with the man who shot JFK.” The following year brought Edward Jay Epstein’s meticulous Legend: The Secret World of Lee Harvey Oswald, based on 10,000 classified documents and 400 original interviews. And Norman Mailer would eventually give us Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery (1995), a deeply researched nonfiction novel plumbing the assassin’s interior psychology (and dismissed here, by Savodnik, as “jarring” in its “veiled respect for the assassin as rebel and seeker”).

The particular prism employed by Savodnik, a magazine writer, is geography: We are reminded that Oswald, whose father died two months before he was born, moved with his disturbed mother 20 times before he turned 17, averaging 10.2 months per address. Indeed, the 32 months Oswald spent in the USSR — where, among other things, he tried to kill himself, worked at a factory, dated multiple women, proposed to a Jewish girl who turned him down, met and married the mysterious and beautiful Marina Prusakova, and fathered the first of his two daughters with her — marked his longest stretch of residency anywhere save for a four-year stint in Fort Worth, in his teens, that his diaries largely skip.

In the end, however, even Oswald, the self-taught Marxist, recognized the moral corrosion of the Soviet state. When the defector returned to the United States, his traitorous bid for selfhood having failed, he was more adrift than ever. “I was really the naïve American who believed in communism,” he wrote. “I shall never sell myself intentionally or unintentionally to anyone again.” The 17 months between Oswald’s return to U.S. soil, in June 1962, and JFK’s assassination saw the interloping reach a new frenzy: nine addresses, conservatively counted, less than two months per address.

Only late in the narrative, as an aside, does Savodnik note that Oswald “voiced no interest in religion [and] appeared to have no spiritual aspect.” Yet the author does not posit this as a contributing factor in Oswald’s rootlessness, nor see it as decisive in his ultimate turn to violence; he should have. The ultimate failing of The Interloper is its careful avoidance of the last stepping-stone between Oswald’s belated recognition of his problem — he wrote that his father’s premature death “left [in me] a mean streak of independence brought on by neglect” — and his targeting of JFK. It hardly connects the dots between a rootless and fractured existence and the killing of the president to say: “Something calamitous was almost inevitable.” Oswald’s only known reference to the man he killed was, as Oswald’s aunt told the FBI, “something in praise of President Kennedy”; so how could the assassination have been “inevitable”?

The Interloper will likely be the last large-scale, well-organized effort to conduct original interviews with people who knew Oswald personally. At all points, this book elicits admiration for the author’s global research effort and sadness for the subject’s personal misery. The most touching scene comes in April 1963, when Oswald, again fleeing his family, takes a Greyhound to New Orleans, city of his birth, to visit — for the first and only time — his father’s grave. Then he consults a phone book to dial any Oswalds he can find. Never has one man’s failed search for identity and community had such a profound impact on history, or plunged so many others into loneliness.

— James Rosen is the chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and the author of The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate. This article is reprinted from the November, 25, 2013, issue of National Review.