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

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.

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