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

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.

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



Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review