On 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.