Collection of JFK books for 50th anniversary
As time passes and perspective shifts there’s not much left to say, writes JOE MYSAK
NOVEMBER 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK Kennedy that so many people are eager to say marked the end of – what? Innocence? Optimism? Balderdash. The passage of time and the diligence of historians and journalists have knocked some of the lustre and a lot of the sentiment off the 35th US president’s 1 000 days in office. At this point, though, the soup is getting pretty thin.
The best of the cascade of books being published to coincide with that day in Dallas is surely Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court (Harper), a critical examination of the president’s circle of advisers.
Dallek shows a group of smart, ambitious men who almost consistently gave bad advice. History has not been kind to National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara. (The attorney-general, younger brother Bobby, on the other hand, improves with every reading).
Only now, after the Cold War, can we second-guess what these advisers thought constituted the real nature of the communist threat.
As Dallek writes: “Hyperbole had become the accepted wisdom about communist dangers.” Kennedy had learnt never to rely on the experts, most of whom advocated invasion (Bay of Pigs), the introduction of troops (Vietnam) or all-out nuclear war (Cuban missile crisis).
Would Kennedy have done better had he focused on domestic affairs? We’ll never know. Foreign affairs are presidential catnip. Perhaps the saddest words in this book are the comments Kennedy made to Richard Nixon after the Bay of Pigs disaster:
“It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president to handle, isn’t it? I mean, who gives a... if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, in comparison to something like this?”
Well, we have had a good run of presidents “handling” foreign affairs and most Americans, I suspect, are heartily sick of it by now.
Larry J Sabato’s The Kennedy Half-Century (Bloomsbury) claims to have “new revelations” about the assassination. Sabato analysed the police Dictabelt recordings of Dealey Plaza that day and finds that, no, they probably don’t reveal a second shooter on the grassy knoll. Surprise! Sabato writes that the shooting “is critical both to understanding America’s past and future paths and to the lasting legacy of John Kennedy”. No it isn’t. The Kennedy legacy, such as it is, steadily diminishes with the passing of the years. What’s left is assassination porn.
Special pleading is always a bore, and so it is with Ira Stoll’s JFK, Conservative (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Stoll writes: “Understanding Kennedy as a political conservative may make liberals uncomfortable by crowning conservatism with the halo of Camelot.”
Does anyone really care about this anymore? Even a cursory reading of the Kennedy record shows that he was not a man of the ’60s.
Two other books take us back to Dallas. Hugh Aynesworth’s November 22, 1963: Witness to History (Brown Books) is a nice memoir of local events of that day, and Dallas 1963 (Twelve), by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L Davis, looks at JFK’s domestic life. – Washington Post
NATURE-LOVING: Virginia Woolf’s beautiful English garden hints at a more content, domestic side to the writer.