Col­lec­tion of JFK books for 50th an­niver­sary

As time passes and per­spec­tive shifts there’s not much left to say, writes JOE MYSAK

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - BOOKS -

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.

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