Although John F. Kennedy died half a century ago this month, the legend of his assassination lives on—at least in the publishing industry, which has never stopped taking us back again and again and again to Dealey Plaza. Nearly 1,400 books have been written about the assassination; one New York house, the Norton-distributed Skyhorse Publishing, has recently turned the topic into a cottage industry, with plans to print or reprint 25 Kennedy books this year alone.
For many of the writers behind these works, the Zapruder film is an endless loop of memory and desire. Jackie Kennedy once said that history was written by “bitter old men,” but that’s not quite the case here. There’s a kind of a Holden Caulfield quality to the men—it’s mostly men—who have built their lives around November 22. They can’t move beyond the frozen moment when their youth and all of their illusions were shattered. That’s what they say, anyway.
Joseph McBride’s Into the Nightmare: My Search for the Killers of President John F. Kennedy and Officer J. D. Tippit (Hightower) is instructive in this regard. A journalist and academic, McBride describes this oversized, self-published volume as the “impassioned account and record of my fifty-year journey of discovery and understanding” of the assassination. In this and several other recent books, including Last Word: My Indictment of the CIA in the Murder of JFK (Skyhorse), by Mark Lane, author of the best-selling Rush to Judgment (1966), the writers become part of the narrative. Notice that “my” is the first word in McBride’s subtitle, and for Lane it’s “My Indictment,” not “An Indictment.” It’s personal. Such writers seem to define their lives by their emotional and intellectual investment in the assassination story. They call the president “John,” and his death is the death of their adolescent innocence. They tell us where they were, what grade they were in, and what school they attended when it happened. Most urgently, they tell us how they felt. And how they still feel. And they always make it seem as if America itself lost its innocence when Kennedy was gunned down. Which makes one wonder why the country didn’t lose its innocence when Lincoln, Garfield, or McKinley was assassinated.
Of course, youth culture and mass media didn’t exist in those days. It was the powerful confluence of the modern teenager and the advent of television that created this self-absorbed response to a distant event. Kennedy was as cool as any member of the Rat Pack; Jackie was beautiful and breathy-voiced, like Marilyn Monroe. The Kennedys were stylish and charismatic, perfect for TV, perfect for adolescent fantasizing, which here turns into something akin to stalking.
In other books this becomes something more like self-stalking. Roger Stone and Mike Colapietro’s The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ (Skyhorse)—which also refers to Kennedy as “John”—applies the following adjectives to Lyndon Johnson: “cruel, crude, vicious, mean spirited, vengeful, aggressive, arrogant, abusive, sex-crazed” before concluding that “the descriptions of his vile actions go on and on.” Any reader familiar with Stone’s own lurid history—he was a pioneer in the school of Republican dirty tricks, with a bizarre sex life—will be forgiven for thinking there’s a fair amount of projection at work in that description.
Let it be noted too that we seem to be experiencing an LBJ moment when it comes to JFK assassination theorizing. In addition to Stone and Colapietro’s lively book, there are Phillip F. Nelson’s 636-page tome, LBJ: The Mastermind of the JFK Assassination (Skyhorse), and Austin-based author Mark North’s Betrayal in Dallas: LBJ, the Pearl Street Mafia, and the Murder of President Kennedy (Skyhorse), which traces connections among LBJ, Dallas politicos, and the mob in a sleazy, film noir–like Dallas presided over by local crime boss Joseph F. Civello. Another North book, Act of Treason: The Role of J. Edgar Hoover in the Assassination of President Kennedy (Skyhorse), makes extensive use of the G-man’s memos to reveal the connective tissue between his actions and those of his friend and neighbor LBJ. The LBJ books—and there are others—weave a complicated web of inference, speculation, and hearsay (tons of hearsay) to indict LBJ for knowledge of, if not direct participation in, the impending assassination. The Johnson-was-behind-it books apply the cui bono argument, giving great weight to the fact that it was he who stood to gain the most from Kennedy’s death. While this may be true, it does not qualify as evidence.
Yet not all JFK authors are caught in this adolescent loop. Some try to set the record straight with a minimum of ego. November 22, 1963: Witness to History (Brown Books) records the observations of Hugh Aynesworth, a well-known Dallas Morning News reporter who covered the story from the first day forward. Early on the morning of November 22, for example, in the Morning News cafeteria, Aynesworth watched Jack Ruby, an “unpleasant hustler with a big mouth,” cut a hole in the newspaper he was pretending to read so that he could ogle a pretty cashier wearing a short skirt. In the days and years to come, Aynesworth talked with Oswald’s mother, whose voice carried a “predatory threat that invaded your head like a dental drill.” Then there was New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, a hero to Oliver Stone but to Aynesworth “a rabid wolf, both crazy and dangerous.” Like McBride and Lane, Aynesworth too has been absorbed with the murder for decades. Yet unlike them, he sticks to the facts as he has discovered them. Local conditions and personalities were rich and strange enough that there is no need for anyone to engage in far-fetched speculation.
Another excavation of that time and place is Dallas 1963 (Twelve), in which Texas authors Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis revisit the political and social currents that roiled Dallas during the three years of the Kennedy presidency: the fights over integration; the extremism of such anti-Kennedy figures as Ted Dealey, H. L. Hunt, and retired Army general Edwin A. Walker; and public embarrassments like the mob scene surrounding United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson’s appearance in the city a month earlier. For further atmospherics from that time, Bryan Woolley’s 1981 novel November 22 (Brown Books), happily back in print, offers a gritty, nuanced cross section of characters and moods in Dallas during the 24 hours of the city’s longest day.
The best new book on the assassination, Peter Savodnik’s The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union (Basic Books), is based on extensive original research and interviews with people in Minsk and Moscow who dealt with Comrade Oswald. Savodnik’s book paints a compelling picture of a perpetually lost figure, an interloper who could never find a place where he belonged. This continual wandering from childhood on filled him with rage, until he turned inexorably toward murder, which is a form of suicide. Savodnik’s conclusion puts paid to all the assassination machinations: “The mysterious and fictional heart of darkness residing somewhere in America did not murder the mythical hero. Oswald did.”
At this juncture it seems altogether fitting and proper to ask whether the shade of Oswald looms over all the attempts to steal his legacy. The ABO (“anyone but Oswald”) authors are like snipers trying to shoot down Oswald, much as he “allegedly” shot down Kennedy. If they can “kill” Oswald, deny him the agency of his act, then his life really does become meaningless. If they can take out Oswald, they’ll be as famous as him.
Sadder still is that so many of these writers have devoted themselves to a subject that is far less important than they would have it. The notion that JFK’s death changed much of anything is strictly a what-if proposition—we really have no idea what he would have done about Vietnam or a hundred other issues had he lived. By contrast, the 1914 assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria genuinely changed the world. The outcome of that murderous deed was a world war that left 10 million dead, a mad scramble to redraw the old maps of imperialism into new maps of imperialism, and the ideological underpinnings for a second world war.
Jackie’s bitter old men may write history, but in this case it’s a very minor history indeed and one they never really grasp. Fifty years later, none of them have convincingly rewritten the narrative of November 22, 1963.