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5 new books on Kennedy let readers reflect — and remember

5 new books on Kennedy let readers reflect — and remember

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To Americans who clearly remember where they were and what they were doing when they heard the awful news from Dallas 50 years ago this month, many of the books marking the anniversary offer little that is new. Still, some explain the assassination of President John F. Kennedy for younger readers, dissect details of the Warren Commission’s report or expand on aspects of Kennedy’s political career.

James Swanson’s “End of Days,” which goes on sale Tuesday, offers a crisply written and keenly detailed account of the assassination — and why it ranks with Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as an etched-in-the-memory day for those who recall it. He advances no conspiracy theories and settles on Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone assassin. (Swanson speculates that had Oswald’s wife not spurned him on the evening of Nov. 21, Kennedy might have left Dallas alive.)

In his closing pages, Swanson takes the story forward from 1963 through Jackie Kennedy’s death in May 1994. Indeed, he looks forward a full century to the year 2113. That’s when the National Archives will finally open the vaults that hold the blood-stained pink suit that Mrs. Kennedy wore in Dallas, and the cheap, mail-order rifle that Oswald fired.

(One more piece of memorabilia — the dead president’s brain, removed in the autopsy and stored in a steel container — disappeared mysteriously. Swanson suspects that Robert F. Kennedy somehow made off with it, all to hide any evidence of his brother’s many illnesses.)

Unlike many books about the assassination, “End of Days” notes — if only in passing — the role of television that weekend. “For four straight days,” Swanson writes, “the three national television networks — CBS, NBC, and ABC — immersed the American people in a shared moment of national grief.

“For the first time in U.S. history, the medium of television united a nation through its coverage of a historic event.”

The Warren Commission’s report on the assassination calls the killing “a cruel and shocking act.” Hence the title of Philip Shenon’s new book, subtitled, “The Secret History of the Kennedy Assassination.” A more accurate subtitle might read, “A Ponderous and Sometimes Confusing History of the Warren Commission.”

The day of Kennedy’s death takes up just a tiny bit of this book. Most of the book covers the efforts by the panel headed by Chief Justice Earl Warren to pin down who killed Kennedy, and why. Those efforts generated a storm of turf-battling and bureaucratic butt-covering, all recorded in excruciating detail. (For example, the index lists a staggering total of 367 names, including such unlikely characters as Julia Child and Joseph Stalin.)

To be sure, “A Cruel and Shocking Act” offers bits and pieces of fascinating detail. Among them:

• In the summer of 1964, one of the commission’s lawyers sat down with Fidel Castro in Castro’s yacht off the Cuban coast, where the dictator denied any role in Kennedy’s death.

• In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson told a television interviewer in an off-camera aside, “Kennedy was trying to get Castro, but Castro got to him first.”

• In Mexico City, the CIA had bugged telephones in the embassies of Cuba and the Soviet Union. And the FBI learned that in October 1963, Oswald had marched into the Cuban Embassy and declared, “I’m going to kill Kennedy.”

• Oswald’s Russian-born widow, Marina Oswald, told the commission of her suspicion that her husband’s real target in Dallas had been Texas Gov. John Connelly. The reason: Earlier, as secretary of the Navy, Connelly had refused to upgrade Oswald’s less-than-honorable discharge from the Marines.

• Some of the commission’s staff members speculated that Oswald was a homosexual. On the other hand, the commission heard that Oswald had been involved in an affair with a woman who worked in the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City.

• One of the lawyers on the commission’s staff tried to seduce Marina Oswald.

• For self-serving reasons, the FBI and the CIA withheld lots of evidence from the Warren Commission — evidence that could make the agencies look bad.

• One commission member, then-Rep. Gerald R. Ford of Michigan, served as the FBI’s mole, keeping FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover up to date on the commission’s doings.

• Warren himself believed that Oswald had been a nobody seeking a place in the history books. Shenon writes, “Warren seemed determined to produce a final report that ended speculation about Oswald as anything other than a delusional, violent young man who was alienated from all people and institutions.”

In the end, Warren’s view prevailed in the commission’s report. Even so, speculation persists half a century later. This bulky book makes no effort to produce a speculative smoking gun. But neither does it blow away the smoke of speculation.

In “The Kennedy Half-Century,” political scientist Larry J. Sabato of the University of Virginia gives readers two books.

The first is a biography of Kennedy, with detailed emphasis on Nov. 22, 1963.

The second book looks at Kennedy’s legacy — at how his presidency has influenced his White House successors.

The biographical part looks at Kennedy warts and all, with lots of detail about his sexual philandering. As for Kennedy’s Oval Office record, Sabato portrays Kennedy as a lot less liberal — and much less successful — than legend has it. When it came to taxes, Kennedy wanted to cut them. When it came to civil rights, Kennedy was lukewarm at best. And after the fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, when it came to military muscle, Kennedy flexed it firmly.

But Sabato writes that “the assassination has taken a short presidency and made it the stuff of legend. The gnawing sense of incompleteness, the intense emotions of regret and grief felt simultaneously by almost everyone, and the overwhelming melancholia of unfulfilled dreams obliterated John Kennedy’s faults. They created in the slain president the image of a secular saint that has proven impervious to all sorts of lurid revelations over a half century.”

As to the assassination, the author calls the Warren Commission’s report flawed but is willing to go along with it — at least until something new is discovered. He reviews the various conspiracy allegations, running down their pluses and minuses, mostly their minuses. For example, he establishes firmly that a fourth shot recorded on a motorcycle policeman’s stuck-open radio microphone wasn’t a shot and wasn’t recorded at Dealey Plaza.

Sabato then marches through the next five decades to gauge Kennedy’s influence on the nine men who have succeeded him. (Curiously, only seven get their own chapters. Gerald R. Ford’s term gets tacked onto the end of the chapter about Richard M. Nixon, while the term of the senior George Bush gets tacked onto the chapter about Ronald Reagan. And the chapter on the junior Bush runs only 4½ pages.) Some of Sabato’s conclusions:

• Lyndon B. Johnson pushed through Kennedy’s tax cut proposal — and a powerful civil rights bill. But to his ultimate sorrow, Johnson also followed what he thought was Kennedy’s lead in Vietnam.

• Nixon no longer had to compete with Kennedy or his brother Robert, slain in 1968. But the author says that Nixon “and his circle viewed JFK’s brother Ted as their foremost adversary and obstacle to re-election” — at least until Chappaquiddick.

• Reagan often quoted and praised Kennedy and enjoyed what Sabato calls “Kennedyesque glitz and glamour.” Sabato also points out a rarely noted fact — that Reagan and Kennedy “were generational contemporaries. JFK is frozen in time in his forties, but he would have been sixty-three years old when Reagan took office at age sixty-nine. They were shaped by the same domestic upheavals, world wars, and social norms.” As for Reagan’s salutes to Kennedy, Sabato writes that Kennedy “was conservative (in today’s terms) on both economic policy and foreign affairs. The same holds true for social policies. Feminism, gun control, gay rights, abortion rights, and environmentalism were fringe advocacy concerns in JFK’s day.”

At book’s end, Sabato predicts that at some point, Kennedy’s legacy will fade. And if it never fades as far away as, say, that of Calvin Coolidge, Kennedy will no longer have the special spot he enjoys in the affections of today’s Americans — even those born long after his death.

Another book fleshes out the idea of Kennedy’s conservativism.

Ira Stoll writes that Kennedy won the presidential election in 1960 “by standing by his faith and declaring ‘we know there is a God’; by calling for a bigger military and for more American missiles and for overthrowing Fidel Castro; by defending a sound dollar and denouncing confiscatory taxation; by explaining that tax increases hurt economic growth and [by] criticizing excessive federal spending.”

In “JFK, Conservative,” Stoll says that on civil rights, Kennedy was “cautious, hesitant, even discouraging.” The author grants that Kennedy showed hostility toward one big business, U.S. Steel, which tried to raise its prices. But Stoll cites extenuating circumstances and lets Kennedy off with a slap on the wrist.

The author says that Kennedy and Reagan had remarkably similar views on tax rates and Berlin (“Ich bin ein Berliner,” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”). The book contrasts Kennedy’s record on big government and federal spending with Nixon’s and concludes that Kennedy made Nixon look like a liberal.

Stoll may raise readers’ eyebrows by quoting Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing as saying that the woman-chasing Kennedy “was just as good a Catholic as I am.” Stoll offers his own theory: “Perhaps he was so diligent about Mass and confession and daily prayers and meatless Fridays because he knew he was sinning and felt a need to compensate for it.”

Nowhere does Stoll note that Kennedy served in a time when ideological lines were a lot less stark. Back then, Nelson Rockefeller could be a liberal Republican, and Henry “Scoop” Jackson could be a conservative Democrat. Jack Kennedy could be both liberal and conservative. These days, those sorts of politicians would never survive a primary election, when the True Believers vote.

Before Kennedy became president, he served three terms in the U.S. House and a term and part of a second in the U.S. Senate. In “JFK in the Senate,” John T. Shaw focuses on Kennedy’s Senate record, from his first swearing in early in 1953 to his resignation in late 1960. The verdict:

“During his Senate years Kennedy displayed unmistakable star quality, but also a reluctance to immerse himself in the drudgery of legislative affairs. One observer likened him to a charming young man who dazzles a dinner party crowd but then skips out and leaves others to clean the dishes.” Indeed, the author judges Kennedy’s brother Ted as a vastly superior senator.

As for JFK ... well, to this day, Shaw writes, “the work of the Kennedy Committee is still considered Kennedy’s greatest contribution to the institution of the Senate.” And what was the work of the Kennedy Committee? Selecting five senators from throughout U.S. history to be honored with oil portraits in the Capitol.

The author concludes that Kennedy “used the upper chamber effectively as a political training ground and a political launching pad.”

But how many of us want a book about training grounds and launching pads? As a president, Kennedy stirred the nation. As a senator, he did little that makes for stirring reading.

Harry Levins of Manchester retired in 2007 as senior writer of the Post-Dispatch.

{hr /} ‘End of Days’

By James L. Swanson

Published by William Morrow, 398 pages, $29.99

On sale Tuesday

‘A Cruel and Shocking Act’

By Philip Shenon

Published by Henry Holt, 625 pages, $32

‘The Kennedy Half-Century’

By Larry J. Sabato

Published by Bloomsbury, 603 pages, $30

‘JFK, Conservative’

By Ira Stoll

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pages, $27

‘JFK in the Senate’

By John T. Shaw

Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages, $30

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