‘Killing Kennedy’ plays to non-conspiracy readers

Chris Banner

By A Contributor

It has been forty-nine years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. People may be divided into four groups, first, those who, perhaps passionately, believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing him; second, those who perhaps passionately, believe that some conspiracy group backed an assassin on the grassy knoll to kill him; third, those who are more interested in the glamour and dynamism of the president and his family than in who killed him; and fourth, those who really do not care who killed him or about the Kennedys in general.

O’Reilly and Dugan’s “Killing Kennedy” is for people in the first group. Incidentally, these two men are authors of the recent book “Killing Lincoln,” which was reviewed on these pages on October 16. Both books are currently on the bestseller list - quite an accomplishment for authors of non-fiction. O’Reilly is well known as the host of Fox News’ “The O’Reilly Factor.”

The second half of the book’s title refers to a musical Kennedy liked, “Camelot,” which was popular at the time. It had a line that there was a place where “there’s simply not a more congenial spot for happily-ever-aftering.” People hoped, after the Eisenhower years, that life would be better because of Kennedy’s presidency. As the title indicates, it did not turn out that way.

“Killing Kennedy” opens with the well-known, dramatic World War II story of Kennedy’s boat, PT109, being sunk and his heroic effort to save his sailors. It then jumps to 1961, after he has taken office, and goes on from there.

We see the young president as a dynamic, master politician dealing with such difficult and important issues as trying to remove Cuban President, Fidel Castro; ordering the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion and facing the consequences if its failure; handling the Cuban missile crisis; dealing with the Soviet Union and its president, Nikita Khrushchev; witnessing the building of the Berlin wall; watching the U.S. gradually get sucked into the war in Vietnam because of the perceived communist threat and the widely held domino theory; and working with the leaders of the civil rights movement.

The reader also sees Kennedy deal with various people of power in Washington who really did not like or trust him. These individuals included Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, Allen Dulles of the CIA, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, the diplomatic corps and senior members of the military establishment.

We see him as a celebrity, associating with important and popular individuals in politics, the arts and entertainment and the civil rights movement.

We also see him as a family man, enjoying the company of his adoring wife, Jackie, and their two children. We live through Jackie’s loss of three babies.

We see him meeting his compulsive, adulterous needs which, if known by the public, would have ruined him. Although his activities were well known by members of the press corps at the time, they chose not to reveal them.

We also follow the life and activities of his assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. We find out when he joined the Marines; why he defected to the Soviet Union and then returned to the U.S.; his attempt to move to Cuba; his marital problems; and finally, his killing of Kennedy, being captured and being slain by Jack Ruby. We also hear him say after his capture “I am just a patsy,” which has inspired countless theories of conspiracy that the authors categorically and emphatically deny.

In all, “Killing Kennedy” makes his life, activities and times come alive to readers who might not know much of him fifty years later.

This book has several good features.

It tells us from time to time how much longer Kennedy has to live, thereby adding unity to the tale and building tension. It has maps, which are useful in following the action in the narrative. The chapters are divided into sections about one page long, which go back and forth between issues and personalities.

This helps the reader follow several different story lines at the same time and to maintain human interest. The photos are placed with their associated text. The ‘afterword’ tells what became of the major characters.

This book also has some problems. One is that the ‘sources’ are weak.

There is neither a real citation section nor a real bibliography; it does not help the advanced reader to check up on specific facts but is probably good enough for the ordinary reader.

A greater problem is that this book basically ends with Jack Ruby killing Lee Harvey Oswald, and Jackie’s grief at loosing her husband. This simple ending is consistent with the authors’ belief that Oswald acted alone but it leaves out conflicting statements of how Kennedy’s body was handled, the autopsies’ results and a lot of other controversies that the conspiracy believers seize upon. Perhaps this is permissible in a book written for popular reading but it is not good scholarship.

As the book’s place on the best seller list indicates it is a quick and easy, well written read that is difficult to put down.

If you are in one of the first three groups mentioned at the beginning of this review you will be interested to know that the Manhattan Public Library has on its shelves more than fifty books about who killed the President Kennedy and the Kennedys in general.

You could start your reading with “Killing Kennedy” and then visit the library for more. If you are in the fourth group, you probably will not want to bother.

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