The Kennedy Library

  • by Ronald Goldfarb
  • November 20, 2013

Today's commentary is the first of two parts in Ronald Goldfarb’s review of the vast Kennedy literature prompted by the 50th anniversary of his death.

The Kennedy Library

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was president for less than one term, but more books have been written (along with documentaries and movies) about him, his wife, his father, his brothers, his family, his lovers, than any other president in U.S. history except for Abraham Lincoln. (One estimate – 40,000.) And not only are there shelves of books about all parts of his life, an expansive library of books examine his tragic death in Dallas. Since 2013 is the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination, every publisher seems to have some book to commemorate JFK in November.  This edition of CapitaLetters will discuss some of the many books on JFK’s life and career. Next week, I will review more of the assassination literature.

In Dallas 1963 (Twelve), Texas authors Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis describe the deep and hateful political passions percolating in Dallas leading up to the assassination. The authors describe the toxic atmosphere, created by right wing extremists and media, fueled by angry super-pseudo patriots and manifested in earlier incidents against Ambassador Adlai Stevenson, and native Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson well before the arrival of JFK on the fateful day of his assassination.  Kennedy had been warned to avoid Dallas, but refused entreaties to cancel this trip, stating he could not be the American president and be afraid to visit one of its cities. He was a fatalist and a risk taker.

The authors explore “how fear and unease can take root…in a seemingly orderly universe.” They try to make sense of the senseless by describing “the swirling forces at work” in Dallas 1963.The hate mongers of 1963 were precursors to some who have emerged on the political scene in recent years, frightening modern observers that the lessons of Dallas 1963 have not been learned.

Historian Martin Sandler’s The Letters of John F. Kennedy (Bloomsbury Press), most from the JFK Presidential Library, fill a lighter volume. The collection covers Kennedy’s career before and including his 1000 White House days, formal communiqués (Cuban Missile Crisis exchanges) and informal frivolities (invitations, thank you’s), such diverse entries as secret correspondence with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, charming letters from children, and “matters of conscience” letters to officials and academics stating official positions on crucial issues. The letters provide a panoramic (and protective) picture of Kennedy’s life and experiences. Sandler introduces the various sections with brief essays.

One very specialized report comes from the 46 (now retired) physicians at Parkland Memorial Hospital who recollect their roles in treating JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald in We Were There: Revelations from the Dallas Doctors Who Attended JFK on November 22, 1963 (Skyhorse). (I was their agent, I should note.) Readers particularly interested in that one special phase of the tragedy will find it interesting. There are no eureka revelations, but one prism – heretofore untold – in a profound, kaleidoscopic day in our nation’s history.

In JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency, John T. Shaw (Macmillan), a veteran congressional correspondent for Market News International, writes about Senator John F. Kennedy’s eight years in the Senate. Shaw exaggerates the profundity of Kennedy’s Senate experiences (in the mold of Winston Churchill?  Really?). He describes Kennedy’s work on a little known and inconsequential Special Committee to name the five most important Senators in our history as evidence of Kennedy’s maturation from back bencher to serious legislator. Suggesting that this experience, an interesting scholarly and intellectual exercise, paved his way to a greater presidency is a stretch. A better assessment of his rise to national prominence would focus on his work on the televised Labor Rackets (McClellan) Committee hearings, highlighting him and his brother Robert F. Kennedy who was committee counsel.

In his thin book, Shaw concludes that JFK changed the Senate, a questionable idea (LBJ surely did), and that like him President Obama also journeyed from quiet years in the Senate to the White House. In fact, both presidential journeys had little to do with their Senate experiences.

Along with books readers can miss by and about Secret Service agents, more speculation about Jack and Jackie, whether JFK was really a conservative, the last 100 days, and what may have been if JFK lived, are analyses by serious scholars; Robert Dallek’s disappointingly “lite” Camelot Court, Inside the White House and The Kennedy Half-Century, Larry Sabato’s sober and balanced assessment of Kennedy’s growing political and collateral legacy.

No one will read all of this avalanche of JFK books, of course. Students of the literature will choose those offerings that fill a void in their reading lists. For the reader who comes to the subject for a first and last time, The Kennedy Years, selections from the pages of the New York Times, edited by Richard Reeves, provides a rich smorgasbord. It collects writings about JFK’s election, the New Frontier days of his administration – at home and abroad – our entry into the Vietnam quagmire and the civil rights revolution at home – and of course his assassination.  Times’ stars – Tony Lewis, James Reston, Tom Wicker, Max Frankel, Claude Sitton, David Halberstam and others – provided notable pieces which offer a political panorama to the generation that didn’t read them at the time. The Kennedy Years offers no news, but a rich review of the glamour and tragedy of Kennedy’s presidency, including photographs that will make readers smile and weep, as we who lived those years and participated in our personal ways did at the time, and still do.

After half a century, the rise and fall of Camelot continues to engage the public. JFK was telegenic, glamorous, seductive, and his death was a transfixing event, magnified by worldwide television coverage. Kennedy and his death continue to be a national indulgence fed and fueled by media. Yet with all the books and fascination about JFK, none reach to the level of Robert Caro’s examination of the life of Lyndon Baines Johnson, his less charismatic successor.


Ronald Goldfarb’s column CapitaLetters appears regularly in the Washington Independent Review of Books. This column of CapitaLetters and the next one are reported from the Miami International Book Fair.


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