Killing Kennedy: “…a riveting period in history.”

Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot.

French author Marcel Proust once wrote a soporific epic called Remembrance of Things Past in which he made much of taking a bite of something called a “Madeleine” cake. What was special about this supposedly tasty treat was that it caused an explosion of “involuntary” memories, opening vistas in the mind of times, places and people from his past. Reading Killing Kennedy – The End of Camelot, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (Holt, Henry & Company, Inc., 2012), had the same effect on me. It opened up hurts and hopes long thought quieted by time. It brought the whole panoply of exciting, colorful, inspiring and horrifying events to my consciousness afresh. I was fourteen years old again, saying to myself—pleading with the authors to tell me as once I pleaded with a grainy black and white Walter Cronkite: “Please, please, say it isn’t so.”

O’Reilly and Dugard’s first collaboration, Killing Lincoln, has been on the New York Times non-fiction best seller’s list for 54 weeks (as of this writing), and is currently number 6 (see my review of Killing Lincoln). In its first week of publication, Killing Kennedy is number 1. Their success, as near as I can tell, comes from being able to write a relatable narrative that informs and touches on a very basic level. Neither is an historian. Their books are not scholarly. They just tell a riveting story. O’Reilly, of course, is a conservative lightening rod because of his role as a commentator on Fox News, but anyone who doesn’t read Killing Kennedy because of that is guilty of an ad hominem reaction that may serve to do little but deprive them of a special experience.

There are no earth shattering revelations in this book, nothing that will change a conspiracy theorist’s mind or cause a “one man, one gun” theorist to shift opinions. This is quite simply a narrative of a magical time in our storied past, beginning with PT 109 and leading to that awful day in Dallas when America changed forever.

History is essentially a narrative, and this is a well-written one that capsulizes the Camelot years, focusing on events and persons whose names are all familiar to anyone who lived through the period—many of whom had every reason in the world to want JFK dead. This is not hagiography however; O’Reilly / Dugard go into great lengths to address Kennedy’s legendary womanizing (“Sex is John Kennedy’s Achilles’ heel.”). There is no excusing Kennedy for his authorization of the debacle of the Bay of Pigs; Kennedy did not excuse himself, appearing on national television to accept full responsibility for a decision which he made. Oddly, his approval rating soared to over 80 percent in the wake of his television address (his average approval rating never dipped below 70 percent). He may have screwed up at the Bay of Pigs, but he learned many things in the process—things that would later help him avoid a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban missile crisis a year later.

It is probably naïveté on my part, but I am a firm believer in the role of Providence in history and in the role that leaders play in that history. Lincoln came out of nowhere to become the man who held this nation together in a time of its greatest crisis. Kennedy should have lost to Nixon, but won by the slimmest of margins. I have always believed that in Kennedy, God raised up a man to ensure that the world would not dissolve into a fine white powder in October 1962. One thing that does come across clearly in this book is that in the face of danger, good leaders must be decisive and stand up to national security threats. On national television, he advised a terrified country of his resolve:

“Aggressive conduct, if allowed to grow unchecked and unchallenged, ultimately leads to war. This nation is opposed to war. We are also true to our word. Our unswerving objective, therefore, must be to prevent the use of these missiles against this or any other country and to secure their withdrawal or elimination from the Western hemisphere.”

“If anything shows how much JFK has grown since taking the Oath of Office,” O’Reilly writes, “it is this resolve, at this moment.”

I have been waiting for such resolve from the Obama White House as I read about ongoing nuclear development in Iran. And waiting. And waiting.

Jacqueline Kennedy and her children, Caroline and John, walk down the steps of the Capitol to follow the funeral cortege of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, on November 25th 1963. The nation watched on grainy black and white televisions. Image: Wikipedia

This is not a conspiracy theory book. Like me, O’Reilly / Dugard are fairly certain that there was only one gunman in Dallas, and that he fired from the Texas School Book Depository. It’s a hard pill to swallow, which is why so many are still dedicated to a two or three-shooter hypothesis—even though none of the facts bear it out. It is just hard to believe that one “loon” with a rifle and a very disturbed mind can have such a devastating effect on the lives of so many. As with the “loon” who shot Gabby Gifford, it’s easier to stomach if it is part of some grand conspiracy. But life is sometimes that absurd. One lone loon can change history. Oswald did more than kill Kennedy: he altered the character of a nation.

When I finished this book, I was fourteen again. I could recall how one of my fellow students at Our Saviour’s Grade School came back late from lunch. At first, he was in trouble—but he had a good excuse: when he was home, he had heard on the radio that someone shot the President. What followed was surreal: a quick trip across the street for benediction, where there was sobbing in the pews and disbelief; early dismissal from school, and then an entire weekend in front of a small black and white television with rabbit ears watching live broadcasts. The president’s return to DC in a casket, the news reports about Oswald, the murder of Oswald on Sunday morning, and the heart-breaking funeral on Monday were all played out for a nation in shock.

It hurt to read this book. I suspect that some others who lived through this will feel that hopelessness once again. There has never been a president since Lincoln who captured the spirit of the country or the hearts of its people like John F. Kennedy. For all of his flaws, he was a man with a vision, a man with strength, intelligence, and grace. All of this comes through in O’Reilly’s book. And that makes it worth reading—I don’t care what you think of the author and his political leanings.

Camelot ended November 22, 1963. Killing Kennedy reminds us once again of what we had, what we lost, and what we have never seen since.

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

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