One gunman (maybe), three gunshots and 36 pounds of new books piled high on the bathroom scale.
In the past month, during the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the day that President John F. Kennedy was killed in Dallas, publishers have flooded the market with books about the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination.
It seems every bookseller with an eye on the calendar was poised to weigh in on this “cruel and shocking act,” as the Warren Commission described the murder.
But 36 pounds of reading — which accounts for most but not all of the new JFK-Oswald-assassination-anniversary literature — is much more effort than most people want to put in.
Who has the time?
Besides, it gets depressing to experience the same shooting over and over, like some ghoulish version of the movie “Groundhog Day,” in more than a dozen books. Conspiracy-theorist authors try to spice things up by directing blame at someone new, but the story still ends in the same disheartening way.
That’s why we’ve pored over these books, some quite good, others rather ridiculous, so you don’t have to waste precious time and money on any of the lesser releases.
The new Kennedy books basically fall into three categories:
There are those maintaining that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone and that the Warren Commission more or less got the facts right; there are those suggesting that the truth can be found in one or more of the many conspiracy theories; and there are a few that valiantly try to put a fresh spin on the subject.
One author who attempted to tell the story in a completely new way is Philip Shenon. His “A Cruel and Shocking Act” (Henry Holt, $32) focuses on the seven members of the Warren Commission and the support staff of young lawyers, on how they did their work and how they were sometimes led astray.
Although Shenon, a former New York Times reporter, comes away expressing admiration for the team that tried to do a good job, he ultimately concludes that the Warren Report is deeply flawed, mostly because the FBI and CIA withheld and destroyed mountains of evidence for a variety of reasons.
In the meantime, Shenon gets sidetracked chasing after a few conspiracy-theory ghosts, as well (namely, the possibility of a Cuban connection), even though he admits that this wasn’t his agenda when he started writing. There’s just something about the assassination that brings out the theorist in all of us.
Another solid book is “The Day Kennedy Died: 50 Years Later LIFE Remembers the Man and the Moment” (Life Books, $50). It’s a photo-fueled volume culled from all the work published over the decades by Life magazine. It even includes a replica of the Nov. 29, 1963, Life issue that reported the tragedy.
The editors of this book have almost no interest in acknowledging alternate theories, but they’re obsessed with the Zapruder film, which is why they show all 486 frames of the famous 8mm footage.
One of the book’s highlights is the collection of “Where Were You When You Heard?” anecdotes from an assortment of famous people, including Jimmy Carter, Sergei Khrushchev, Tom Wolfe, James Earl Jones, Roger Staubach and Bob Schieffer (who was the night police reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at that time).
“End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy” (William Morrow, $29.99) is very readable because the author, James Swanson, writes it like he would a fast-paced true-crime book.
Swanson re-creates the day in rich, colorful detail and minute-by-minute pacing. When, in the fourth chapter, JFK tells the first lady on the morning of Nov. 22 that, “We’re heading into nut country today; but, Jackie, if someone wants to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?” it feels more like thriller fiction than actual history.
Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis also address the assassination in a different way in “Dallas 1963” (Twelve Books, $28). They make the city itself the main character and examine how a climate of hatred within the community “set the stage for one of the greatest tragedies in American history.”
The most physically imposing JFK book comes from Vincent Bugliosi, who is best known for his definitive Charles Manson book, “Helter Skelter.” Bugliosi’s 1,612-page reissue of 2007’s “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy” (Norton, $79.95) promises to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Oswald acted alone and to discredit all of the other crackpot theories.
Alas, despite Bugliosi’s efforts, wild speculation still runs rampant.
Thus, we get fringe material like “The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ” (Skyhorse, $24.99), in which author Roger Stone, a former Nixon insider, merges two conspiracy theories. He insists that Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, masterminded the shooting while identifying a man named Malcolm “Mac” Wallace as the actual shooter.
Meanwhile, Jesse Ventura — yes, THAT Jesse Ventura — lets the speculation fly in “They Killed Our President: 63 Reasons to Believe There Was a Conspiracy to Assassinate JFK” (Skyhorse, $24.95). His book promises to expose inside information that he personally compiled for his “Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura” TV show, info that leads him to conclude that Oswald was “operational with U.S. Intelligence.” Then Ventura closes with a purely personal agenda, directing readers to his Facebook page, on which he wants to rally Americans to put pressure on Congress and “take back our country.”
Julian Read, a longtime Texas political insider, also gets personal in “JFK’s Final Hours in Texas: An Eyewitness Remembers the Tragedy and Its Aftermath” (Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, $24.95). But given Read’s credentials, he’s allowed to insert himself into the story. What’s more, his book is probably deserving of a much bigger publisher.
As the national media representative for Texas Gov. John Connally, Read was on the White House press corps bus that trailed the presidential limo by fewer than 200 yards. Later, he was in the room at Mrs. Connally’s side and across the hall from an unaccompanied first lady, at Parkland Memorial Hospital, where surgeons tried to save Kennedy.
Read’s is a slender book, barely more than 200 pages, but he offers something that the more verbose JFK authors can’t. While they did painstaking research, hoping to re-create the day and to capture an insider’s feel, Read needed only to write down the things that he remembers from actually being there.
Meanwhile, Scott D. Reich’s “The Power of Citizenship: Why John F. Kennedy Matters to a New Generation” (BenBella Books, $24.95) attempts to redirect the JFK conversation elsewhere.
His book is more about citizenship and public service, assessing Kennedy’s legacy and value to “a new generation born in a new era and in a world dramatically different from the one he inhabited.”
While so many authors are preoccupied with playing conspiracy-theory detective on a mystery that just might be unsolvable, maybe Reich’s approach is the one that’s going to be more constructive in the long term.