Books

11.21.13

The Essential JFK Books

Of the countless books written about JFK’s death 50 years ago, these are the only five that count—from the boiling hate pot of Dallas to definitive debunking of all the conspiracies.

Oswald’s Tale
By Norman Mailer

One of the rare books by Norman Mailer that got good reviews and sold poorly. British critics were more enthusiastic than their American counterparts. Mailer’s attempt to make Oswald if not sympathetic at least human did appall many on this side of the Atlantic. But Andrew O’Hagan praised Mailer’s fictional account of “Oswald’s struggle to become a man—to become an important and effective male character—as the foundation of much of his adult distress …” Allen Massie found Mailer’s Oswald, “both likeable and repulsive; to be pitied and feared. He is in many ways … like the young Hitler revealed in Mein Kampf.”

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‘Oswald's Tale: An American Mystery’ by Norman Mailer. 864 p. Random House Trade Paperbacks. $13.94 ()

Mailer disappointed numerous conspiracy theorists by coming to the conclusion that, as Mailer’s biographer J. Michael Lennon put it,  Mailer chose “no conspiracy, and a complex Oswald; a man dealt a bad hand, in no way heroic, but bold, idealistic in a twisted way, and sympathetic.”

Thomas Powers spoke for many American critics in the New York Times Book Review, where he wrote, “I admire Mailer for his effort to understand Oswald, but at some level I feel invited to place a sympathetic arm around the killer’s shoulder. I’m not about to do it.”  Nonetheless, most rank Mailer’s foray into Kennedy assassination lit second only to Don DeLillo’s.

Dallas 1963
By Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis

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‘Dallas 1963’ by Bill Minutaglio. 384 p. Twelve. $17.71 ()

You might think that fifty years after JFK’s death there is nothing new to be written about the most shocking American murder since Lincoln’s assassination. Minutaglio and Davis have mined fresh material from the city of Dallas as it was half a century ago, a world created by such leading citizens as billionaire oil baron H.L. Hunt, who was rumored to have produced more oil during World War II than all the Axis powers combined; Stanley Marcus, a Harvard educated marketing genius who, it was said, “brought mink coats to Texas;” and Edwin A. Walker, a flamboyant and controversial infantry commander who believed that America’s leading journalists—Walter Lippman, Edward R. Murrow, and Eric Sevareid—were “convinced Communists;” the leader of the country’s largest Baptist congregation and a rock bed segregationist W. A. Criswell, who “surrounds things in Biblical inviolability;” and publisher of the Dallas Morning News, Ted Dealey, the self-proclaimed protector of “old Dallas” and of “the Dallas way of doing things.” (His family name lives in infamy as it adorns the plaza where Kennedy was shot.)

If you still believe that Oswald didn’t act alone in killing JFK or that Jack Ruby didn’t act alone in killing Oswald, then you need to sit down quietly with Case Closed and hear Posner out.

These and many others just as extreme helped create an atmosphere rife with emotion and they were looking for an event to give focus to their passions. A month before Kennedy was shot, Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was assaulted in Dallas. In retrospect it’s easy to see why so many warned JFK not to go to Dallas; the toxic mix of radical ideologies now make the assassination seem almost inevitable and explains, perhaps for the first time, the environment that spawned a plethora of conspiracy theories.

Libra
By Don DeLillo

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‘Libra’ by Don DeLillo. 480 p. Penguin Books. $11.75 ()

In an author’s note at the end of Libra, Don DeLillo writes that he has made “No attempt to furnish factual answers to any questions raised by the assassination.” In other words, this is a novel and does not purport to solve any of the myriad mysteries surrounding the killing of JFK.  But as a novel, Libra can go places where fact cannot go.

Published close to the 25th anniversary of the assassination, DeLillo, starting from the know facts available from the Warren Commission’s report, court records and newspaper and magazine investigations, creates interior voices for the principal characters. He arrives at an explanation for the killing of the President far different from the official one presented by the Warren Commission, but one which ultimately depend on conspiracy.

Anne Tyler, reviewing Libra for the New York Times, wrote, “Lee Harvey Oswald  has always seemed both much-too-familiar (his rabbity, weak-jawed face staring out of the grimmer sections of every city in America) and endlessly mysterious. To Mr. DeLillo’s credit, that ambiguity is kept alive in Libra. It may even be heightened, because the portrait is so intimate—Oswald washing dishes, Oswald playing with his baby, Oswald cuffing his wife—and he still manages from time to time to surprise us.  Oswald is a loser, a loner, pathetic and self-aggrandizing, one of those people who seize crazily upon the significance of every insignificant coincidence …”

Libra, then, is a painstakingly in-depth portrait of a shallow man who changed the world and the chaos that followed in his wake.

The Death of a President: November 20-November 25 1963
By William Manchester

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‘The Death of a President: November 20-November 25, 1963’ by William Manchester. 736 p. Back Bay Books. $13.92 ()

The Death of a President was commissioned by Jackie Kennedy in 1964 and published in 1967 to much critical acclaim but under a cloud of controversy involving changes demanded by the Kennedy family.  The book was reprinted in 1988 with an updated foreward by Manchester, and this fall that edition was reissued in paperback.

Sober and meticulous almost to a fault, The Death of a President contains previously unpublished interview material from the President and Mrs. Kennedy gathered during the writing of his book  Portrait of a President during which he had interviewed them together in the Oval Office in 1961.

Manchester recounts the last five days of Kennedy’s life in intimate detail.  How intimate? Their flight to Dallas is described: “Their life together now had nearly a full day to run. Yet this was to be their last hour of serenity. The tyranny of events and exhaustion would begin to close in … actually, they hadn’t even an hour. In this plane the hop took only 45 minutes. Privacy was that limited, confined to a tiny blue cabin racing 30,000 feet above the tessellated green and brown plains of central Texas …Their time was up. The President emerged in a fresh shirt.”

We now know that Manchester was telling us, in the politest manner possible, that the President and First Lady had sex on the plane before they arrived in Dallas.

Let’s just say that whatever The Death of A President lacks in insight on the actual assassination, it makes up for it in personal detail of the Kennedys.

Case Closed
By Gerald Posner

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‘Case Closed’ by Gerald Posner. 640 p. Anchor. $12.97 ()

Conspiracy theorists have spent the last 19 years trying to nit-pick Case Closed, which was published on the 30th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, into insignificance. Whatever factual errors they may have found, the book nonetheless stands as the definitive debunker of Kennedy conspiracy theories.

If you still believe that Oswald didn’t act alone in killing JFK or that Jack Ruby didn’t act alone in killing Oswald, then you need to sit down quietly with Case Closed and hear Posner out.