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Review: New round of books address JFK assassination 50 years later

Library of Congress (1961)
Library of Congress (1961)
Published Nov. 16, 2013

The fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy is pounding through the American media. It seems that everybody who ever attempted to deal with the assassination in print is out with a new book, or an update, or at least a startling email purporting to reveal once and for all to the millions of doubters of the 1964 Warren Commission conclusions what really happened that fateful midday in Dealey Plaza.

I guess I'm culpable here; a third edition of my 2007 treatment of the Kennedy family and how Joseph Kennedy's lifelong entanglement with the important dons of the underworld brought down his sons, Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America (Basic Books), is out there now. It features a new preface in the e-book version, bristling with emerging details as to how exactly the Mob, the CIA and the FBI interacted to deal with the murder of a president and cover up the evidence.

What my upgraded version does not do is attempt to repudiate reality, to reinterpret and glamorize the Kennedy presidency and its central personalities, and lead historians of the future away from the frequently brutal reality of the time. An unhealthy revisionism is obviously setting in. I say this not as some right-wing ideologue, a resurrected Victor Lasky determined to undermine the family's reputation with every gibe possible. On the contrary: As Edward Kennedy's primary biographer — see Edward Kennedy: An Intimate Biography (2010) — I tracked in and out of Ted's life for 50 years. When the Chappaquiddick tragedy was convulsing his emotions, I spent several sessions with him during which he told me everything he could remember. The result turned into an entire issue of Esquire. For years I took flak from media interviewers who accused me of "going into the tank" for the struggling senator. When Ted Kennedy ran for president, his staff lived at my house in New Hampshire for ten days before the critical primary. I wrote speeches. Kennedy's legislative accomplishments were stupefying; his appetites were often astonishingly self-destructive. I dealt with all that in whatever I wrote, and remained his friend.

What seemed most important to me — and I think to Ted — was getting the truth out. But during the last few years something else has been coming on, what has seemingly turned into a shrewdly directed campaign to censor and in effect fictionalize the people and events of the Kennedy era to reinflate their public reputations. Interpreting the genuine history of the Kennedys has turned into the Rashomon of contemporary political journalism. How far all this has gone became apparent last year, when David Nasaw's heavy-duty biography of Joseph P. Kennedy, The Patriarch, weighed in to serious applause.

The author brushes off any press mention of the founding father as a "rich bootlegger" as having "originated in unsubstantiated, usually off-the-cuff remarks made in the 1970s and 1980s by Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Joe Bonanno, and other Mob figures not particularly known for their truth telling." Unfortunately for Nasaw's credibility, there is a tremendous body of compelling evidence to the contrary, from verified eyewitness statements to archived letters to a wealth of declassified government, especially FBI, documents. (Bobby and J. Edgar includes a rundown on Joe's exhaustive business and recreational involvement with the underworld.) Harry Truman openly referred to Joe as "the biggest crook in America."

Typical of the puff books that have appeared recently is Bill O'Reilly's 2012 bestseller Killing Kennedy. (A TV movie version was broadcast recently on National Geographic.) Ghosted in a breathless, you-are-there style, the book betrays no indication of serious background research. One of Joe Kennedy's most effective talents was a knack for befriending — and, when indicated, paying off — the press lords of the period, especially the Cowles brothers and Henry Luce and his wife. The image of the bronzed, forever prevailing next generation of Kennedys that Joe fed to the press throughout the 1950s was contrived, calculated. It returns to haunt us.

O'Reilly seems to fall into the mythology of the long-discredited public-relations version, with a worshipful Jacqueline at the hero's side and the free world out there longing to be rescued. In real life Jack was on crutches most of his Senate career, effectively "an invalid," as his plain-spoken mother remarked to me a few years afterwards. The real Jack Kennedy was acute, witty, maddeningly detached and surprisingly strong-willed once he made it to his feet, but he was also bedridden at crucial moments, irresponsibly raunchy and flying on the heavy dosages of amphetamines and cortisone and penicillin it took to keep him semi-functional. O'Reilly appears to have taken the bait to the end, endorsing the Warren Commission attribution of his death to the evil machinations of the "lone shooter," Lee Harvey Oswald.

Much of the Kennedy presidency was really about Robert Kennedy. Bob could be very hard-nosed and abrasive, but he could also be extremely loyal and sympathetic if he trusted you. When his brother was president, Bob took over the scutwork around the CIA after the Bay of Pigs, directing the Operation Mongoose harassment operation, and he succumbed to the arguments of Maxwell Taylor that convinced our policymakers that we could successfully dominate South Vietnam. To his father's horror, as attorney general he formed the Rackets Squad and subjected his father's old business partners in the Cosa Nostra to an epic blanket party. More than anything else, this probably got Jack Kennedy killed.

Robert Kennedy's moves in the aftermath of his brother's assassination have tended to puzzle administration insiders. Bobby pushed establishmentarians Allen Dulles and John McCloy onto the Warren Commission, oversaw the misleading autopsy at Bethesda — virtually all the surgeons at Parkland Hospital now agree that the fatal shot that hit JFK in the head came from the front, which rules out Oswald — sabotaged Jim Garrison's investigation in New Orleans and hid what was left of his brother's brain.

Inevitably, perhaps, the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination has let loose a scattershot of books alleging to identify the real killer. Much of this is sand in the face of history. One version identifies the Secret Service driver in the open Lincoln convertible as having turned around and fired on the president, a detail the other four passengers in the limousine apparently missed and demanding a trajectory for the "magic bullet" not even Arlen Specter could have defended. There have been several books that blamed Lyndon Johnson, or Lyndon Johnson's lawyer, all without much proof, if any. Such hip shots have served to compromise the solid work that has been done in this field.

Followup interpretations seem to agree increasingly that there had to have been a second gunman. Anthony Summers, whose 1980 book Conspiracy is bedrock to the literature, now maintains in an updated edition, Not in Your Lifetime: The Defining Book on the JFK Assassination, that a hireling of Santo Trafficante, Cuban exile Herminio Diaz, shot from the grassy knoll.

Most evocative of all is the recent book by veteran assassinologist Lamar Waldron. In Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, the Plan for a Coup in Cuba, and the Murder of JFK (2005) Waldron maintained that Jack Kennedy had planned his political jaunt through Texas to divert attention from the administration's intent imminently to invade Cuba. In his new book, The Hidden History of the JFK Assassination, Waldron showcases the prison confession of Carlos Marcello to his cellmate specifying that a CIA-directed coup to overthrow Fidel Castro involving a top Castro general, Juan Almeida, was in the works. It would serve the Mafia by frightening government officials into believing that if the true plotting were made public, Americans would blame the Soviets and let loose World War III.

In Waldron's exhaustive version, as in the scenario I laid out in Bobby and J. Edgar, Johnny Roselli, that agile strategist for the Chicago mob, effectively coordinated the details. Rosselli talked quite freely to Church Committee investigators before he himself was horribly eliminated. Personally, I continue to like Al Capone's designated heir Sam Giancana, Joe Kennedy's longtime business associate as well as Rosselli's boss, as the man behind the man who confessed to pulling the decisive trigger. Why fight the obvious?

Burton Hersh, author of "Bobby and J. Edgar: The Historic Face-Off Between the Kennedys and J. Edgar Hoover That Transformed America" and other books, lives in St. Petersburg and New Hampshire.