Editor’s Note: Over the next several weeks, The Post and Courier’s book page will feature short reviews of 16 new books on President John F. Kennedy. Today, we begin with the first two.
BY MICHAEL NELSON
Special to The Post and Courier
Fifty years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The grief across the nation and worldwide was overwhelming. A hole was torn in the American soul and, for many today, it remains a wound unhealed.
Much has been written, and more has yet to be written on the life and death of our 35th president. Though much time has passed, Gallup polls have consistently shown Kennedy with the highest approval rating of any president of the past half-century, an astounding 85 percent.
As one might expect, to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination, a great many books are making their way to bookstore shelves. Among the new books released are some worthy and not-so-worthy additions.
More books have been written about Kennedy than any president except President Abraham Lincoln. As a whole, they help reveal the reasons for our continuing fascination with this iconic figure of history.
JFK’S LAST HUNDRED DAYS: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President. By Thurston Clarke. Penguin. 448 pages. $29.95.
Perhaps the best book yet on Kennedy’s last days of his presidency is Thurston Clarke’s excellent “JFK’s Last Hundred Days.” Clarke, who in 2004 wrote a book on Kennedy’s inaugural speech, and another in 2008 on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, examines a president who has come into his own.
During these last days of his life, Kennedy is confident and is looking forward to a second term when he believes he will have a clear mandate for his policies, both foreign and domestic. Clarke examines Kennedy’s thoughts and actions regarding the conflict in Vietnam, including the overthrow and murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem.
Clarke highlights Kennedy’s views on other areas of the world, such as Indonesia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, where his peace initiatives were causing controversy.
Especially interesting was his reaching out, via back channels, to Fidel Castro regarding the complicated and messy relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. This is juxtaposed against the advice and actions of military advisers, the CIA, and at times some of his own aids who often were working to undermine Kennedy.
The book cites sources stating that Kennedy planned to drop Lyndon B. Johnson from his second-term ticket, possibly in favor of North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford. The author also highlights Kennedy’s evolution on civil rights.
Clarke gives a balanced account that captures the Kennedy’s optimism during the summer of 1963. It is a fascinating narrative that illuminates what the country lost later that year.
THE KENNEDY HALF-CENTURY: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy. By Larry J. Sabato. Bloomsbury. 624 pages. $30.
Larry J. Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, has written a compelling book on Kennedy’s legacy and influence on the presidency, “The Kennedy Half-Century.” It is a wide-ranging book that covers familiar territory about Kennedy’s career, presidency and assassination.
Sabato’s writing is concise, almost terse and he imbues events with an energy that keeps the reader riveted. He spends a good deal of time on aspects of the assassination and its controversies and concludes that there are many unanswered questions.
He follows his 12 chapters on Kennedy with chapters on Kennedy’s successors (although Gerald Ford only gets a small mention appended to the chapter on Nixon) and how each successor was either embraced or haunted by the legacy of JFK.
In the end, none of the presidents measured up to what much of the public has come to perceive as Kennedy’s legacy. Sabato shows that JFK has remained our most popular, and perhaps our most influential, president in the post-World War II era. A companion DVD to the book is available, and the documentary has aired on PBS.
Reviewer Michael Nelson is a writer and editor in Charleston.