Who Was JFK?

JFK, Conservative

by Ira Stoll
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 288 pp., $27.00
and numerous other books and TV programs about John F. Kennedy
AFP/Getty Images
President Kennedy leaving St. Stephen Martyr Church in Washington, D.C., after attending Mass on the day Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev announced the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba, October 28, 1962

If the yardsticks are sheer volume and patriotic pretense, then the fiftieth-anniversary commemoration of the Kennedy assassination can be called an epic cultural event. Some 140 books on the thirty-fifth president and his murder were released or rereleased in 2013, according to Amazon.com, on top of a previous inventory estimated at some 40,000 titles. Such is the perceived posthumous clout of JFK in the marketplace that his death’s half-centennial still had the power to jolt The Saturday Evening Post and Life back to life to publish a fresh round of special editions.

Television was no less rapacious in ransacking the archives. It was Kennedy who validated the medium as a political tool, and it was his assassination that spawned the conventions of 24/7 saturation coverage that have been applied to catastrophes (and pseudocatastrophes) ever since. To mark the milestone, CBS News streamed all four days of its 1963 marathon in real time online, from the 1:38 PM ET Friday afternoon Dallas bulletin through the Washington funeral on Monday. But nearly every network, big or obscure, fielded some kind of Kennedy special, and while many were pro forma, a few were ingenious in hustling fresh angles. The Smithsonian Channel manufactured the documentary Kennedy’s Suicide Bomber, about Richard Pavlick, a forgotten lunatic who conceived but aborted an elaborate plan to assassinate Kennedy on his way to church in Palm Beach the month before his inauguration. At PBS, Nova hopped on the bandwagon with a special titled Cold Case JFK, which applied “state-of-the-art forensics, including laser scanning, new ballistics tests, and a 3D digital reconstruction of the president’s skull, all to try to solve the murder of the century.”

In this sprawling celebration of Kennedyiana, there was no shortage of simulated rifle shots and sonorous anchor reflections on the gravity of it all, but the high end of the Kennedy White House has faded (except for the First Lady’s stained Chanel suit). There’s no commercial value in recreating that Pablo Casals recital from a 1961 state dinner, and these days the Kennedy White House’s cultural profile has been usurped by the annual Kennedy Center Honors, which CBS presents in a prime-time vaudeville format redolent of its Kennedy-era Ed Sullivan Show.

Still, special attention should be paid to the loftier aspirations of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, which exhibited a quorum of the art works displayed in the suite used by the First Couple when they passed through that town’s Hotel Texas en route to Dallas fifty years ago. Hastily assembled at the time by earnest local leaders eager to impress the visiting Washington royalty, the trove included most notably Thomas Eakins’s Swimming, along with works of varying stature by Monet, Van Gogh,…

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