The Kennedy Half-Century:
The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy
Larry J. Sabato
Bloomsbury. 603 pp. $30
By David Reitzes
Evaluating a president’s place in history, even with the benefit of hindsight, is seldom easy. Applying the proper perspective to as iconic a figure as John F. Kennedy has proven well-nigh impossible. From the instant his presidency was cut short by a burst of gunfire fifty years ago, mythology has overwhelmed reality.
Any historian who tackles this subject is therefore, by definition, audacious. But Larry J. Sabato is doubly so. To his ever-lasting credit, Sabato believes Kennedy’s term in office, the assassination, and the aftermath are an indivisible historical whole and must be written about as such.
. . . [I]t is impossible to understand the Kennedy legacy without understanding the assassination—the sequence of events, as well as what most Americans think happened and why. Millions have never been, and will never be, satisfied with the official findings of two separate government inquiries—not least because the inquiries came to opposite conclusions on the critical question of conspiracy. The assassination dictated that JFK would not have the time create a full record and make his whole claim on history. For fifty years the unfinished record of the man and his presidency has stirred Americans as they mourned an unconscionable loss and wondered what might have been. This “ghost legacy” is as powerful as the real one.
This is a bracing change from the approach of most historians who have written about Kennedy, whose tendency has been to treat the assassination as an unwanted complication. Of course, it is not easy to write about an event that remains a controversial mystery to so many, with a majority of Americans consistently believing that the truth about it has never been told Consequently, it’s not unusual to see historians handle the subject rather dismissively, as Robert Dallek did in An Unfinished Life:
Despite an authoritative 1993 book, Case Closed, by attorney Gerald Posner refuting numerous conspiracy theories, the public, inflamed by a popular 1991 Oliver Stone film, JFK, believed otherwise . . . . The fact that none of the conspiracy theorists have been able to offer convincing evidence of their suspicions does not seem to trouble many people. The plausibility of a conspiracy is less important to them than the implausibility of someone as inconsequential as Oswald having the wherewithal to kill someone as consequential . . . as Kennedy.
Despite Sabato’s willingness to undertake the necessary task of making history whole again, The Kennedy Half-Century is a great disappointment. Sabato’s in-depth treatment of the assassination is precisely where the book falters. The author often ends up sounding more like a fevered assassination buff, pandering to popular, uninformed opinion about the assassination, rather than someone who was a Rhodes Scholar, founder of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, and is the University Professor of Politics at UVA.