Jill Abramson, the executive editor of the New York Times, recently wrote that an estimated 40,000 books or more have been published about John F. Kennedy since his death 50 years ago on Nov. 22, 1963.
To give the matter some perspective, I looked up the number of books devoted to the martyred Lincoln, often cited by historians as the greatest of our presidents. The Lincoln total is said to be between 15,000 and 16,000, an impressive figure but fewer than half the torrent of works devoted to Kennedy.
How to explain it? Abramson says that Kennedy’s assassination “remains all but impossible to pin down.” One reason is that for a generation of Americans, Kennedy’s death remains “the most traumatic public event of their lives, 9/11 notwithstanding, obscuring much about the man and his accomplishments.”
Was Kennedy in a class with Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, FDR and Truman, other 20th century progressives — “or was he a reckless and charming lightweight or, worse still, the first of our celebrities-in-chief?” And she asks, were not domestic achievements like civil rights and the war on poverty “actually the doing of his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson?”
Exploring the vast literature about JFK, Abramson says, “is to be struck not by what’s there but what’s missing. Readers can choose from many books but surprisingly few good ones, and not one really outstanding one.”
On the other hand, she points out sourly, there are the “what if” books — what if Kennedy had lived? With few exceptions she dismisses them out of hand. Not to mention the volumes retailing the Camelot fantasy.
One of the problems in coming to terms with Kennedy is that his presidency was cut short. He was president just under three years. He barely won the popular vote in 1960 with less than 113,000 popular votes or 0.17 percent of ballots cast. But he beat Richard Nixon handily 303 to 219 in the Electoral College.
Abramson reminds us that the Kennedy family — “especially Jackie and Bobby — were notoriously hard on authors whose books they didn’t like.” Arthur Schlesinger, the historian, and Theodore Sorenson, JFK’s speechwriter and friend, and others performed “as a kind of history police, not only withholding primary materials but also bullying writers.” In recent years, “the protective seal seems to have loosened.” Caroline Kennedy, for one, “has been even more open to the claims of history.”
Many living today well remember what they were doing when they got news of the assassination. I remember Tom Wicker, who covered the Kennedy trip to Texas for the Times, as saying he could not have written his Pulitzer Prize-winning account without television. In the turmoil that followed the shots, Wicker had stepped into a bar in search of a phone. When he reached his editors in New York he found himself staring at three television sets, as the story unfolded before his eyes. His editors were watching the same story from the Times newsroom on 43rd Street. The president’s murder marked the beginning of the decline and fall of print journalism and the rise of mass media 24/7.
This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.