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Kennedy Books Back for Anniversary

Where were you when President Kennedy was shot? This is a question you don’t hear much anymore.

November 22nd marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination so many people are eager to say marked the end of — what? Innocence? Optimism?

Balderdash. The passage of time and the diligence of historians and journalists have knocked some of the luster and a lot of the sentiment off our 35th president’s 1,000 days in office. At this point, though, the soup is getting pretty thin. JFK as subject matter could use a sabbatical.

The best of the cascade of books being published to coincide with that day in Dallas is surely Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court (Harper, $32.50), a critical examination of the president’s circle of advisers.

Dallek shows a group of smart, ambitious men — and, yes, they were all men — who almost consistently gave bad advice and worse counsel. History has not been kind to National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. (The attorney general, younger brother Bobby, on the other hand, improves with every reading).

Only now, as our fiercest enemy of the Cold War has more or less imploded, can we second-guess what these advisers thought constituted national security and the real nature of the communist threat.

As Dallek writes, “Hyperbole had become the accepted wisdom about communist dangers.” By the midway point of his presidency, Kennedy had learned never to rely on the experts, most of whom advocated invasion (the Bay of Pigs), the introduction of combat troops (Vietnam) or all-out nuclear war (the Cuban missile crisis).

Would Kennedy have done better had he emphasized domestic affairs? We’ll never know. Foreign affairs are presidential catnip. Perhaps the saddest words in this book are the comments Kennedy made to Richard Nixon after the Bay of Pigs disaster:

“It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president to handle, isn’t it? I mean, who gives a ... if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, in comparison to something like this?”

Well, we have had a good run of presidents “handling” foreign affairs and most Americans, I suspect, are heartily sick of such adventuring by now.

Next up we have Larry J. Sabato’s The Kennedy Half-Century (Bloomsbury, $30), which claims to have “new revelations” about the assassination. Sabato analyzed the police Dictabelt recordings of Dealey Plaza that day and finds that no, they probably don’t reveal a second shooter on the grassy knoll. Surprise!

Sabato writes that the shooting “is critical both to understanding America’s past and future paths and to the lasting legacy of John Kennedy.”

No it isn’t. The Kennedy legacy, such as it is, steadily diminishes with the passing of the years. What’s left is assassination porn.

Special pleading is always a bore, and so it is with Ira Stoll’s JFK, Conservative (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27). Stoll, a conservative, writes, “Understanding Kennedy as a political conservative may make liberals uncomfortable by crowning conservatism with the halo of Camelot.”

Does anyone really care about this anymore?

Even a cursory reading of the Kennedy record shows that he was not a man of the ’60s, as we think now of the ’60s.

Two other books take us back to Dallas. Hugh Aynesworth’s November 22, 1963: Witness to History (Brown Books, $26.95) is a nice memoir of what he saw and did that day and thereafter as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News.

This is a tale of what they used to call shoe-leather reporting. “Newsgathering in 1963 was primitive by today’s standards,” Aynesworth recalls, but the basic craft was still the same. You walk around and talk to people and get them to tell you stuff.

Finally, we have Dallas 1963 (Twelve, $28), by Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis, two Texas writers who, in cinematic style, explain what Kennedy meant when he told his wife on Nov. 22 while still in Fort Worth, “We’re heading into nut country today.”

The cast of characters includes publisher of the Dallas Morning News Ted Dealey, super-patriot Gen. Edwin Walker and nightclub owner Jack Ruby, and a more unpleasant bunch you will never meet.