The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy

by Larry J. Sabato



Unless you have been living in a cave or missed the surfeit of books that were published, you know that last November 22 was the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Even the most diehard Kennedy acolyte must wonder if there is anything new left to say about the president or his family; at least two generations of Americans have no living memory of him or his short administration. Yet fifty years later JFK still has a tremendous hold on the American psyche, and each anniversary of his murder finds scholars and pundits puzzling over how and why this president, who only served for one thousand days, still captures our imaginations so.

The fascination for JFK was recently transferred to his only surviving child, Caroline. When she was nominated to be the first female ambassador to Japan, there was immediate sniping about her qualifications or lack thereof–as if being a lawyer; having written two well-regarded books on civil liberties and edited a number of others; chairing the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; serving as an advisor to the Harvard Institute of Politics and engaging in a number of other philanthropic and charitable activities were all so much fluff on her resume. No matter: she received a deferential and rapturous audience during her confirmation hearings. She is, after all, her father’s daughter. And so the torch has been passed.

The Kennedy Half Century, Larry Sabato’s heavily sourced tome–there are more than one hundred fifty pages of source notes!–focuses on two subjects: the assassination itself and the late president’s hold on the American people, its political institutions and the nine men who have occupied the office since 1963.

Sabato has obviously done his homework with regard to the assassination. He pored over hundreds of thousands of pages of records, scrutinized photos and utilized new technology to test audio material related to the crime. He debunks some myths, but he also asks hard questions about sloppy investigative procedures–while Kennedy was in the emergency room, agents were washing the blood out of the limousine–missed interviews and infighting among government agencies, concluding that they have helped fuel the conspiracy theories that surround the assassination. Spoiler alert: Sabato concludes that there is no incontrovertible evidence that the Kennedy assassination was carried out as a conspiracy, but says that no one can say for certain that it was not. Second, “there is no reasonable doubt” that Lee Harvey Oswald was “at least one of John F. Kennedy’s assassins.” The crime of the twentieth century has still not been definitively solved.

The second part of The Kennedy Half Century explains how each of the men who followed Kennedy in office sought to use his ideals, style and policies to their advantage. Many readers may be surprised when they read who Sabato said was the most successful in wrapping himself and his administration in the mantle of the late president. (One spoiler alert is enough!)

The book also has a companion web site, audio apps of the recordings made by the Dallas police department on that fateful day and a free, college-level online course based on the book, as well as the obligatory Facebook page and a time line of Kennedy’s administration. A PBS documentary based on the book will debut in the fall.

An award winning and highly regarded political science professor, Sabato is founder and director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. He reminds us that every president is tremendously concerned with his legacy and tries to ensure it is seen in the best and most positive light. After presidents leave office, a veritable army of journalists, historians, political scientists and even psychologists swarm over his successes and failures. Yet even though we have been awash in the seedy details of JFK’s private life for decades, it does not seem to matter; most Americans still think very favorably of him, ranking him as one of the great presidents. But as Sabato said, “Martyrdom’s blood and tears can wash away grievous sins–the martyr’s and our own.”