Anyone born as late as the 1950s cannot help remembering exactly where they were the day JFK was shot. I was in Mrs. Doxtater’s second grade class when she was called to the principal’s office. She came back and told us to put all our things in our desks and sit quietly. Then she started crying as she told us the president had been shot. We were all bewildered and scared. Some of the children in class also started crying quietly, even the most rambunctious. Later that day, when I saw my mother openly weeping while walking home from work, I was even more scared.
While Killing Lincoln, Bill O’Reilly’s and Martin Dugard’s first collaboration, was a great read, I hesitated about reading KillingKennedy: the End of Camelot. I was not sure I wanted to revisit that chapter of our collective history and of my life. Now, having devoured their new book in two sittings, I am glad I did not hesitate very long.
Killing Kennedy is a riveting and unvarnished account of the President and those closest to him. The book takes you to places and shows people with an immediacy that makes you feel you are there. You smell the cigar smoke at an elegant dinner party at the White House and feel hot as you squint into the Dallas sun along the route of the fatal Presidential motorcade. And, although you already know and dread the ending of the book, you keep on reading and turning the pages.
O’Reilly and Dugard are neither fawning acolytes of Camelot nor are they relentless critics. They dispassionately present the complexities of the main characters of our history and let us draw our own conclusions. With President Kennedy, they show the arc of his growth in leadership: from his unprepared command of PT-109 and his indecisive and weak handling of the Bay of Pigs to his clarity and strength when confronted with the Cuban missile crisis. They show him as a fun-loving father rolling on the floor with his children but, at the same time, they do not gloss over his continuing peccadillos and what discovery could have cost him. With an economy of words, they provide three-dimensional compelling portraits of the First Lady and of Vice President Johnson. And, there are the inescapable details about the unstable and delusional ex-military marksman Lee Harvey Oswald.
Focusing on the random intersection of decisions and acts that resulted in a great American tragedy, Killing Kennedy brings to life our recent past. Without irony, it lets us know that Bobby Kennedy had Martin Luther King Jr.’s great civil rights rally, culminating in the I Have a Dream speech, take place at the Lincoln Memorial in order to keep marchers away from the White House and Capitol Building. It rewinds the live television broadcast showing Jack Ruby killing Oswald hours after Oswald’s capture. It reminds us -- with a photo and description of a self-immolating Buddhist monk in Saigon -- of the beginnings of the Vietnam War. It also reminded me of fallout shelters in school and of overhearing my grandmother’s friend Irene coming for a cup of tea during the Cuban missile crisis because she did want to be alone when the atom bombs fell.
Living up to his reputed pithiness, in 300 pages O'Reilly and his co-author present a textured and exciting, albeit sad, slice of American history that we should all be familiar with, whether we lived through it or not.