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BWW Reviews: THE KENNEDY HALF-CENTURY Sums Things Up Nicely

The fiftieth anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination last November turned up an avalanche of books seeking to present new angles or re-hash old ones. Larry Sabato's The Kennedy Half-Century does a bit of both.

Those who read Kennedy literature basically break down into three camps: obsessives (about the presidency, the assassination or both), neophytes (looking to get a handle on the basics) and tweeners (interested and reasonably astute about those basics but not on the verge of giving up their day jobs to learn more). I count myself a member of the third category. While I can't speak for how it would strike those who are a great deal more knowledgeable about the subject, for me, this was an easy and reasonably rewarding read.

The book is broken down into three parts: Kennedy's life and presidency; his assassination; and his legacy.

I'm not sure much new could be said on the first two matters and, for the most part-excepting a few tidbits on the assassination that amount to the debunking-of-previous-debunkings-of-previous-debunkings that are now standard fare-Sabato makes no real attempt to give any substantially new perspectives or draw any rare conclusions. However, within the bounds of what he clearly did set out to do-i.e., give a summation of those aspects of Kennedy's life and death that would hold the attention of the general interest reader and provide an easy-access overview for at least some newcomers-he delivers very nicely.

The really interesting and, I think, valuable part of the book is the last: a long and fairly detailed look at the effect Kennedy's legacy has had on his nine successors.

This is still relatively fertile ground and, here, Sabato does come to some surprising conclusions and offers solid evidence to back his thesis. If you want to know why and how a conservative Republican like Ronald Reagan was able to channel Kennedy's aura and style more effectively than Lyndon Johnson (who was Kennedy's own vice-president), then this is a good primer on the subject. Same if you want to know how a good-old-boy policy wonk like Bill Clinton could effectively utilize the Kennedy brand-both as campaign style and governing substance-without having much of JFK's rhetorical wit (Kennedy was not exactly long-winded) or having overly warm relations with Senator Ted Kennedy, who was long-established as the family patriarch by the time Clinton reached the presidency.

In addition, Sabato does a fine job of treading on some tricky ground regarding the "real" JFK who actually governed the country for two and half years, and the mythical JFK, whose shadow hung over subsequent issues from Viet Nam to Civil Rights to the Space Program to the basic arguments over the tax code. Turns out, virtually every president since 1963 has tried in some form or fashion to use the aura of the Kennedy mythology-and, in some cases, the assassination mythology as well-to advance his agenda. While some have been far better at it than others, Sabato makes it clear that none have turned down the opportunity to exploit the legacy when the opportunity arose.

The books final third really turns on personalities then, but it avoids most of the common traps. I don't think there is anything here that strains credibility and that's a relief. The tendency to over-reach is all but endemic in the approach Sabato chooses, but-based on interviews I've seen with him and on the even more compelling evidence of the book itself-he seems to be inclined to stick to the facts. For instance, although Sabato clearly sides with the elite political and historical opinion which consistently tells us that the Bay of Pigs invasion was an unmitigated disaster (not just militarily but politically), he also reminds us that a poll taken immediately after the event gave Kennedy's performance an eighty percent approval rating. It might seem a small thing, but plenty of historians would choose to leave out a little remembered fact that raises questions about their own conclusions. It's to the author's credit that he provides this kind of exemplary even-handedness throughout.

The happy result is a book where Kennedy's real accomplishments are acknowledged, as are the (mostly successful and highly self-conscious) efforts at hagiography carried on by his surviving family (especially his widow) and many of the political allies who served under him.

By the same token, Kennedy's almost incredibly reckless personal behavior is explained without being either rationalized away or reduced to the usual morality lessons. Sabato eschews peep-show licentiousness as deftly as he avoids preaching. I didn't come away thinking either Kennedy's sexual peccadilloes or his often seedy political tactics (this book does not shy away from reminding us that the main difference between Nixon's operatives and Kennedy's where dirty tricks were concerned in the 1960 campaign was that the Kennedy ops were better at it) were less than unsavory-frankly, the man was no saint.

But I didn't feel like taking a bath either. Frankly, the man was a pretty effective president for all his faults and-even more frankly-we're all sinners.

It's a rare Kennedy book that doesn't make me feel like I'm being snowed just a little so I especially appreciated this book's lack of agendas. In Sabato's hands a simple recitation of the facts makes for a good read. I think it's safe to say that most people will find it satisfying-just so long as they aren't after feeding an obsession!

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From This Author John Walker Ross

John Walker Ross is a graduate of Florida State and lives somewhere in the Florida Panhandle where he has variously toiled in advertising and legal (read more...)