Last week I spoke a bit about new angles, featuring two books I had recently read that attempted to make something new out of something old. This week, I will be hitting on the same idea, but, unlike last week, this week's book, End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy by James Swanson, doesn't quite succeed.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most horrific events in American history, the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I was born in 1982, 19 years after the assassination, so growing up, this was the singular event that "grown-ups" would talk about. What they were doing when they found out. My father, for instance, was in school--Kindergarten or first grade--and his teacher came in the room crying and informed the class what had just happened. Others have similar stories.
As we all know, conspiracy theories abound when it comes to the JFK assassination, although all the evidence points to the fact it happened in only one way--that Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy and he acted alone. You can forgive the people in the days and weeks afterward for suspecting a conspiracy, because all the facts weren't commonly known, and the technology was relatively limited. The Warren Commission, whose findings have been sustained through many subsequent investigations, and whose central findings--Oswald did it and he acted alone--have been supported by all available evidence and all reexaminations of evidence using modern technology. So, I think it is safe to say unequivocally, Oswald did it and he acted alone in the same or simile scenario as described in the Warren Commission report. They got it right.
James Swanson, author of Manhunt: The 12-day Chase for John Wilkes Booth, has authored a book that is intended to tell the story of the events as they really happened, as almost a response to the conspiracy theorists. There is a problem with this approach. A few years back, in 2007, Vincent Bugliosi, who served as the prosecuting attorney in the televised mock trial of Lee Harvey Oswald (a trial which was conducted in 1986 as if it were a real trial with the real witnesses, real evidence, real law enforcement, real judges, a real jury, etc. etc. etc. and Oswald was found guilty...and the jury was asked to also consider the question of whether or not Oswald acted alone. They determined that he had) published a book called Reclaiming History: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, which really is the last word on the official story. It is divided into two parts--Part 1 is titled "What Happened" while Part 2 is titled "What Didn't Happen." You can imagine part one deals with the facts, while part 2 rips apart all the conspiracy theories.
The first chapter of Part 1, titled "4 Days in November" creates a problem for James Swanson's attempt. This depiction is so detailed and so readable, as well as heavily sourced, there doesn't need to be another accounting of the events in themselves...because, overall, this is a fairly simple, open and shut case.
Vincent Bugliosi, in several interviews promoting his magnum opus, said of the JFK assassination: "...at its core, this is a very simple case, and remains a simple case to this very day. Within hours of the shooting in Dealey Plaza, virtually all of Dallas law enforcement knew that Oswald had killed Kennedy, and when they found out what an incredible kook he was, that he had acted alone." He goes on to say that it is the conspiracy literature that has made this a complex case, but not one of the conspiracy allegations are founded upon any evidence. This creates a problem for writers like James Swanson who want to tell the real story but, because this was a simple, quickly solved case often erroneously treated as a mystery, it is difficult to come up with a new way of telling it.
In my capstone history course at the University of Michigan, the first thing my advisor asked me about was how my paper, my research, my writing could uncover something new, or be a needed addition to the literature on the topic. This is a concept that is required of all writers of history.
Swanson makes what seems to me a couple of half-hearted attempts at a new angle, but ultimately falls back to the essentially simple and familiar story of a crazy communist with a rifle and delusions of grandeur taking aim at the president's motorcade as it passed his place of employment.
The first chapter shows Oswald attempting to take the life of right-wing extremist, retired general Edwin Walker. Swanson told this story as if it were a chapter in a novel. A novel featuring Oswald as the main character. To me, if he had kept with this approach, it would have been fresh, something a bit different, something to make it different enough from Bugliosi's work as to not be crushed by it. Unfortunately, he leaves this approach behind and makes it into a standard history of the events, that was well told, but not nearly as well done as Bugliosi.
The final chapter we see the events post-funeral from Jackie's perspective. This made me think that I would have liked to see more of that. Maybe the whole history of the event from Jackie's perspective, not just bits and pieces. Make this a kind of novelization, but from the perspective of Jackie Kennedy. That would have been fresh as well.
No, we see just these unique flourishes that read like they were put in there just to be able to say the book is different enough to warrant publication. Instead of making it different, however, it makes obvious the glaring problem with the book--it is just a rehash of what has come before and what has been done better.
As stated above, End of Days is ultimately a "response" book. Meaning it was written in response to the multitude of conspiracy theories out there. Sometimes I feel like historians and others who evaluate facts objectively feel compelled to write these books to say, "No, this is the way it happened" as a counter to the conspiracy-related garbage that's out there. At this point, I would advise that the conspiracy community should be ignored. Responding to them, even acknowledging the conspiracy theories, gives them a credibility they do not deserve.
So, is this a must-read? I would say it is a good, informative read, but I would instead recommend Vincent Bugliosi's work as the must-read account on JFK's assassination..