Thursday, August 21, 2014

Books We've Missed: John Reads Killing Kennedy

One of my co-workers (I will not say who in order to protect the innocent) assigned me Killing Kennedy by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard as part of our “Books We’ve Missed” project. This made a certain amount of sense, as Killing Kennedy, along with its companion volumes Killing Jesus and Killing Lincoln, are some of the highest circulating items here. And I have a rep as the department historian, so it probably seemed appropriate, but I’ll be honest, this was a bit of a challenge for me.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy is one of the most heavily researched and analyzed events in American history. Even the most basic search of the Library of Congress brings up over 1000 entries (and even that barely scratches the surface), so it takes a certain chutzpah to feel like one can add to this literature. Of course, chutzpah is what Bill O’Reilly is all about. One simply doesn’t become the sort of polarizing figure that he is without a fair amount of self-confidence.

In light of the task that O’Reilly and his partner Martin Dugard set for themselves, Killing Kennedy achieves a modicum of success. It is smartly written, full of interesting, if sometimes lurid detail, and doesn’t bog down in the mass of available factual (to say nothing of conspiratorial) material surrounding the assassination.

Killing Kennedy is at its best when it picks up the threads of the narrative and runs with them. In many respects, it reads like a Robert Ludlum novel, gathering momentum as it spirals toward a foregone conclusion. The virtue of the book is in the telling itself, rather than in the promise of new information, of which it contains practically none. It’s mostly told in the present tense, and spiced with a large helping detail, some of it quotidian, some of it lurid, pretty much all of it already well known to practically everyone who had watched the History Channel.

Having said that, one point in favor of this book that it stays away from the sort of conspiracy mongering that is so often found in this genre. I give O’Reilly and Dugard credit for resisting the temptation to weave in speculations about shadowy figures on the grassy knoll, the roll that LBJ may have played, or the idea that the assassination was undertaken by the freemasons (all of which have been posited by conspiracy theorists at one time or another).

Given that, according to a poll done in 2012, something like 7% of American’s believe that Lee Harvey Oswald was the guy who assassinated Lincoln, there is definitely a place for this book in today’s society. If it is sometimes grim, sometimes shocking in its details, it must also be said it is moderate and restrained in terms of political spin. And, putting aside for a moment my professional historian’s streak of curmudgeonliness, I will say that this is the kind of history book that is enjoyable reading for the nonspecialist. If you’re interested in learning about an important historical event, and don’t want to get bogged down in a lot of references or left field speculation, O’Reilly and Dugard’s book is well worth your time.

What books have you missed reading?

~John F.

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