Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Kennedy Half-Century by Larry J. Sabato (2013)

I wrote the following book review for BookLoons in 2013, and I have revised it and presented here for your convenience.

For any American born before the mid-1950s, there is an indelible memory: Friday, 22 November 1963. It was then that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. As for myself, I remember sitting in class as a college freshman when I heard the horrible news. Within that personal memory is an instructive irony: the course was American history, an academic subject that is always subject to revision with each successive generation.

Mindful of that irony, I am pleased to announce that now, so many years after that unforgettably dark day in modern American history, Professor Larry J. Sabato offers readers a brilliant analysis and historical revision of the rather brief political life, the horrific murder by Lee Harvey Oswald (always a controversial topic), and the remarkably mythic afterlife of President Kennedy.

The three-year presidency (characterized as that brief, shining moment, Camelot, by Kennedy's perceptive widow) then featured in starring roles the seemingly perfect and universally admired Guinevere (a.k.a. Jacqueline Kennedy) and the idealistic and far-from perfect but mythically enhanced Arthur (a.k.a. John Fitzgerald Kennedy).

All that happened politically prior to Kennedy's phenomenal ascent to the presidency, all that happened during his White House years, all that happened on the wretched day in Dallas, all that happened in Kennedy's posthumous apotheosis after 1963, and all the ways in which Kennedy has become the political touchstone for all subsequent presidents - all is meticulously researched and presented by Professor Sabato in this impressive 603-page study.

Readers will be particularly surprised to learn that much they thought they knew about Kennedy is either wrong or incomplete; readers will also be surprised to learn how the public mind of the nation has been a participant in the arguably inappropriate beatification of a president who accomplished a great deal but far less than readers had imagined. Professor Sabato, the acclaimed political scientist at the University of Virginia, gives readers the whole story - the good, the bad, and the ugly. There are, indeed, within this highly recommended book, many intriguing episodes for each of those three categories.

If you were to choose only one book to read about John F. Kennedy, maybe this should be the one. You will find few better. Professor Sabato's book has earned my highest praise.


  1. There's nothing quite like the Camelot years to capture the imagination, is there, Tim? I'm not surprised you found the subject so appealing here, and I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

  2. Margot, as I tried to suggest in my review, Sabato performs a great service by demythologizing the beatified JFK; the good professor gives a balanced, objective account of JFK and the last fifty years of JFK idolatry.

  3. well, he was a symbol for many people; a politician who seemed to care about his job and to be interested in the welfare of the people...
    I'm dabbling in a political study of Sir Philip Sydney, poet and warrior of the 16th c. who died at 32 and was exploded into a political exemplar of English Protestant chivalry. on his shoulders was placed the hopes and dreams of the nascent British Empire, freedom from Catholic domination, and the living proof that England was indeed that "green and pleasant land" superior to all other nations... in fact, his status as poet was not recognized until years after his decease and in spite of his role as a spy for Walsingham(head of the English Secret Service), his main contribution was as a figurehead for the late Tudor state... but even today, he's regarded as the first figure in Elizabethan Chivalry... a sort of vessel to hold English hopes and dreams; well over 700 knights and lords attended his funeral march and all the population of London threw flowers and grieved his demise to a man... like Kennedy in '63, it seems to me.... people, judged en masse, react similarly regardless of the time period or locale, i think... interesting blog, tx....

    1. Mudpuddle, Kennedy himself in this book is interesting but more interesting is the "afterlife" in the next half century. Sabato chose his narrative focus wisely. It is especially appealing to people of my generation. I don't know if you have an interest in American history, but I wholeheartedly recommend this book.