Mary Ann Clark, one of the quiet treasures of our community, started Flagler Reads Together 13 years ago after getting inspired by a librarian in Seattle. It’s a great idea. Every year in March the Friends of the Library choose a book, encourage as many people in town to read it together and gather for a variety of related events at the library. It’s a celebration of literature, and of the endangered act of reading at lengths greater than tweets, texts and the word “like.”
Over the past dozen years Flagler read together such books as To Kill a Mockingbird, which earned Mary Ann Clark a gushing letter of thanks from Harper Lee herself, The Red Badge of Courage, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Only once before was the month devoted to a non-fiction book. That was five years ago, when the Friends chose The Swamp, Michael Grunwald’s story of the demolishing of the Everglades. Grunwald actually came to Flagler for the kickoff to that one.
The Friends’ all-powerful committee that chooses each year’s book went non-fiction again this year, although not entirely, considering the subject matter: the Friends picked a book on John F. Kennedy and his assassination. Both subjects owe more to fiction than reality. And although there are roughly as many books on either as there are people in “nut country,” as JFK referred to Dallas a few hours before he was killed there, the friends picked the one just manufactured by Bill O’Reilly, one of the more famous byproducts of nut country (he was a none-too-loved or accurate reporter at Dallas’s WFAA-TV in 1976 and 1977).
The book is called Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot. It’s the third in O’Reilly’s morbid but lucrative series on history’s most famous victims of assassins. Killing Lincoln and Killing Jesus were his previous installments in what should be a limitless graveyard of the killed and famous. (The books are all written with Martin Dugard, in distinctly second billing.) Each is produced in the same cookie-cutter of illustrations, maps, an anxious present tense and chapters beginning with dateline and time stamp. “November 22, 1963, Dallas, Texas, 12:31 p.m.,” naturally works better than “Jordan River, Perea, A.D. 26, Midday.” The sentences are always short and never contemplative. O’Reilly is commanding his version of events, not proposing it.
I’ve usually avoided Bill O’Reilly as much as possible. He tried to have me on his show once and I happily declined, as I don’t find the company of bullies particularly enjoyable. That’s one of the many reasons I’ve never been fond of the Kennedys either, especially that unholy trinity of Joe, Jack and Bobby. Who else but Jack and Bobby could make even a prick like Lyndon Johnson look sympathetic?
But if the Friends of the Library could be daring once in a while, I figured I could be, too. I read the book in two days, and I’m relieved to report that the experience was not quite as intolerable as the radiation therapy I’m about to undergo. And if the purpose of Flagler Reads Together is to encourage you to read the chosen book, I can at least do that–not because it’s a great book, but because as a refresher of one of the pivotal events of the last half century in our history, it’s not a terrible 300 pages, as long as you don’t look too closely.
Because of its toxic combination of author and subject, the book is more readily appreciated for what it isn’t rather than what it is. Is isn’t an O’Reilly polemic. It isn’t another addition to the trash pile of conspiracy theories cluttering the assassination. It isn’t revisionist history, or really much history at all. It isn’t long. And for a television talking head, it isn’t terribly written, though the snappiness isn’t always stylistic: you can only mute the O’Reilly scorn for elegance–what he calls his “factor”–so much.
What the book actually is flatters it less. It is a textual version of those made-for-TV celebrity biographies that soak up the sap of human interest at the expense of analysis or anything else that risks appealing to the reader’s intelligence. In a book alleged to be about an assassination, we learn altogether too much about Jackie’s bikini romps in Greece, Greta Garbo’s visits to the White House, Kennedy’s thing for the Mona Lisa, Marilyn Monroe’s thing for Jack and drugs, and Frank Sinatra’s anger over being ditched by the Kennedy brothers the moment J. Edgar Hoover warns them of Sinatra’s mob vibe.
So we read about Garbo’s affinity for practical jokes or of how Sinatra “races around his house and tears Kennedy photos from the walls, then finds a sledgehammer and storms outside to single-handedly destroy the concrete helipad.” But we don’t read a word about, say, how Kennedy mishandled James Meredith’s decision to break the color barrier and attend the University of Missouri in September 1962. Kennedy’s timidity led to a small and bloody civil war in Oxford, Miss., that fall, and revealed him to be the “reluctant emancipator”–in Howard Zinn’s phrase–that he was until he died, when his ask-what-you-can-do promise should have compelled him to be so much more.
O’Reilly has a chance to discuss the Kennedys’ dyspepsia (Jack’s and Bobby’s) over civil rights when he narrates a few pages about the March on Washington in 1963. But again, the pages get lost in the Kennedys’ grief over the loss of their child who, born without lungs, lived only two days (“the child who would have never entered the world if the [Cuban missile] crisis had ended in global thermonuclear war,” O’Reilly writes rather stupidly). It’s a grievous loss, but its story disproportionately overshadows the choreographing of the March on Washington, or the murder of the four little girls in a terrorist bombing at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church less than three weeks later—a quadruple murder that, all told, spoke louder of the nation’s sickness and had far more ramifications for its future than the private loss of Patrick Bouvier Kennedy.
Bikini lines aside, the pages on Jackie Kennedy are the most moving, the chapter on her famous televised tour of the White House and the way she contended with her husband’s whoring especially. The pages on Jack Kennedy’s sex life are not only less moving. They have a lurid stickiness to them that reminds you why the Kennedy gift for idealism has so fatally been wrecked by the Kennedy gift for depravity. If the Kennedys’ arrogance makes you feel sympathetic for LBJ, Jack Kennedy’s misogyny elicits relative sympathy for Bill Clinton’s comparatively furtive libido.
The pages on the assassination itself are, strangely, the weakest in the book, except again when experienced through Jackie. It’s as if the commonplace violence of the last 50 years, starting with the violence and disillusionment Kennedy unleashed in Vietnam, has dulled the shock value of a president made victim of a too-common act. Malcolm X was not wrong when he described the Kennedy assassination as the chicken coming home to roost. It was only the beginning. Kennedy was the boy scout of violence. Lyndon Johnson was its master. Subsequent presidents have been its jedis: Aside from Barack Obama’s honeymoon trips to Europe and the Middle East in 2009, no American president since JFK has known adulation as he did from foreign crowds.
The cold war is a distant backdrop to O’Reilly’s narrative. There’s an interesting chapter on the Bay of Pigs fiasco, another case of inexcusable indecision on Kennedy’s part. But the retelling of the failed attempt by Cuban exiles to “invade” the island with CIA and Pentagon help–vigilantes that O’Reilly calls “freedom fighters”–is a half-baked attempt to portray the failure as Kennedy’s own, when it was the result of an inherited folly only America’s national security bazaar is capable of. Kennedy did not, three months into his presidency, have the nerve to scrub the foretold failure. To O’Reilly as to many other speculators, that failure may have planted the seed of his assassination. One of them, anyway.
In contrast, the chapter on the Cuban missile crisis is quite gripping, though it overplays Kennedy’s heroism and downplays the fact that neither side actually blinked: Kennedy and Kruschev finally made a deal. Khrushchev would pull his missiles out of Cuba. The United States would pull its missiles out of Turkey. O’Reilly shows his gift for omissions along the way when he mentions the shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane during the crisis, the killing of the pilot–Major Rudolph Anderson Jr.–and the Pentagon’s demand that Kennedy launch “a massive airstrike within forty-eight hours, to be followed by an outright invasion.” He never notes that the spy plane was the intruder, and that it was shot down for illegally violating Cuban air space. O’Reilly, of course, lets the same omissions cloud his interpretation of events every day on TV in his hour of America Right or Wrong.
Worse than omissions, O’Reilly can also invent badly for dramatic effect. In a supposedly non-fiction book, that’s a cardinal sin. “[P]lease know that this is a fact-based book and some of what you will read has never before been publicly stated,” he tells us at the outset. Maybe he has a liberal interpretation of the meaning of “fact-based,” as citizens of Foxlandia usually do.
Here’s one example. At the end of the book he can’t resist telling readers that he won an award for his reporting on possible conspiracies behind the Kennedy assassination back in 1977, when he worked at at Dallas’s WFAA-TV. One assignment took him to Palm Beach, Fla., on the trail of George de Mohrenschildt, a Russian emigre and professor who’d befriended Lee Oswald, and who’d testified at length to the Warren Commission that investigated the assassination. “As the reporter knocked on the door of de Mohrenschildt’s daughter’s home,” O’Reilly writes cutely about himself, “he heard the shotgun blast that marked the suicide of the Russian, assuring that his relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald would never be fully understood.”
Well, no. He didn’t hear that shotgun blast. O’Reilly had in fact gone to Palm Beach with another reporter, and had briefly glimpsed de Mohrenschildt at The Breakers hotel, where a writer was interviewing the Russian–and from where O’Reilly and his crew were thrown out. And de Mohrenschildt, a troubled man who heard voices and had attempted suicide at least four times before then, shot himself the next day. But O’Reilly wasn’t there. This being Florida, we have the sheriff’s report on the shooting. The man’s daughter wasn’t home at the time of the shooting. O’Reilly certainly wasn’t at the door when it occurred. Nor is there much question as to who did the shooting, as O’Reilly implies. If O’Reilly is capable of inventing “facts” of the sort–where he is himself the reporter pretending to offer an authentic, first-person account–there’s no telling what else is mangled, embellished, distorted and invented in his books. But it’s O’Reilly. Which is to say, buyer beware.
For all that, it’s not the worst book on the Kennedy assassination out there. But if the Friends of the Library really wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination and challenge readers, they might have been better off choosing Libra, Don DeLillo’s fictional biography of Lee Harvey Oswald and what DeLillo described as “an aberration in the heartland of the real.” DeLillo can say in one sentence what everyone else cannot say in chapters or entire books. It was actually the Palm Coast Observer’s Brian McMillan who suggested I read it a few weeks ago. I can say this much: between O’Reilly and McMillan, I know who to trust.
“There is enough mystery in the facts as we know them,” a character reflects in Libra, “enough of conspiracy, coincidence, loose ends, dead ends, multiple interpretations. There is no need, he thinks, to invent the grand and masterful scheme, the plot that reaches the flawlessly in a dozen directions.”
Killing Kennedy tries hard to be that book, but Bill O’Reilly can reimagine himself only so far.