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All of us old enough to remember have “the story” of where we were when John F. Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. Mine isn’t important, either. The point is, America changed that day. All of a sudden – so it seemed – we went from Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue to Abbie Hoffman.
It all happened too fast.
As we enter the year of a milestone anniversary, 50 years, Kennedy’s death lingers, and it’s anything but golden. For us who remember, and for younger generations, I can think of no better source for understanding than Bill O’Reilly’s terrific new book, “Killing Kennedy.” Like a flickering old film, we re-live and repeat those seconds when Jackie looked on in horror; so did we.
O’Reilly is of course a major media figure, and sometimes that kind of fame can be put to good use. He’s good with this project, as he describes those terrible days and the lingering aftershocks.
Right off the bat, there are fascinating historical footnotes (tons that I did not know), such as the fact that Kennedy took the oath of office from Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Earl Warren. Years later, their names would be linked forever, due to the Warren Commission and the report of that awful day in Dallas.
O’Reilly can tell a story and is one of the best at using a combination of clipped, short sentence and longer, more descriptive ones. That is no mean feat, and the skill serves him well, as he moves through the story of a remarkable man.
From the start of “Killing Kennedy,” O’Reilly weaves a story of a man who was the very picture of strength and health: “But John Kennedy ignores the cold. He has even removed his overcoat. At age 43, JFK exudes fearlessness and vigor. His lack of coat, top hat, scarf or gloves is an intentional ploy to burnish his athletic image.”
This colorful description of Kennedy’s famous appearance at his swearing-in is punctuated by O’Reilly in the next paragraph, as he tells us that while JFK seemed to define that vigor, he had already been administered last rites twice. His health was indeed so fragile that as we look back, it’s amazing he lived as long as he did. So “Killing Kennedy” reminds us in a vibrant way that life is often not nearly as secure as we might think … or it might look.
Among the dozens of poignant moments in this book is the pre-dawn conversation Kennedy has with his radiant wife. They talk excitedly of the inauguration and what the future might hold. This window into a private moment contributes to the feeling that the John F. Kennedy story is in some way fiction, if that makes sense. It is an epic story, and Bill O’Reilly’s account is a true page-turner.
There is also extraordinary access into the dynamics among the key figures of that time. In “Killing Kennedy,” we learn of the disdain that the young president and his predecessor had for each other. One would think that two men, even though a generation or so apart, would have mutual respect since they both fought in World War II. Eisenhower, however – who nicknamed Kennedy “Little Boy Blue” – was almost incredulous that a mere lieutenant(!) could succeed the architect of the war in Europe.
As he must, O’Reilly also tracks the movements of one Lee Harvey Oswald, a misfit who, in a psychiatric report, was found to have a “vivid fantasy life.”
In an unintentionally macabre way (there can be no other way when detailing the life of the tragic young president), O’Reilly describes the various ways Kennedy “cheated death” as a young man. The whole thing is very much a Greek tragedy.
I had not known the details of Kennedy’s famous career-shaping experience in the Solomon Islands as a PT boat skipper. Incredibly, as half of his damaged boat was on its way to the bottom (1,200 feet down), he managed to rally the crew to stay afloat with the rest. Chillingly, they are surrounded by Japanese-held islands and can actually see a Japanese camp a mile away. Left with only a machine gun and seven handguns, Kennedy quickly sizes-up the situation and hatches a plan.
Here we see a defining moment, and it is made all the more extraordinary when one considers that the young JFK was controlled by the old man, father Joe, and defers to charismatic older brother Joe Jr. After all – and Kennedy’s PT crew knows this – the young officer is more interested in chasing girls and in fact has barely had to even steer the boat!
So … bobbing there in the Pacific, scanning his immediate environment, Kennedy announces that they will swim for a group of small islands a few miles away. As the rest paddle by hanging on to timber, Kennedy himself actually pulls another crew member using a strap between his teeth. They survive it all, and a legend is born.
I suspected, as I read the absorbing “Killing Kennedy,” that this moment prepared JFK for even larger moments, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
Well, I’ve rambled on too long, haven’t I? By mentioning ’62, though, I’ve taken this review up to a mere year before the focus of this book. O’Reilly will take you the rest of the gripping, tragic way. He does it in a rare style that will leave you breathless.