Few casual students of American history, even those born before 1960, realize how much daily physical pain President John F. Kennedy endured. His Addison’s disease, his war injuries and his chronic bad back often left him using a cane or crutches, though rarely in public.
Even fewer know that, indirectly at least, his bad back may have cost him his life when sniper Lee Harvey Oswald fired three shots at him on that blood-drenched day in Dallas, Nov. 22, 1963.
Two of the three shots from Oswald’s Italian carbine rifle struck the president.
The first contact shot, as authors Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard recount, did not prove fatal, but the force would have knocked the average person’s upper body forward, leaving the ultimately fatal shot to miss its intended target.
Instead, JFK’s back brace – which he had wrapped in a thick layer of Ace bandages that morning – held his body upright.
“If not for the brace, the next bullet, less than five seconds later, would have traveled harmlessly over his head,” the authors say. “But it does not. The next bullet explodes his skull.”
That kind of anecdote makes this book worth the read.
As with any huge historical moment, the authors suggest how avoidable the JFK assassination was: If only he hadn’t worn his back brace that day. If only the Secret Service and Dallas police had heeded their own warning that the highly publicized JFK motorcade route, with its thousands of windows and many tight turns, left him a “sitting duck.” And if only Oswald had succeeded in his April 1963 assassination attempt against an anti-communist activist or if his visa application to move to Cuba had been approved earlier.
There are quite a few things this book isn’t.
First, the best-seller’s title, “Killing Kennedy,” is deceiving. The reader doesn’t get to Dallas until about page 250, although the book is sprinkled throughout with Oswald references and lines like, “The man with nine days to live....”
It’s also not a Fox-like conservative diatribe against JFK and his Camelot legacy. The tea party crowd might be lured in by O’Reilly’s name, but JFK detractors won’t be happy. The image of Kennedy comes across as quite balanced. His heroics and accomplishments – from PT-109 to the Cuban Missile Crisis – are on full display, along with his warts, including the Bay of Pigs and his frequent affairs with Marilyn Monroe and a cast of dozens.
Long after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the authors write, “JFK has grown into a true world leader. He combines discipline with a powerful work ethic, knowledge, guts and compassion.”
Also, conspiracy theorists need not apply. Lee Harvey Oswald, the lead supporting actor in this fictionlike accounting of the JFK assassination, comes across as a troubled man who just wanted to make a huge name for himself.
This is an easy, breezy read. While the authors provide a dramatic retelling of the JFK saga, even the youngest readers know how this plot plays out. But the book works, as an easy-to-read summary of the JFK presidency, both for the crowd that never will forget Nov. 22, 1963, and for those who know about it only through textbooks and memories passed down through the generations.
There are no real headline-grabbing revelations here. But where the book shines is in those detailed anecdotes.
Here are two more, out of dozens:
• The blood feud between Robert F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, both vying for power in the Kennedy White House, may have been triggered by the time LBJ took RFK deer hunting in 1959. After Bobby Kennedy shot at a deer, only to have the rifle’s recoil knock him to the ground, opening a cut above his eye, Johnson quipped, “Son, you’ve got to learn to shoot a gun like a man.”
• On Aug. 5, 1962, the day Marilyn Monroe died, RFK arranged for Kennedy brother-in-law Peter Lawford to send a private eye to her home, to make sure there was no sign of any Kennedy involvement. The authors add that no evidence exists to implicate Bobby or any Kennedy in her death.
This isn’t a book for serious historians. Instead, it’s a simple introduction to presidential history, a folksy, inviting way to learn about one of our most dynamic political figures without having to plow through some weighty tome.
It’s already a recipe for another slam-dunk best-seller.
Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot
By Bill O’Reilly
and Martin Dugard
325 pages, $28
Gene Warner is a veteran News reporter.