I recommend Anthony Summers “Not in Your Lifetime,” which has been updated and reissued this week. I think it is the best single introduction to the JFK assassination story.
Summers is a veteran journalist and accomplished biographer whose work has appeared in BBC and Vanity Fair and other publications with high editorial standards and big audiences. He combines story telling skills with a relentless focus on sifting the evidence, eliminating the dubious, and identifying what is new and important.
Where there are problems with the evidence and conflicting interpretations he fairly and succinctly summarizes the state of the debate and puts it in context. When I fault historian Robert Dallek or Washington reporters for showing signs of “denial” in writing about JFK’s assassination, it is because I feel they do not engage new and conflicting evidence the way Summers does.
Summers has a long familiarity with the JFK story and isn’t afraid to correct himself. “Not in Your Lifetime” was originally published in 1980, under the title “Conspiracy.” Recognizing that the title was problematic, he changed it — and continued reporting on the story. In this edition he has found diverse witnesses — a couple of FBI agents, a Cuban exile, and a former Warren Commission staffer — who bring new information and perspective to his account.
Summers is trustworthy because he has a track record of finding new dimensions in American political history. “Official and Confidential,” his biography of J. Edgar Hoover was the first to candidly address the FBI director’s homosexual tendencies, a fact that was once considered sensationalistic and unfounded but is now generally acknowledged to be essential to understanding the man.
Summers’s biography of Richard Nixon revealed the tormented president’s efforts to get mental health treatment, a previously unknown and revealing story that was remarkably fair to an easily demonized figure. As a result of his fact-finding skills, “Not In Your Lifetime” is more empirical than theoretical, a rare thing in the literature of JFK’s assassination.
“Not in Your Lifetime,” of course, is not the only deeply-researched book on the subject. But the best of the others — such as Vincent Bugliosi’s “Reclaming History,” Lamar Waldron’s “Legacy of Secrecy” (co-authored with Thom Hartman) and James Douglass’s “JFK and the Unspeakable” — have the drawback of being dedicated to vindicating the author’s theory of the assassination. This makes their narratives sometimes feel subjective, if not self serving.
The virtues of Summers’s historical journalism is evident when you compare his approach to Bugliosi and Waldron’s.
Bugliosi, a former prosecutor, recounts JFK case from a forensic and theoretical point of view. His self-proclaimed mission is to discredit unsupported conspiracy theories. This is a worthy mission. There are a lot of stupid JFK conspiracy theories out there. But the result is a flabby book that devotes most of its energy to describing what did NOT happen in Dallas on November 22, 1963, as opposed to explaining what actually did happen.
When it comes to describing how JFK came to be killed, Bugliosi’s fat tome is substantively thin. Focused on stupid theories, he is ignorant or dismissive of actual facts that have emerged in recent years and require analysis. The persuasiveness of Bugliosi’s 1,700-page tome winds up being inversely proportional to its weight.
Waldron, an independent scholar, comes to the JFK story with the mission of explaining not just how Kennedy died but the nature of American politics in the 1960’s, encompassing not just Kennedy’s presidency, but the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the Watergate scandal. This is ambitious — and endless. If the reader differs with Waldron’s interpretation of events, the story starts to lose credibility. As Waldron’s vehicle motors on towards pre-ordained destination, the author seems oblivious to the possibility that the reader might have a mind of his or her own.
These approaches have their advantages. Bugliosi and Waldron’s elaborate certainties and cosmic insights appeal to the mythmakers of Hollywood. “Reclaiming History” is the basis for the just-released “Parkland.” Waldron’s book has been optioned by Leonardo DiCaprio. “Not In Your LIfetime,” is less conducive to such simplification, a sign perhaps that it is truer to the complexities of the JFK story.
Douglass’s “JFK and the Unspeakable” is better than “Reclaiming History” and “Legacy of the Secrecy” in this regard, but I think it still suffers from the fact that Douglass is a liberation theologian, not a journalist. His concern is ultimately spiritual. Since my spirit is like-minded, I don’t hesitate to recommend Douglass’s book to newcomers to the JFK story. But I have to admit that Douglass’s work is sometimes permissive in its standards of evidence. It does not have the rigor of “Not in Your Lifetime.”
Full disclosure: I thought “Not In Your Lifetime” was the best introduction to the JFK story before I met its author. Since then I have become a personal friend of Summers. Readers must decide for themselves if I am biased. The best way to do that is to read “Not in Your Lifetime.”
I’m interested in what readers think is the best single book about JFK’s assassination and why. I’ll summarize and publish your views.
somewhat beside the point when it comes to understanding what DID happen in Dallas. Waldron focuses on proving his theory about