'Killing Kennedy,' unabashed in the face of tragedy

Janet Maslin / New York Times News Service /

“Killing Kennedy:

The End Of Camelot” by By Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (Henry Holt & Co., $28)

According to a 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll released last week, 7 percent of Americans think Lee Harvey Oswald is the guy who shot Abraham Lincoln.

That’s one justification for “Killing Kennedy,” the latest gerund-happy book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (after “Killing Lincoln”) to turn a presidential assassination into a human interest story. This brand of highly dramatic nonfiction sells, and for good reason.

The books are punchy. They are blunt and clear, not being burdened with an overload of pesky footnotes. But they do favor facts, and the more numerical the better. This book’s description of the shooting of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas includes the numbers 156 (car length in inches); 350 (its horsepower); SS-100-X (the car’s Secret Service code name); 120 (degrees in the angle it must turn in Dealey Plaza); 12:33 (time when shots were fired); 14 (doctors attending to the dying president); and 12 (bloody red roses stuck to his body). All that’s missing is a partridge in a pear tree.

Most of “Killing Kennedy” is immersively written in the present tense, with occasional prophetic, “little-does-he-know” glimpses of the future. It begins on Inauguration Day, when “the man with fewer than three years to live” has his left hand on the Bible. Little does he know that Chief Justice Earl Warren, who swears him in, has a name that “will one day be synonymous with Kennedy’s own death.”

The authors are not content to say that Jan. 20, 1961, is a cold day. They must point out that “a brutal wind strafes the crowd.” And they are not content to remain in Washington; the book quickly switches to a “meanwhile” mention of the future gunman. “Approximately 4,500 miles away, in the Soviet city of Minsk, an American who did not vote for John F. Kennedy is fed up,” they write, massaging the fact that Oswald was at that point fed up with the Soviet government, not with America’s new president.

The details of the Kennedy assassination are even more familiar than the story “Killing Lincoln” told. So “Killing Kennedy” has a momentum problem: it is lively, but not innately suspenseful. The authors combat that by packing in as much volatile language as possible. It is not surprising to find both “splattered” and “shattered” in the same paragraph here. More extreme are examples of word-mangling like this: “The president’s voracious sexual appetite is the elephant that the president rides around on each and every day while pretending that it doesn’t exist.”

An elephantine First Libido is something the men writing this book seem to admire, though they do show some restraint. And their vision of a heroic Kennedy runs much deeper, as with their harrowing replay of the sinking of PT-109 and the young Kennedy’s efforts to save his crew.

When it comes to Kennedy’s decision-making during the Bay of Pigs invasion, the authors are more disapproving. The book also offers thumbnail accounts of the Cuban missile crisis, the civil rights movement and the escalating Vietnam War. But “Killing Kennedy” is mostly about the man himself, with emphasis on his health, his marriage, his dealings with his attorney general brother, Bobby, and his love for his children.

Scintillating? No. But sneakily dramatic? However shameless it may be, the book picks up strength as it heads for its date with destiny.

Apparently, 7 percent of Americans would do well to read it.

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