A new JFK conspiracy: Was book review unfair?

To the editors:

David Greenberg’s review of my book “The Kennedy Half Century” in The Washington Post on Oct. 27 was highly inaccurate and misleading. While I don’t ordinarily respond to criticism, I am compelled to do so in this instance.

The Books of JFK

Why we’re still obsessed with JFK

Why we’re still obsessed with JFK

The appeal and frustrations of writing about the most enigmatic man to occupy the White House.

Five myths about Jackie Kennedy

Five myths about Jackie Kennedy

She wasn’t really clueless about her husband’s work.

The tragedy that changed JFK

The tragedy that changed JFK

How the death of an infant son, only 39 hours old, drew John and Jackie Kennedy closer.

Review: ‘A Cruel and Shocking Act’

Review: ‘A Cruel and Shocking Act’

Philip Shenon offers the trappings of conspiracy literature without quite arguing for a conspiracy.

Review: ‘Camelot’s Court’

Review: ‘Camelot’s Court’

Robert Dallek shows JFK struggled to understand that brilliance does not always equal good judgment.

Review: ‘The Kennedy Half-Century’

Review: ‘The Kennedy Half-Century’

Larry Sabato contends Republicans cling to Kennedy’s legacy almost as much as Democrats do.

Review: ‘End of Days’

Review: ‘End of Days’

James Swanson narrates the Kennedy assassination in crime-novel style.

Review: ‘Top Down’

Review: ‘Top Down’

Jim Lehrer’s novel imagines the suffering of a guilt-ridden Secret Service agent.

Review: ‘The Interloper’

Review: ‘The Interloper’

Peter Savodnik uncorks Lee Harvey Oswald to find a man fleeing from himself.

Review: ‘If Kennedy Lived’

Review: ‘If Kennedy Lived’

Jeff Greenfield wonders what JFK would have done in Vietnam and at home if he’d survived.

He opens by saying I “summarized” a recent poll by the eminent pollsters Peter Hart and Geoff Garin. In fact, I commissioned the poll as part of my research into JFK’s legacy — the central focus of my book — and it turned into one of the largest studies ever conducted on a public figure. The poll makes up an important chapter in the book (the entire study is posted on TheKennedyHalfCentury.com).

Greenberg then criticizes the length of what he terms the “prologue,” a discussion of Kennedy’s 1960 campaign and subsequent years in the White House, saying it lacks “any fresh insight.” First, this is a book meant for a broad group of readers, many of whom have no living memory of the early 1960s or may not have read much about JFK, and they need such a grounding to appreciate Kennedy’s impact and legacy. Second, this section, and the one on the assassination, are, in fact, full of new material and insights, based on the hundreds of original interviews conducted for the book.

Then, Greenberg attacks my treatment of JFK’s assassination as “wearying,” useful only for those who “wallow in speculation.” There are many millions who continue to find the subject fascinating — indeed, the poll mentioned above found that 75 percent of Americans still do not accept the fundamental conclusions of the Warren Commission.

Perhaps it was Greenberg’s unusual boredom with Nov. 22 that enabled him to skip over a key section in my book. It details the new, highly sophisticated acoustical study that I commissioned of the police Dictabelts in use that day in Dallas, which refutes the “conspiracy” finding of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. This has made headlines around the world, yet Greenberg doesn’t even mention it, asserting that attention given to the whodunit “will strike most readers as not worth their time.”

Moreover, Greenberg concludes, incredibly, by declaring that the book would have been better if I had spent more time on the assassination.

He also wants more analysis of why JFK’s life and death became such “a focal point for all that went wrong . . . and a repository for the dreams of what might have been.” That is precisely what I do in the final 11 of 21 chapters.

Sincerely,

Larry J. Sabato

University Professor of Politics

Director, U-Va. Center for Politics

David Greenberg replies:

There was nothing inaccurate in my review, and Larry Sabato concedes as much by citing no specific errors. He just quarrels with my judgments and word choice. He protests that his long rehash of JFK’s presidency is “full of new material and insights” but mentions none. He wishes I had cared more about a study he “commissioned” purporting to refute a conspiracy claim, but as I wrote, it’s hard to imagine anyone — besides the numerous assassination buffs — getting excited about this minutia. And he’s miffed that I didn’t give him credit for “commissioning” the poll he summarizes, though that fact has no bearing on the poll’s findings. What Sabato couldn’t commission was a better book, because he hasn’t come up with an argument about JFK that’s new or important enough to demand intellectual engagement.

Sincerely,

David Greenberg

Professor of History and Journalism

Rutgers University

 
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