JFK anniversary: the best Kennedy books of all time

To coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, new JFK books abound. Some are quite good, but these three classics are hard to beat, even indispensable.

In this Nov. 22, 1963 file photo, President John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, arrive at Love Field airport in Dallas, as a television camera, above, follows them.

John F. Kennedy books are at flood tide this year, the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Dallas.

To name a few, there are good new volumes about his years in Congress (“JFK in the Senate,” by John T. Shaw), about the final months of his presidency (“JFK’s Last Hundred Days,” by Thurston Clarke), and even his general White House glamour (“Camelot’s Court," by Robert Dallek). There are books about JFK and Jackie, and JFK and Reagan, and JFK and the possible impact of his stillborn son. There’s a great book about Kennedy’s overall impact: “The Kennedy Half Century,” by Larry J. Sabato.

There’s even a book by former pro-wrestler and Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura titled, “They Killed Our President: 63 Reasons to Believe There Was a Conspiracy to Assassinate JFK.” 

Count us among the unconvinced. By Mr. Ventura, anyway.

That said, Decoder still believes in the Kennedy classics. We’ve had to touch on the Kennedy era numerous times in our career, and there are three JFK books on our shelf we could not do without.

“JFK Reckless Youth,” by British journalist Nigel Hamilton. Yes, it’s kind of a salacious title, and it delves much into the young Kennedy’s romances – such as his affair with Inga Arvad, a Danish journalist whom the FBI suspected was a German spy.

But this 1992 classic is great on JFK’s troubled prep school years, the difficulties of his relationships with father, Joe, and older brother Joe Jr., and the general angst of his teen and early adult life. This puts the cool, unruffled façade of his political years in a whole different context. And where else will you read that he and a pal got in so much trouble at Choate that they sent a letter to the French Foreign Legion, asking to join?

“An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963,” by now-retired Boston University historian Robert Dallek. This is the definitive one-volume biography so far. It’s where we go to find pithy, accurate summaries of all JFK’s adult highlights, from his 1946 congressional race, to the 1960 presidential campaign, to the Cuban Missile Crisis, to his final 100 days.

This was the 2003 book that brought the full extent of JFK’s health problems to public view. Again, it sheds a different light on the calm, cool JFK demeanor, showing it often hid physical pain and frustration.

“The Death of a President, November 1963,” by William Manchester. This is a famous book that in our view is not famous enough. It is an extraordinary accounting of the basic facts of the trip to Dallas, the assassination, and the aftermath, as known in the mid-‘60s. To read it is to see where so many of the authors of today get their basic framework for the same material.

And it is gripping. Consider this, Manchester’s description of the post-assassination instant:

“Lee Oswald, watched by the stupefied [street-level witness Howard] Brennan, steps back into the shadows in the deliberate lock step of a Marine marksman retiring from the range. Below him he leaves madness. The plaza resembles nothing so much as a field which has just been swept by a mighty wind.”

Manchester’s book was initially authorized by the Kennedy family, and he had access to Jackie Kennedy and other key witnesses. They later deemed it unseemly and wrestled with the author over its publication. Though hard to find for many years (our copy came from a used book sale), it’s now available again in a 50th anniversary edition.

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