Writer-to-writer: A Talk With Larry Sabato About The Kennedy Half Century

The book raises fascinating questions about one of the most popular presidents in American history. If JFK was ripped from the '60s and thrust into today's media, what would the reception be?
11/20/2013 06:44 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Each November, two things come to mind: Thanksgiving and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Larry Sabato, Professor of Politics at the University of Virginia and a Rhodes Scholar, has authored 28 books on politics. He recently released The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy, a book based on extraordinary research. Professor Sabato provides insights into many of the theories surrounding JFK's death and explores other issues of the Kennedy presidency.

The book raises fascinating questions about one of the most popular presidents in American history. If JFK was ripped from the '60s and thrust into today's media, what would the reception be? Would he be regarded as a rich man, a scion of privilege, as was Mitt Romney? Would he, in fact, be a Republican?

You point out that many modern Democrats have forgotten how conservative JFK's policies were.
It was a very different time. It was the height of the Cold War and both parties were strongly opposed to the Soviet Union and in favor of a vigorous national defense. On foreign policy he had what we would regard today as hawkish views. That was also true about some economic policies. He was very concerned with keeping the deficit small and manageable. He often rejected proposals for new programs because he felt they would increase the deficit. That's why, these days, Republicans often cite Kennedy, just as Democrats do.

Your book points out so many interesting things. You mention that Jackie Kennedy, in talking about her husband's death, said, "He didn't even have the satisfaction of being killed for civil rights. It had to be some silly little Communist. It robs his death of any meaning."
Mrs. Kennedy uttered those words on Air Force One, flying back to Washington from Dallas on November 22nd. I believe that was part of the genesis of her manufacturing the Camelot myth. There was no such thing during Kennedy's life. The Camelot myth was directly attributed to Mrs. Kennedy. I think she realized the death itself would have no meaning unless it was put into the context of his administration. She wanted the country to have a reference point; wanted her children to be proud of their father; and wanted the country to be proud of John F. Kennedy. That was probably one of the reasons she came up with the Camelot designation.

So she was something of an image-maker?

She was indeed. Her finest moment in public life was putting together that incredible Lincolnesque funeral, and then designing the memorial image of the Kennedy administration, all while suffering terrible grief and dislocation. She had to leave the White House. She had two young children who were fatherless. Remarkably, she kept her composure and thought so clearly about what needed to be done to create and preserve that image.

The book explores in depth some of JFK's health issues, his reliance on medications and physicians. Did this affect his competence while in office?

He had always been sickly. The family joke was that if a mosquito bit Jack, the mosquito would die. He'd spent a good bit of time as a youngster in infirmaries. Even before World War II, he had to use family connections to get into the navy because he couldn't pass the physical examination. Then came the PT 109 incident where Kennedy ruined his back rescuing some of his crewmen. That was combined with back surgeries and Addison's disease. Medical knowledge was relatively rudimentary at the time. He was given large doses of steroids, and also "speed," for extra energy. He and Mrs. Kennedy were injected with amphetamines -- sometimes on a daily basis--by a doctor who came to be known as "Dr. Feelgood." We can't imagine these things today. Inevitably, it had to affect his judgment in certain instances. It probably made him euphoric at times. It's something we would not tolerate today, but given the context of those days, and given his physical illness -- which he and his campaign lied about -- it's a little more understandable.

Speaking of his earlier life, we know that Joseph Kennedy, Sr., JFK's father, was grooming Joe, Jr. for the presidency. Of course, that son was killed during World War II. Do you think JFK carried any emotional scars for having been a "pinch-hitter" for his older brother?
Jack Kennedy seemed reasonably relaxed about it all. They were competitors earlier on, but he clearly loved and missed his brother. I don't think he would have gone into politics had it not been for the death of Joe, Jr. He was interested in journalism, or perhaps becoming an author. He had a good experience with Why England Slept. Of course, his father promoted the book a great deal. Once Joe died, JFK recognized he would have to take up the banner. His father expected it. And once he got into politics, he was surprised by how much he enjoyed it.

You described the Cuban missile crisis as "the most perilous moment of the Cold War" and even said, "One could argue it was the most dangerous moment in the history of mankind." Perhaps it's obvious, but can you tell us a bit more about that?
We came closer to nuclear Armageddon than ever before, or since. Anybody alive today remembers it. Many people wondered if they would ever see another sunrise. It has an effect on you when you go through something like that. It was a terrible experience for the world and I think it changed both John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. After that episode, both seemed far more interested in forging a lasting peace and some kind of détente, years before it was achieved under different leaders.

Why do you think JFK got such latitude from the press regarding his promiscuous sexual escapades?
It was the way things were at the time. It wasn't just with John F. Kennedy, though clearly, he was a press favorite. It was, by the way, one of the reasons why Nixon hated the press so much. He felt the press made the difference in the 1960 election, and they may have. But that latitude was given to a whole range of politicians back then. There were senators who drank heavily and fell down drunk in the senate chamber right in front of the press gallery. Not a word of it ever appeared in print.

You never mentioned that in the book.
It's in a footnote. But in a previous book, Feeding Frenzy, I cover it in detail. There's a great story about Lyndon Johnson. On the first new year's eve of his presidency, Lyndon Johnson met with a bunch of reporters down in Texas, and at the end of the chit-chat with these White House correspondents, said, "And one other thing, boys..." they were all men back then... "From time to time, you're going to hear about me going off to see some woman... and just so you know... it's none of your business. Let's keep it that way." And they did.

Part of what sets your book apart from many others is your mention of so many fascinating tidbits... little factoids I found intriguing. Tell us a bit about Kennedy's famous utterance in Berlin, "Ich bin ein Berliner."
Well, strictly translated, it means, "I am a jelly donut in Berlin." This was known when it happened, but you see, there were different press rules at the time. First, we were in a life-or-death struggle with the Soviet Union. It was a Ground Zero where the Soviets clearly wanted to take over West Berlin. So, the foreign press wasn't going to embarrass the president. Nor would the American press, because any embarrassment to our leader would be viewed favorably by the Soviet Union. On the whole, presidents were far more protected by press rules and by the circumstances of international relations at the time.

Think about what would happen today if such a verbal mishap occurred with any president. The cable news networks would have enough fodder for weeks. The president would never outlive it. It would even be part of his obituary. We live in very different times, and I'm not sure it's for the better.

In the book, you said JKF's death was inevitable. You even said, "If Lee Harvey Oswald had never been born, if the Texas trip had never been scheduled, John F. Kennedy would still have been in jeopardy every day of his presidency... even without Dallas, Kennedy would have been lucky to have been found next to a successor on the inaugural stand come January 20, 1969." You even called him "a marked man."
We did a lot of research into the security arrangements for Kennedy, both in Washington and on foreign trips. We learned things that would be viewed today as shocking. The president was often without any Secret Service men close by. Both at home and abroad, Kennedy was completely exposed. He would often stand up for miles in a limousine, making himself a clear target. There was no checking of open windows as the limousine passed. He would pass crowds of hundreds of thousands of people -- in Dallas it was about 200,000 -- the people were not pre-screened. At times, he was enveloped by crowds on the road, literally coming into the limousine, trying to touch him. Back then, were no metal detectors. He encountered millions of people this way. Of course, it only takes one disturbed individual or one determined person to kill a president.

Many plots were broken up; the Secret Service deserves credit for that. But keep in mind, in that Dallas motorcade -- which was typical of motorcades at the time -- no one was on the running boards; and there were dozens, if not hundreds, of open windows along the 12 mile route. It only took one open window and one determined assassin, unless you believe in a conspiracy; and then, it was two -- one behind the picket fence on the grassy knoll. With only 12 Secret Service men with him in the motorcade... think about that, repeatedly, at home and abroad, a couple of times each week. It's amazing he made it until November 22nd. And you know what the survivors I talked with said to me? "We didn't think it could happen." Now why would they think that? It was part of the optimism of the day. We no longer have that optimistic sense of things. We've seen the reality.

We know there have been endless conspiracy theories -- some ludicrous and some not so ludicrous. In your view, is there any one person you feel is most responsible for the full picture of what happened not emerging?
I wouldn't put it all on one person. Some people put it all on Lyndon Johnson. Others blame the fact that Earl Warren was distracted. Others point to key people in the CIA. They're all guilty as far as I'm concerned. They did a terrible job in the investigation. But I must say in their defense, one reason for the terrible job was because they were consistently lied to by the CIA and the FBI. And the CIA continued to lie to the second investigatory committee in the 1970s. The lying was so consistent that the director of that committee, years later when he discovered the extent of the lying, said he had absolutely no confidence in anything the CIA told the committee. That's a great shame. We hope that the 1,171 remaining CIA documents that are supposed to be released in 2017 will provide more insight.

Do you feel there is such a continuing fascination with JFK 50 years later, only because he was assassinated?
You can't deny that the assassination was a big part of it. In our focus group discussions, for example, whenever we would bring up Kennedy's excessive extramarital relations and reckless private life, people -- even non-Democrats -- would jump to his defense. We probed it, and basically, people said in essence, "the blood of the assassination washed away his sins." Their view was he's not here to defend himself. So that's part of it. And, the mystery of the assassination accounts for it as well. You have over 300 separate theories of the assassination. Everything but a UFO has been proposed as having played a part in it. People view it as one of the great unsolved mysteries of the 20th Century.

But there's far more that accounts for the fascination with JFK. He was the best rhetorician of his era. If you look at all the post-World War II presidents, only Reagan comes close to Kennedy. I think Kennedy was better. Kennedy was good with more than prepared speeches with Teleprompters; he was great at extemporaneous speaking as well. At times, he would give a speech for 30 or 45 minutes -- without a note.

And then, there was the optimism of the era. Those who lived through it, look back and realize America was at a peak. It was a relatively happy time. Yes, the civil rights revolution was brewing and there were lots of problems, but we felt we could deal with them all.

Are there any over-arching conclusions your research has led to regarding our retrospective view of John F. Kennedy?
I think as we look back on the Kennedy presidency, we can see the power of legacy in certain circumstances. We mentioned the assassination as one. You know, legacy for a president is a kind of life after death. There's a reason why John F. Kennedy is the most popular post-World War II president. The reason is people connected with the inspiration, the idealism of his specific programs; and the way he approached making decisions. They also felt some obligation to him and his family... to take the best of John Kennedy and extend it through his nine successors. His successors felt that obligation too, because they could use the legacy positively to accomplish their own ends.

They obviously distort the legacy to support their own agendas, Reagan being an example. But Reagan used Kennedy brilliantly. That's what presidents should do. They must use every tool in the toolbox to get their agendas accomplished. But, the people wanted to do it as a tribute to President Kennedy.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of
Mad Dog House and Love Gone Mad

To hear an audio of the complete interview, go to www.BookTrib.com