Shedding new light on John F. Kennedy's legacy: An interview with Larry Sabato

Sabato's new book, The Kennedy Half Century, also uses new scientific methods to probe one of the most famous assassinations in American history

November 22 marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and a host of new books about the 35th president have been slated for publication to mark the event. But the book that will have the biggest impact will be the University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato's recently released The Kennedy Half Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Enduring Legacy of John F. Kennedy.

The book explores JFK's administration, analyzes assassination conspiracy theories using new scientific evidence, and details Kennedy's influence over five decades on public policy and politics.

In his book, Sabato deploys the same thoroughness, balance, and incisiveness that have made him one of the country's top political analysts and most accurate election forecasters. His free Crystal Ball political newsletter, put out by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, is required reading for political junkies. The book's release will be followed on Oct. 21 by a free online course on "The Kennedy Half Century" taught by Sabato, as well as a PBS documentary coming later this fall.

In an interview with The Week, Sabato details the book's findings on the assassination, JFK's legacy, and more.

The Week: Your book is called The Kennedy Half Century. How has Kennedy's legacy played out over the last 50 years? And do you see the half century expanding into a Kennedy century?

Larry Sabato: I thought it important to write a more comprehensive book that covers his life, not just his death — and the impact from that life, something we call legacy. While I'm pleased that we have been able to present some important new evidence about the assassination, I'm much prouder of the final third of the book. It traces JFK's legacy through all nine of his White House successors. I looked at how LBJ through Obama have used President Kennedy's words and deeds to further their own presidential agendas.

The results are fascinating. The use of a predecessor's legacy turns out to be another device in the White House tool kit. I speculate that after we Baby Boomers shuffle off this mortal coil, Kennedy will have fewer advocates and receptive members of the public. Nonetheless, JFK's great advantage is that he translates well to any era. My students are as mesmerized watching him speak as we were back in the 1960s.

Several other, less meticulously researched books that are coming out have flatly accused the CIA and Mafia of killing Kennedy. One book even points the finger at President Lyndon Johnson. These books mostly recycle old interviews and older data and the authors' positions are predictable once you see their names. How does your book differ in the methodology you used to chronicle and analyze the assassination?

We have been comprehensive and judicious. We give all the major theories a fair evaluation, and reach some hard conclusions. Some won't like them, but at least the treatment was fair. There are some utterly absurd theories out there, such as how a Secret Service agent accidentally or intentionally shot JFK in Dealey Plaza, or how Oswald's real target was John Connally. I'm waiting for the theory that a UFO did it.

I'll say this: There are enough pieces that don't fit into the official explanation to make any thinking person ask questions. Some humility is required here; we are never going to "solve" this crime to the satisfaction of the three-fourths of Americans (according to a Hart-Garin poll we commissioned) who don't buy the Warren Commission's conclusions. The trails went cold a long time ago, and we may have to settle for some incomplete, unsatisfying answers.

What new theories or information emerged from your research and analysis of the assassination?

We've spent a great deal of time and money reanalyzing some old evidence, and have come up with an airtight conclusion on one controversial piece of November 22, 1963. We will roll this out at our press conference at the Newseum on Tuesday Oct. 15, at 10 a.m. We were able to employ some advanced techniques not available to previous researchers. Let me stress — it isn't a new theory. We have used the scientific method, and we will put a part of the assassination history to rest.

Incidentally, if further breakthroughs are made, it might well come this way — reexamination of hard evidence. The deathbed confession phase is over, after 50 years. Maybe, just maybe, some useful documents will be released in the 2017 dump that is coming under the 1992 Records Act that George H.W. Bush signed.Roughly how many original interviews were done for this book and roughly how many produced fresh details or revelations?

A couple hundred, from the top people in this field to average citizens. Kennedy administration veterans (there aren't many left alive) and assassination witnesses and researchers (loads of them!) were the bulk of the group. I can truthfully say that we gleaned at least one anecdote or observation that was novel and useful from each interview.What special methodology did you use to assess Kennedy's impact, and how does it differ from past methods? What did it find?

Besides the assassination study, which will be in the book and released in detail on a mobile app and on our website, we also conducted the largest public opinion study ever done on a long-ago presidency — over 2,000 interviews that included video segments plus multiple focus groups in three cities: Los Angeles, Chicago, and Richmond, Va. We learned a great deal and included the findings in the book.

Another tedious but revealing study was of every presidential utterance from LBJ to Obama that mentioned JFK. We didn't expect some of what we found. Every president has used Kennedy, but some made him a central underpinning of their campaigns to win and govern.

What did your analysis lead you to conclude about who shot Kennedy and whether there was a conspiracy?

A fair number of people in the field have gone to considerable lengths to vindicate Lee Harvey Oswald. In my view, that's a mistake. The hard evidence is overwhelming that he was the shooter in the Texas School Book Depository Building, and that he killed Dallas police officer Tippit later that afternoon. The real question is whether anyone else was in Dealey Plaza as a co-conspirator or back-up, or whether anyone had encouraged or assisted Oswald along the path to November 22. The answers are less clear than one might think, as I explain in the book.

You detail how politicians since Kennedy tried to use his words and deeds to link themselves to him — imagery that you note did not always coincide with reality. Who succeeded and who failed, and why?

Two presidents were highly effective in using JFK: Johnson and Reagan. It was actually fairly easy for LBJ to do so. The wave of sorrow and guilt about the assassination was towering. All Johnson had to do at first was to designate a bill or directive as necessary to fulfill President Kennedy's agenda, and legislators and the public rushed to support it.

Reagan's use of JFK to achieve his across-the-board tax cut and to reinforce his tough anti-communist stance was masterful. Reagan also cultivated the Kennedy family in fascinating ways. Bill Clinton quoted JFK more than any other president, but there is less of a clear policy impact. Jimmy Carter may have been the least successful Democrat in utilizing JFK, in part because of his feud with Ted Kennedy. I show how this started during Carter's 1976 campaign. In an interview, Carter also made clear graphically to me that the Kennedys, not just Ted, were determined to bring him down.

Of the Republicans, George H.W. Bush used JFK the least, and I'm convinced the main reason was because it would have embarrassed his vice president, Dan ("You're no Jack Kennedy") Quayle.As actual memories of his presidency fade with the passing of generations, do you think his image will become enduringly iconic like Lincoln's?

It's pure speculation, but I believe Kennedy has stood the test of time much like Lincoln. Of course, Lincoln kept the Union together, an achievement matched by few of his predecessors or successors. But like Lincoln, JFK was murdered at the peak of power. The assassination combined with Kennedy's media skills and the sense of incompleteness will continue to intrigue the public, journalists, and academics for a long time to come.

You note that Kennedy was actually a centrist or conservative Democrat and was forced left by circumstances and by many in his own party. Clearly, during his time there was a strong political center. Where is America's political center today? Do you see this changing and why?

What a dramatic contrast the early 1960s are with today. Back then, the government worked, accomplished great things, and often did so in a bipartisan fashion. Those days are gone, at least for now. The big parties were once coalitions of right and left, so bipartisanship was easier. Now there is virtually no ideological overlap between Democrats and Republicans, so there's little basis for compromise. And the polarization extends to the media, which reinforces divisive tendencies in Congress and the public.

In terms of how politicking and governing was done in the 1960s, what's the biggest contrast with how they are being done today — and how do you see this trending?

The tone was different. When the election was over, however close and hard-fought, Americans came together in important ways. Take JFK. Elected by a smidgen, he was soon boasting Gallup ratings in the 60s and 70s. Maybe it was the Cold War threat, but we were simply far less polarized despite plenty of divisive issues, from civil rights to (as ever) the proper role of the federal government.


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