As I was nearing the finish of Nixonland I remembered that Vincent Bugliosi had written about the Kennedy assassination a couple years back. Not sure but maybe something in Nixonland triggered it; anyway I had always meant to read that one so I went and found it in one of the libraries on campus.
Reading the 36 page preface and the early part of the text I realized that in addition to examining the Kennedy assassination in excruciating detail and blowing up every conspiracy myth you've ever heard of, Bugliosi is writing on the same theme as Perlstein was: the polarization of America. Perlstein traced it to Nixon, Bugliosi goes back to that fateful day in 1963.
From the preface:
At approximately 12:30 p.m. on November 22, 1963, while President John F. Kennedy, the most powerful man in the free world, rode in his presidential limousine slowly past the Texas School Book Depository Building and down Elm Street in Dallas, Texas, three shots rang out ... lay mortally wounded on his wife Jaqueline's lap. The assassin had succeeded in brutally cutting down, at the age of forty-six, the thirty-fifth president of these United States, a man whose wit, charm and intelligence had captivated a world audience. The assassin's bullets had also extinguished a flame of hope for millions of Americans who saw in the youthful president at least the promise of excellence in national life.
As the years have shown, Kennedy's assassination immediately transformed him into a mythical, larger-than-life figure whose hold on the nation's imagination resonates to this very day. "The image of Kennedy is not based on what he accomplished, but on his promise, the hope he held out," said historian Stephen Ambrose in 1993. Years earlier, New York Times columnist James Reston wrote similarly that "what was killed in Dallas was not only the President but the promise. The heart of the Kennedy legend is what might have been. All this is apparent in the faces of the people who come daily to his grave on the Arlington Hill." In 1993, Ambrose added, "There's a very strong sense that if he had not died, we would not have suffered the 30 years of nightmare that followed--the race riots, the white backlash, assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra." While this is, of course, speculative, what is not is JFK's legacy of rekindling the notion that public service is a noble calling. If it is any barometer of the sense of hope and promise that Kennedy inspired in the American people, the ever-decreasing trust by Americans in their government down through the years started with the Kennedy assassination and the subsequent erroneously perceived notion--fostered by conspiracy theorists--that the government concealed the full truth about the assassination from them. Trust in our leaders in Washington to do what is right for the people plummeted from 76 percent around the time of the assassination to a low of 19 percent three decades later. "There's such a gulf in history between the day before and the day after Kennedy's assassination," says historian Howard Jones of the University of Alabama. "It's as if we passed through a hundred years in a day."
The book is 1,500 pages long; I don't know if I'll read every word. So far I'm liking it.
More to come ...