Sabato’s Folly: His new book about JFK gives credence to bogus theories about the assassination

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tags: JFK, John F. Kennedy, Larry J. Sabato



David Reitzes writes for a variety of print and online media, including his own website, JFK Online. His article, “JFK Conspiracy Theories at 50: How the Skeptics Got It Wrong and Why It Matters,” appeared in Skeptic magzine. 

Evaluating a president’s place in history, even with the benefit of hindsight, is seldom easy. Applying the proper perspective to as iconic a figure as John F. Kennedy has proven well-nigh impossible. From the instant his presidency was cut short by a burst of gunfire fifty years ago, mythology has overwhelmed reality.

Any historian who tackles this subject is therefore, by definition, audacious. But Larry J. Sabato is doubly so. To his ever-lasting credit, Sabato believes Kennedy’s term in office, the assassination, and the aftermath are an indivisible historical whole and must be written about as such.

. . . [I]t is impossible to understand the Kennedy legacy without understanding the assassination—the sequence of events, as well as what most Americans think happened and why. Millions have never been, and will never be, satisfied with the official findings of two separate government inquiries—not least because the inquiries came to opposite conclusions on the critical question of conspiracy. The assassination dictated that JFK would not have the time create a full record and make his whole claim on history. For fifty years the unfinished record of the man and his presidency has stirred Americans as they mourned an unconscionable loss and wondered what might have been. This “ghost legacy” is as powerful as the real one.[1]


This is a bracing change from the approach of most historians who have written about Kennedy, whose tendency has been to treat the assassination as an unwanted complication. Of course, it is not easy to write about an event that remains a controversial mystery to so many, with a majority of Americans consistently believing that the truth about it has never been told  Consequently, it’s not unusual to see historians handle the subject rather dismissively, as Robert Dallek did in An Unfinished Life:

Despite an authoritative 1993 book, Case Closed, by attorney Gerald Posner refuting numerous conspiracy theories, the public, inflamed by a popular 1991 Oliver Stone film, JFK, believed otherwise . . . . The fact that none of the conspiracy theorists have been able to offer convincing evidence of their suspicions does not seem to trouble many people. The plausibility of a conspiracy is less important to them than the implausibility of someone as inconsequential as Oswald having the wherewithal to kill someone as consequential . . . as Kennedy.[2]


Despite Sabato’s willingness to undertake the necessary task of making history whole again, The Kennedy Half-Century is a great disappointment. Sabato’s in-depth treatment of the assassination is precisely where the book falters. The author often ends up sounding more like a fevered assassination buff, pandering to popular, uninformed opinion about the assassination, rather than someone who was a Rhodes Scholar, founder of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, and is the University Professor of Politics at UVA.

Sabato’s treatment of the second major official investigations, the 1976-79 probe by the House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) is a good illustration of how the book falters. Sabato made this section a centerpiece of his talks about the book, primarily because of a study he commissioned on a supposedly key piece of “evidence,” an audio recording that led the HSCA to conclude that JFK “was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.” The word “evidence” is in quotes because the item’s relevance to the crime has always been a point of dispute. The recording of police transmissions allegedly captured the sounds of the shots in Dealey Plaza (though no such sounds are audible), including a theorized shot from the grassy knoll.[3] 

The Sabato study, performed by Sonalysts, Inc., in fact, reaffirms the 1982 conclusions of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) panel that previously analyzed the audio recording. The NAS experts unanimously concluded that the acoustical impulses were not only unrelated to gunfire, but were recorded via a microphone that was not even in Dealey Plaza at the time of the shooting. Said impulses, moreover, were recorded after the actual shooting.[4] 

One might consider the Sonalysts’ study an instance of making rubble bounce. More charitably, the re-analysis could be regarded as the proverbial “final nail in the coffin” of HSCA’s theory of a second gunman (and thus, a probable conspiracy). Yet Sabato stops well short of finding that negation of the so-called acoustical evidence invalidates the possibility of a grassy-knoll gunman. After going to so much trouble, this is a puzzling deficit—and a hint of even greater problems in The Kennedy Half-Century’s version of assassination history...




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