It's been fifty years since the murder that launched a thousand conspiracy theories, and ten times that number of books, films and documentaries. Which makes all the talk of cover up and intrigue a bit odd, since surely no single subject has been more closely examined and minutely dissected than that dreadful sunny day in Dallas.
We’ve all got our own theories, the narratives we believe (or rather want to believe). With the benefit of hindsight now we can look back and see the awful saga unfurl, and pick over the immediate aftermath and longer-term legacy as we see fit. The murder itself still seems crazy, but it’s a story we are all familiar with. Yet even now, the images and the reports from the time still have the power to shock - so just imagine what it must have been like to witness these momentous, terrible events at the time.
You can get a real flavour of that by reading the contemporary newspaper reports. I had the occasionally macabre privilege of doing so in compiling my new book JFK’s Camelot: The Unfolding Story of a President. It tells the story of JFK’s life and times using the Daily Mirror’s coverage, and that reportage makes for gripping and undeniably thrilling reading.
There is a real sense of seeing history in the making, as it happened via the news cycle. Much has been said about the decline of journalism, and falling standards of the popular press in being able to report the facts straight while still being able to grab attention. It’s a theory that doesn’t stand up when you see the commendable popular-press work being carried out by decent hacks. But there is something deeply impressive about the way the Mirror writers in 1963 - proper newsmen like Ralph Champion, Tony Delano and John Edwards - put the facts together using good honest craft, persistence and accuracy. They made sense of a frantic and confusing situation. They got the story and they told it superbly.
Those breathless but brilliant despatches and images relate the whole saga. Not just the brutal slaying and assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s own murder, but the build up, Kennedy’s career and personality, the glamorous lifestyle of his wife Jackie and family, and the endlessly fascinating lives of the various members of the Kennedy clan.
The reports show the Kennedys were in the public eye long before Jack took centre stage. His father Joe, a controversial figure with a murky past, gets the Mirror treatment as far back as the 1930s when he was American ambassador. His dismissal of Britain’s chances in fighting off the Nazis is held to account. Indeed, the policies of his son when in office are treated with similar rigour. Editors loved the Kennedy story, but that didn’t stop them from keeping their editorial distance. JFK was a leading actor in massive, world-shifting events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Civil Rights movement, and the US’s military build-up in SE Asia, and there was critical scrutiny of Kennedy’s actions.
There are, however, some clear exceptions. We now know that JFK was a prolific swordsman. Bedding a roll-call of the world’s most beautiful and famous women, along with a string of secretaries and “broads”, his reckless sexual appetites, coupled with dubious relationships with a host of colourful ‘characters’, could have destroyed him if they had become public. We now know all about this darker side to the Camelot myth because in the years after 1963, papers like the Mirror probed, pestered and exposed the lie, and there’s plenty of it to pore over. But at the time? Almost nothing. It’s likely the correspondents knew something of what was really going on but if they did, they weren’t saying.
And as for the conspiracy theories? Draw your own conclusions. There’s some excellent investigative work carried out by the likes of John Pilger in later Mirror years. For those wanting to find evidence for JFK lining up against powerful interests during his term in office, it’s here - from big-business to military top brass. But beyond Oswald’s rifle, there’s no smoking gun.
Instead there is the endlessly fascinating day-to-day coverage of a compelling, totally enthralling tale. It’s business as basically usual in the paper right up to the eve of the shooting. Talks about relations with the Russians, Kennedy’s foreign aid programme, and the build up to the 1964 electoral campaign took the headlines. A day later, those violent shots ring out - and nothing is ever quite the same again.
● JFK’CAMELOT - The Unfolding Story of a President, by Adam Powley (Haynes)