I have no easy answers for the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but as an investigative reporter I value the truth too much to have offered a conspiracy theory in my own 2003 book ("The Kennedys: America's Emerald Kings", now out in paper along with a Warner Home Video documentary of the same name) without sufficient evidence. Let's be clear: my book did uncover a lot of new evidence about the impact of the assassination on Jackie Kennedy and how she expressed her thoughts of suicide and grief to a Jesuit priest who counseled her. It's probably the most definitive, fact-based account of Jackie's reaction to this tragedy ever published. But that finding was based on my taped interviews with the priest and Jackie's own letters at Georgetown's library archives, not on some conjecture pulled from the air. Or even worse, of how I envisioned things to be.
Unfortunately, James W. Douglass does just that in "JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters", which in the end is just another JFK conspiracy book yearning for some answers, only this time cast mistakenly in Catholic theology and anti-war peace activism. While the goal of seeking meaning to this inexplicably horrid act is understandable -- indeed laudable -- Douglass makes claims of fact that are, in reality, more speculation and unsubstantiated beliefs. The Kennedy legacy is too important to this nation (and the Catholic church in America) to be waylaid by such well-drawn chimera.
Let's start with where I do agree. President Kennedy's speech at American University was a remarkable one, indicative of a man who nearly witnessed an atomic apocalypse up-close and was determined to do something to avoid such insanity in the future. Douglass, like many historians before him, is right to say Kennedy's judgment matured after the Cuban missile crisis. And indeed, Kennedy may have taken measures to dismantle the arms race and avoid the Vietnam morass. Unfortunately, there is little evidence beyond the wishful thinking of admirers and a kind of retro-rewriting of history informed by the disaster that became Vietnam after JFK's death.
One of the ironic aspects of Douglass' heart-felt but mushy-head book is the way he couched so much of his conjecture about what Kennedy wanted to do in terms of liberal Catholicism. I devoted a whole chapter in my book to the era of the "Two Johns" -- JFK and Pope John XXIII -- who provided a refreshing period of Catholic liberalism in the early 1960s, when vocations among idealistic men and women were on the rise, a time when the Church spoke adamantly about sins of the racism and poverty rather the institution today that seem so tortured by sex and determined to force pregnant teenagers and desperate women to become mothers against their will. I believe this period, epitomized by Vatican II, informs much of the Kennedy political view, especially in the years after Bobby's death in 1968. But let's have a reverence for the facts, too, especially in matters of history.
The Kennedys embody, more than any other American Catholic family, several fundamental aspects of the historic role of the church. As poor Irish Catholic immigrants workers arriving in Boston, they illustrate the vital role that the Catholic parish played as not only a house of worship, but as a place where the young went to school, where the young socialized at church dances and the dead were buried, where politicians like Honey Fitz got their start pressing the flesh at various parish events, and as a kind of clubhouse, a haven for the unwashed, where family bread-winners could learn of how and where they could get jobs. Secondly, the Church is undoubtedly the focal point for the spiritual life of Catholics, where they become collectively the body of Christ during mass. When tragedy strikes, when the "unspeakable" happens, faith can be the only salve. Indeed, I learned how Jackie's grief by asking Jesuit priest Richard McSorley, "Did the Kennedy kids ever ask if there is a loving God, how could such terrible things happen?" McSorley said they never asked him directly but that Jackie did. But another aspect of the institutional church is that one played out during the 20th Century in matters of international politics. The relationship between Joe Kennedy, New York's Cardinal Spellman and the secretive Vatican administrator, Count Enrico Galeazzi, is one of power and intrigue. JFK was well aware of this long-running and mutually beneficial tie with the Vatican and was a beneficiary of it. During the 1950s, as I detail in my book, the institutional church was very concerned with the spread of communism in both Cuba and Vietnam. The rise of Diem, a Catholic in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, was strongly supported by Joe Kennedy and by Spellman, who baptized and married the Kennedys. JFK's policies as president largely reflected and were in agreement with these goals. Even the Maryknolls played host to the visiting Diem figures to came to the US seeking support for their wr against the communists. There is little evidence that JFK would have steered away from further escalation in Vietnam, no matter what James Douglass suggests. To add another layer of supposition --by arguing that JFK was killed by some unknown force to prevent an imminent withdraw from Vietnam -- only compounds his disservice to history and his audience.
The depth of reaction to Douglass's book, and all pro-conspiracy books, only underlines the profound impact of JFK on the American psyche. But I think the Kennedy legacy is best served by works of history that examine how their ascendacy from their immigrant background and made America, once a profoundly bigoted place against 'papists', in a much more catholic (if not Catholic) nation filled with many people of different minority backgrounds.