JFK, once again: 'Live by the Sword'

November 22, 1998|By Steve Weinberg | Steve Weinberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Live by the Sword: The Secret War Against Castro and the Death of JFK," by Gus Russo. Bancroft Press. 617 pages. $26.95.

A natural reaction to any new book about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy would be a groan. There have already been about 2,000 in English, many more if all languages are included.

Since publication of Mark Lane's "Rush to Judgment" in 1966, I have read at least 20 of those books in full, and skimmed dozens more. I read them not because I am generally obsessed or in thrall to a specific theory like many of the authors, but because as a resource person on investigative journalism, I am asked frequently about the truth behind the assassination, about which book (if any) to believe.

The Gus Russo book, by a Baltimore resident and from a Baltimore publisher, did not elicit a groan. Why not? First, Russo is a longtime student of the case with a good reputation within investigative journalism. Second, Russo has disassociated himself from any of the theories. Third, the federal government has released new information since 1994, thanks to a legislative branch mandate that Russo helped create; it makes sense to write a book incorporating revelations from the 3 million pages recently made available.

Russo's book is similar to the 1993 Gerald Posner best seller, "Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK." Both are resolutely anti-conspiracy. Posner and Russo agree that Lee Harvey Oswald had self-justifying reasons for killing the president, had previously plotted to assassinate public figures whom he perceived as miscreants, and acted alone on Nov. 22, 1963.

The Posner and Russo books are not as sensational as the books by conspiracy theorists, who believe Oswald did not act alone; and/or Jack Ruby's murder of Oswald was anything but a rash act; and/or the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Mafia, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev played knowing roles in the president's death. Posner and Russo seem to have let the evidence lead them to defensible conclusions, rather than manipulating evidence to support predetermined conclusions.

The freshest portions of Russo's book come, unsurprisingly, from the recently released documents. They led Russo to two themes that are not original, but more convincing than ever. One is Oswald's primary motivation: His outrage at the Kennedy administration's anti-Castro actions. Another is the engine driving the government's cover-up mentality before and after the assassination: The fear of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the president's brother, that the indefensible Cuba policies would become public.

Though persuasive, Russo's book has imperfections. The index, so important in a book like this, contains gaps and flaws. The bibliography is sketchy. The sourcing is often derivative, failing to cite the original documentation. Many sentences are repetitive or cliched.

That said, Russo's book is recommended for any reader. He and Bancroft deserve praise for their conscious attempt to appeal to three generations - those too young to possess any direct knowledge of the case, the middle-aged who have lots of hTC knowledge but are unsure what to make of it, and older readers who generally support the findings of the official inquiry board known as the Warren Commission. Russo and Bancroft made the unusual effort of hiring editors from each generation to go over the manuscript. Good for them.

Steve Weinberg is editor of the magazine published by Investigative Reporters & Editors, an international journalism education organization based at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He served as IRE's executive director from 1983-1990.

Pub Date: 11/22/98

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