John F. Kennedy motorcade, DallasCredit: By Victor Hugo King, who placed the photograph in the public domain (presumably when he gave it to the Library of Congress). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Like many of us in certain age bracket, I’ve always been interested in all things Kennedy.  I’ve listened to the conspiracy theories, watched the 50th anniversary documentaries and even did some research myself way back when Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK” came out.  So when Surrounded by Enemies: What if Kennedy Survived Dallas? by Bruce Zabel ended up in the “suggested for you” list on my Kindle I couldn’t help but download it.

The premise for the book is simple enough: What if John F. Kennedy had survived the assassination attempt in Dallas?  The attempt still happened, but the shooter missed.  Like I said, it’s a simple premise, even a common one, but a premise that leads to quite interesting questions.  How would Kennedy fair in the 1964 election just a year later?  What would Kennedy have done differently in Vietnam?   And what about the Communists in Cuba, only 90 miles away, at a time when The Cold War was quickly gaining momentum?

Zabel addresses these questions in a well-researched way, as many books and scholars have done before.  The difference in Surrounded by Enemies lies in mystery of who tried to kill Kennedy.  With the President very much alive, John and Bobby’s (then Attorney General and John’s brother, Robert Kennedy) investigation of the assassination attempt is much more intriguing and suspenseful than the real-life Warren Commission’s version. 

Further, the book touches on issues that the real world didn’t look into (much) while mourning a President back in 1963. Kennedy’s love of women besides his wife is pretty common knowledge these days, but it was kept very quiet when he was alive.  Imagine a Bill Clinton / Monica Lewinsky scandal, but this time the scandal involves Camelot’s Kennedy and none other than Marilyn Monroe, in a pre-sexual-revolution 1960’s.  And we all know that Kennedy suffered with problems with a back injury, but right after his death, no one was going to question just what kinds of pills he was popping to deal with the pain, and how that might affect his decision making.  This book goes a long way to remind us that Kennedy was a mere mortal, and makes one wonder if “what might have been” would have been all roses after all.

To tell his story, Zabel brings us Top Story, a fictional magazine competing with the likes of Time and Newsweek, to tell the whole, often sordid, tale.  The book is written as if the editors of Top Story wrote the book, 50 years after the assassination attempt, drawing form the work of their reporters both in 1963, and in the years thereafter. What makes this even more compelling is that--not unlike the real-life Watergate scandal--these fictional reporters are not just telling the story, they become very much part of it, when the powers that be find themselves needing to “stop the presses,” concerning Kennedy’s private affairs.

The reporters are generally likeable, and sometimes the Kennedy’s are not.  Jackie is less tragic than you might think, quite strong, in fact, in dealing with a cheating husband as opposed to a martyred one. And of course J. Edgar Hoover, his FBI and the mob are all involved, because any fictional investigation of the attempt on Kennedy’s life can’t be that much different than an actual investigation of his death.

Zabel’s writing makes for very believable reading, so much so that at one point I actually found myself wondering what would have happened if JFK had died. Right up until the end, that is.  Without giving too much away, he lost me at the finish—some of his conclusions, especially regarding the First Family, are just too much of a stretch.  That said, Surrounded by Enemies is still a very, very good book, and I recommend it highly. 

My humble rating:  4 ½ out of 5 Stars

The Book: Surrounded by Enemies: What if Kennedy Survived Dallas?
The author: Bryce Zabel
Copyright 2013 by Bryce Zabel
ISBN: 978-1-62652-331-9

JFK 50 Year Commemorative Ultimate Collector's Edition (Blu-ray)
Amazon Price: $129.99 Buy Now
(price as of Apr 11, 2016)