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Extending “The Kennedy Half Century”

Prof. Larry Sabato’s ambitious Presidential portrait has received yet another extension

One year after the publication of “The Kennedy Half Century,” a comprehensive account of John F. Kennedy’s life, presidency and legacy, Politics Prof. Larry Sabato released a paperback version of the book which includes a new, informative and thoughtful afterword earlier this month.

In the 10,000-word afterword, Sabato unveils new information and facts related to Kennedy’s lasting persona as well as the uncertainties surrounding the November 22, 1963 assassination. Among the new information which surfaced within the past year are Jackie Kennedy’s never-before-seen letters to her priest in Ireland, a former Costa Rican ambassador’s testimony about the alarming lack of presidential security in the 1960s and a former CIA employee’s revealing account of her time working during the height of the hysteria, all of which can be read in the new afterword.

The former Costa Rican ambassador to the former Soviet Union, Orlando Garcia-Valverde, was one person who approached Sabato with a new piece of information. Garcia-Valverde was convinced there was an attempt on the president’s life on April 14, 1961, during which Kennedy delivered an address on U.S.-Latin American cooperation to the Organization of American States (OAS).

Garcia-Valverde defended his theory by retelling the story of how he, as a junior staffer for the OAS, managed to hide in a bathroom undetected during a presidential visit. He said not only were the bathrooms unchecked prior to Kennedy’s arrival, but the back door of the OAS was also propped open and completely unguarded despite heavy security at the main entrance.

Ken Stroupe, Associate Director and Chief of Staff of the Center for Politics, was present during the interview with Garcia-Valverde. He was surprised to find out what the ambassador had revealed during the interview.

“In the 1960s, security for the president was just an illusion. Presidential security was very lax in those days. [In Dallas,] it was said that [Kennedy’s] car was bullet-proof. It was said that Kennedy was supposed to use a plastic dome, where people would be able to see him but he wouldn’t be exposed. In actuality, there was a plastic dome, but the dome was in no way bullet-proof,” Stroupe said.

“I think [the ambassador] didn’t even realize what he was saying as he said it. By talking to Mr. Sabato, the ambassador sort of exposed a real kink in this illusion, a huge hole that really speaks to presidential security at the time. This was not his goal; he wanted to talk about his open door theory.”

Not only did the afterword allow Sabato to include new intriguing testimonies and facts surrounding Kennedy, it also allowed him to reflect back on the nation’s commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination and his five-year research process.

“...I wanted to relay in the afterword [the fact behind] the intense public interest of the assassination's 50th anniversary: the events of those three years still resonate to five decades later,” Sabato said in an email. “In time, President’s Kennedy’s legacy will surely evolve, shaped by new discoveries about his life and death, the degree to which new presidents continue to cite him, and the evaluation of a more detached public whose judgement is less affected by the lingering emotions of a gut-wrenching national tragedy.”

The release of the paperback is also accompanied with the release of brand new lesson plans on the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platforms Coursera and iTunes U. One of the most interesting and comprehensive lessons is based on Sabato’s groundbreaking discovery of new information on the Dictabelt audio evidence: a recording from a police motorcycle believed to have been in the presidential motorcade in Dallas.

The United States House Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) concluded in 1979 Kennedy’s assassination was part of a conspiracy because they had found six impulses, believed to have been gunshots, on the Dictabelt recording. HSCA claimed each impulses matched the exact timing of when the bullets can be seen hitting Kennedy in the Zapruder film. They said if Lee Harvey Oswald was indeed acting as a lone gunman, he would have not been able to fire all six gunshots.

Sabato initially approached the sound experts at Sonalysts, a private firm specializing in sonar analytics with the goal of pinpointing the exact number of gunshot impulses on the five-minute recording. Sabato did not expect to hear there were in fact more than six impulses recorded on the Dictabelt, far too many for them to be gunshots.

In his book, Sabato used the brand new acoustical analysis to thoroughly break down the recording, noting the significance of the discrepancies between the conclusion of the HSCA findings and the actual evidence. Sabato theorizes that the presence of over a dozen impulses on the recording is a result of the microphone rattling inside its case during the movement of the motorcycle, not as a result of gunshots.

“The Committee said, ‘What are the odds that an impulse occurs at the same exact time as the impact recorded on the video evidence?’ Well, if there are dozens of impulses, it’s really not that difficult to pick out six impulses that match,” Stroupe said. “They heard what they wanted to hear, when they wanted to hear it. It was just a matter of picking one that matched up with what they wanted to show.”

“I thought it was important to write a more comprehensive book that covers JFK’s life, not just his death — and the impact from that life, something we call legacy. While I’m pleased that we have been able to present some important new evidence about the assassination, I’m much prouder of the final third of the book. It traces JFK’s legacy through all nine of his White House successors. I looked at how LBJ through Obama have used President Kennedy’s words and deeds to further their own presidential agendas,” Sabato said.

The new lesson on the Dictabelt evidence allows Sabato to walk the students through the entire five minutes and 30 seconds of the recording. Sabato’s narration in the lesson helps students better understand the evidence as they listen to the recording using their own ears.

“Since the lessons were launched on the MOOC platforms last year, there have been over 150,000 students that signed up. Let’s put that into perspective. Mr. Sabato has been teaching [at U.Va.] for almost 40 years, and in that time period, he’s taught about 15,000 students on Grounds. In only about a year, he’s already reached out to around 150,000 with these online lesson plans,” Stroupe said.

Despite the numbers, Stroupe admitted online classrooms are limiting because there are forms of personal interactions that occur in live classrooms that cannot be done online. To solve this problem, Sabato decided to teach a course on “The Kennedy Half Century” last fall where online elements of the course were integrated into his classroom.

Sabato plans to continue his dedication to “The Kennedy Half Century” project in the coming years, which now includes a book, two online courses, a mobile app and a television documentary. His desire to share his extensive knowledge about Kennedy is evident in his plan to teach another integrated classroom in spring 2015. This time he will take his idea of a blended classroom to another level by incorporating online students into classroom lectures, allowing University students to interact with their remote counterparts through live video feeds and discussion boards.

“JFK’s great advantage is that he translates well to any era. My students are as mesmerized watching him speak as we were back in the 1960s. The story of John F. Kennedy is not over. As with all presidents that left a mark, it never will be,” Sabato said.

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