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A Spate of Books 25 Years After Kennedy Slaying

July 18, 1988|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — America's collective nostalgia for the Camelot era of John F. Kennedy is reflected in a flood of books scheduled for publication this fall, the 25th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination.

At least two dozen titles will join the more than 100 books about the Kennedy clan currently listed in Books in Print, the industry reference guide. Many are reissues of earlier books, with new introductions, forewords or afterword sections added to enhance the books' timeliness. Several are novels speculating on what might have happened had Kennedy lived, and one, Don DeLillo's "Libra" (Viking), is a novel whose protagonist is Lee Harvey Oswald.

Others examine the Cuban missile crisis, the significance of the Kennedy image and the disaster-riddled Kennedy dynasty. There are anthologies of the former President's speeches and books that purport to offer new information on the assassination of the 35th President.

Books on R.F.K.

Because this year also marks the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, at least three books offer portraits of the former attorney general.

The plethora of Kennedy titles is "no coincidence at all in terms of the book-publishing trade," said Roger Donald, publisher of Little, Brown & Co., where four Kennedy-related books will be issued this fall. "The book publishers know there will be a tremendous focus of attention on the Kennedys, particularly John Kennedy.

"It's not that publishers are hyping it," Donald said, conceding, however, that "not all the books are going to work." Instead, Donald said, "I think it's responding to the very natural interest on the part of the public."

That interest is fueled, former J.F.K. adviser Theodore C. Sorenson said, by the fact that "John Kennedy still has a very special hold on the mind and memory of the American people.

"He was the last President who left office, tragic as his departure was, with the American people feeling proud and confident about him," said Sorenson, whose 1965 biography "Kennedy" is being reissued by Harper & Row/Perennial, and who has written the introduction and commentary for " 'Let the Word Go Forth': The Speeches, Statements and Writings of John F. Kennedy, 1947-1963," due out in November from Delacorte.

"There is a sense of loss, a sense of curiosity, a sense of what might have been--and all that went down the tubes," said Edwin O. Guthman, co-editor of "Robert Kennedy: In His Own Words," a joint publication of Bantam and 21st Century Books that has already appeared on several best-seller lists.

The feeling of loss is aggravated, in Sorenson's view, by the decline in Ronald Reagan's standing in recent months. "There's a sense of 'Gee, can we ever get a President who lives up to our expectations of John F. Kennedy?' " Sorenson said.

Time of 'More Hope'

"Part of what we are seeing is indeed an evocation of a man and a period that held out a lot more hope and promise," Roger Donald concurred. "There is a feeling now that we are in a lull. If life was very exciting intellectually in the country today, one wouldn't be turning back and looking at those days with so much interest."

In Concord, Mass., former Kennedy-Johnson Administration adviser and speech writer Richard N. Goodwin insisted it was purely coincidental that his book, "Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties" (Little, Brown), will be published this fall.

"When I signed the contract, there was no concept of writing it to come out at this point," Goodwin said. "In fact I spent a year trying to avoid writing it. But I ran out of money. This is absolutely the truth."

'A Sense of Vitality'

Still, Goodwin agreed, "There is an enormous interest in the '60s. The problems are not the same today as they were in the '60s, but at least then the country was attacking things and trying to resolve problems and facing up to things. There was a sense you could do something about things, a vitality, a sense of power.

"People sense that things are going wrong, or otherwise we would have forgotten about that era. We would have moved on," Goodwin said.

Some of the books may be exploiting the anniversary year, Goodwin said, though "certainly not mine." He pointed out, for example, that a television miniseries of his wife Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, "The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys," will be aired in November, though "it was sold six years ago."

One book that will slightly miss the anniversary-year boat is C. David Heyman's "A Woman Named Jackie." Lyle Stuart will not publish this biography of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis until the spring of 1989.

At Doubleday, where Onassis is an editor, not a single Kennedy book appears on the fall list--"for obvious reasons," a spokesman said.

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