Saturday, January 7, 2012

Jack Kennedy -- Book Review

Jack Kennedy – Book Review

Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero is a fascinating book. Television commentator and author Christ Matthews said his 2011 book addresses the question of what President John F. Kennedy was like.  It’s energetic, absorbing, fast moving, and easy to read. The book is 90% Jack Kennedy the politician, and 10% Jack Kennedy living the rest of his life. Just as Kennedy compartmentalized his life (according to Matthews), Matthews compartmentalized the parts of Kennedy in his book. The book reads like Chris Matthews telling about it with his energetic television speaking style.

Most of the book is about Jack Kennedy campaigning, first for congress, then senate, and finally President. Some of it is the life that led up to campaigning, and some of it is the life of the President. Matthews describes Kennedy’s well-known heroic acts, such as saving the men he commanded as a young man in the navy, which is chronicled in Kennedy’s best-selling book PT-109. Matthews points out that Kennedy lived his life with constant pain from his bad back and Addison’s disease. Matthews tells how Kennedy hated war and as President saved us from nuclear war with the Soviet Union. He writes about Kennedy’s thinking that brought about the Peace Corps.  He says that Kennedy wanted to be a hero like the men he read about as a child. He wanted to make a difference.

Matthews clearly liked and admired Kennedy. Maybe that’s why so much of the book is about Kennedy the politician while it tells less about Kennedy the person. Kennedy’s early life is there, but it seems to me that Matthews gives little treatment to the legendary Kennedy family. Kennedy’s reputation as a charmer and womanizer is shown almost as an afterthought. Events that led up to his marriage to Jackie Bouvier are almost absent. The births of his children appear almost insignificant, including a stillborn daughter who was born while he was on one of his travels. The death of his son Patrick at two days of age gets more emphasis. The birth of John Jr. is mentioned sometime after the event.  Deaths in the family, his older brother Joe Jr. and a sister, clearly had an impact on him, although Matthews says relatively little about them. Brother Bobby was assassinated several years after Jack’s death. The assassination of Jack Kennedy is not there at all, except in comments by Jackie after the fact. I think it was too much for Matthews the Kennedy admirer to contemplate.

Kennedy’s life is shown through many interviews, books and comments from the people around him. These people told of a man who couldn’t stand to be alone, a man who would do almost anything to achieve his political goals, a Catholic who went to confession even while president.

 Does all this answer the question of what Jack Kennedy was really like? I find myself asking why he and Jackie stayed married while he was repeatedly unfaithful to her. I find myself asking why Jack needed to carve time out of all his political activity to have sexual encounters with many women. Perhaps that is the elusive part of Jack Kennedy. Maybe that is how national politicians live. Where were the Senate and House of Representatives while Kennedy was making important decisions with the men who were always with him?

I liked the book very much, but questions remain.

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