The aura that surrounds John F. Kennedy is, by itself, worthy of enough attention to warrant a book all by itself. From his familial history to his infamous relationship with women to his storied political career and untimely, traumatizing assassination, few Americans are both so well known and mysterious.
I’ve stated before my intention to read a biography on every president. This goal grew out of a plan to rank every president (plus Jefferson Davis) by various criteria. I generally have that done already, but feel like I need to understand them better before actually writing everything out. I know what you’re thinking. Is this guy really going to systematically research and organize 200 years of history into a tidy list for no discernible reason other than the fun of it? Yeah, I know. Hard to believe.
Apropos of nothing, the CBR database for 2016 has been fully updated with Goodreads information, and I’m already working on my year-end spectacular! Woot.
Anyway, back to JFK. I’ve never known what to do with him in my ranking. I mean, going simply by the mythology around the guy, it’s hard not to place him in top 10. The bare-knuckle resolve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, his youthful vigor, his eloquence and idealism, the tragedy of being taken too soon….There’s a poetry to his life that is unmistakably appealing. And Kennedy routinely ranks highly in both public and academic surveys. The great American historian Henry Adams (great-grandson of John Adams and grandson of John Quincy Adams) once wrote that the President “resembles the commander of a ship at sea. He must have a helm to grasp, a course to steer, a port to seek.” That is to say, great presidents are the product of the context in which they exist. They are not born to greatness.
Without the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK would be forgotten by history. His most important legacy outside of Cuba was the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which grew out of a speech Kennedy made in June of 1963. But the act itself was ushered through Congress and signed by Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy, himself, routinely stayed his hand when it came to civil rights, unwilling to give up chances of his re-election. Apart from this, much of what Kennedy did in office was either an unmitigated disaster, incipient quagmire, or failure in judgement. Add to all this that he may not have even won the 1960 election, though it’s impossible to really say with any certainty. There is little doubt, however, that some of Kennedy’s actions would go on to inspire Richard Nixon, with devastating consequences.
And underneath it all is the thing which absolutely can’t be ignored: Kennedy’s treatment of, and relationships, with women. Kennedy isn’t alone in this, but for someone so celebrated, it’s worth remembering.
There’s a lot to unpack with Kennedy, is my point.
Robert Dallek mainly focuses on the Kennedy presidency, having previously written numerous other books on the man, and I must say that he does a fairly good job. He covers all the high points, even when he gets some of them wrong. Dallek is fair, in that he doesn’t lionize the man or his presidency but he never loses perspective on the cultural impact he had in his life and continues to have to this day. Unlike some presidents, I don’t think any one biography can give you a full picture of JFK, but this book is a pretty good resource from which to draw.