Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Review Club: Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero

When I heard about this book, I checked the local library website and saw that they had ordered it, and wonder of wonders, there was no reserve list yet, so I got my name in quickly. It arrived in mid-December and I checked it out to read over the holidays.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was one of the towering figures of my childhood, and like everyone who was alive in the early 1960's, I have vivid memories of the Cuban missile crisis and the assassination. Over the years, Jack has become even more fascinating to me, so I was anxious to read the book and I found it quite interesting.

Author Chris Matthews is a political pundit, so the emphasis here is on JFK as politician. If you are looking for juicy details about his private life, you'll have to look elsewhere. 

This is a political biography. Some of the things I learned about Kennedy are:

- Jack was the spare, not the heir, so in typical patriarchal tradition, most parental attention was focused on his older brother Joe. As a result, Jack developed an independent streak.

- His health problems were more serious than were publicly acknowledged at the time. Jack was a sickly child who spent a lot of time in bed reading. This experience made him a deeper and more original thinker. I suspect it also made him more empathic than might normally be expected of a young man from a wealthy family.

- In 1947 he was diagnosed with Addison's disease, a disorder of the adrenal glands. He also had a bad back and failed the physical to join the Navy the first time. He exercised to build up his strength and passed the second time. (A few moments ago, I read and reviewed a book called A First Rate Madness by Nassir Ghaemi that talked about Jack's health problems and the steroids used to treat him.)

- He was close to death on more than one occasion and was given Last Rites several times before becoming president. Matthews quotes a close friend of Jack's who said he was "deeply preoccupied by death" and that "quick... was the key". That gave me chills.

- Matthews talks more than once about their being "two Jacks" - the wealthy bon vivant and the serious politician. He was able to compartmentalize the different areas of his lives in order to focus on one at a time. He was anbitious and single-minded in pursuit of a goal, and could be ruthless when he had to be. 

- JFK and Richard Nixon were elected to Congress the same year (1946) and became friendly. Nixon was very upset when Jack became gravely ill. The friendship did not survive the contentious 1960 campaign, however.

All in all, I enjoyed the book and recommend it to those interested in politics and/or Kennedy. But read it now, before we all get heartily sick and tired of politics. It's an election year, after all.

Happy New Year and don't forget to check out the other reviews in the Book Review Club. Click on the graphic below.


Update: I finished the book last night and have a few final thoughts. I grew up in a family of Republicans who had no love for JFK when he was alive. In retrospect, I have come to realize what a great president he was. Matthews makes that apparent in this loving portrait of a remarkable man who accomplished so much in such a short time and at such great personal cost.

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Stacy said...

Great review.

I've been meaning to read more about the Kennedys so I'll check this one out.

Sarah Laurence said...

Nice review! I have to say I knew those fun facts already but I have a masters in politics. This sounds like a good book for those who want to know more about a fascinating politician.

Lucy said...

I don't know, sounds like there are some personal details in the book. :)

Before I read this review, I probably wouldn't have picked up the book. Now I'm seriously considering it. Good review!

Barrie said...

Sounds like a really interesting book. I didn't realize JFK had had such serious health issues. I do know someone who would really, really enjoy this book. And....she has a birthday coming up!

Linda McLaughlin said...

Lucy, yes, there are some personal details, but not the salacious kind! Matthews interviewed many of JFK's personal friends for the book.

Barrie, I think it would be a nice gift.

Sarahlynn said...

I, too, had no idea about JFK's health issues and how they impacted his development/personality/perspective. Fascinating. (It's also interesting to consider the fact that in today's political landscape public figures are allowed no secrets whatsoever. I doubt someone who was so ill he'd been administered last rites 4 times would be elected today. And that's possibly to the country's detriment.)

Jenn Jilks said...

This sounds interesting! Great work!

Here in Canada, many are fascinated with JFK as well. We have a friend who perseverates on the Grassy Knoll! We have named one on our property in his honour!

Cheers from Cottage Country!

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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