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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