“Never be without a book in your hand”. Those words, spoken by President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) to his youngest sibling, the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009) stayed with me after finishing this Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece biography by Fredrik Logevall. As I read those words, I pictured bibliophiles all over nodding their heads in agreement. At the age of forty-six, John F. Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet in an act that changed America. The hopes and promise of significant changed died with him in Dallas, Texas on November 22,1963. And though his successor Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973) was successful in pushing forward groundbreaking legislation, the wound from Kennedy’s murder was destined to never heal. As someone who has read countless books on his assassination and incredible life, I had a firm grasp on the Kennedy story before starting this book. However, there were parts of Kennedy’s story I learned for the first time. But more importantly, I witnessed a young man coming of age in the century that saw profound change across the globe.
This November will mark sixty years since Kennedy’s sudden death, yet he remains one of the most popular politicians in history. His legacy is complex with successes and failures. The world came to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962 but was resolved without a weapons exchange to the relief of all. The Bay of Pigs invasion was a nightmare but not without its warnings. But those events await readers in volume two. Had Kennedy secured a second term, I believe he would have been able to accomplish more of the goals he envisioned for the nation. And the key to understanding why his death was so devastating is to find out how who he was as a person and what shaped his views of the world. Logevall begins as expected with a short biography of the Kennedy and Fitzgerald families, and their roots in Ireland. After the marriage of former U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1969) and Rose Fitzgerald (1890-1995), the story picks up in pace as the Kennedy children begin to arrive. Joe Jr. (1915-1944) arrives first and becomes the son chosen for the dreams Joe Sr. has of a Kennedy in the White House. Jack arrives next and from their childhood to their service in World War II, they maintain a rivalry that may surprise readers. In fact, Logevall sheds light on a plausible reason for the final mission Joe Jr. embarked on that claimed his life. Next in line is Rosemary (1918-2005) whom author Kate Clifford Larson `called “the Hidden Kennedy Daughter” in her book of the same title. She is followed by Kathleen, who is known affectionately as “Kick” and her closeness to Jack should not be underestimated. The author highlights the importance of Kick in his and the impact of her death at the age of twenty-eight. In short order siblings Eunice, Pat, Bobby, Jean, and Ted arrive and the Kennedy story is never the same again.
Kennedy’s story is well-known, but there are key elements which I believe Logevall expertly homed in on that sets this biography apart from others. The sibling rivalry with Joe Jr. is interesting because not only is it filled with ironies but because each son was unique, though they did complement each other. Joe’s physical abilities contrasted with Jack’s intellect, but both excelled in many ways. When Joe Sr. is appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom, the family’s life changes significantly and Jack’s exposure to the world takes shape, and until the day he died, never lost touch with events around the globe. The list of countries he visited even before serving in the military is staggering. From an early age, it is clear in the book that Jack had his eyes and ears glued to the world around him and was not content to sit still. However, the Kennedy story was nearly cut short multiple times as Jack found himself at death’s door. Logevall revisits the episodes in which Jack’s health took turns for the worst and the young man who later became president nearly met the Grim Reaper. Jack’s famous humor is on display throughout the book, and in one instance where he learns about his own health status and refers himself as “2000 to go Kennedy”. There is one revelation in the book that caught me off guard but looking back, I can say that I should not have been surprised. This health issue would come back to haunt him later in life but played no part in his demise.
In 1939, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) set his sights on dominating the European continent and on September 1 of that year, the Third Reich’s armed forces invaded Poland, and ignited World War II. Joe Sr. was widely known to be an isolationist and that view contrasted with his son Jack, whose travels abroad and extensive knowledge of history had shown him that Hitler had to be stopped and America could not avoid getting involved forever. After the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, the fates of Joe Jr. and Jack were sealed but by the war’s end, Joe Sr.’s plans for his children’s lives had been unexpectedly altered. Jack, and not Joe, would become the Kennedy who took the family to new heights. And to reach those heights, his father instinctively tapped into Jack’s service record and heroic actions after his PT-109 cruiser was destroyed by a Japanese naval vessel. It is an incredible story and almost unbelievable, but Kennedy had earned his stripes and returned home a war hero. Joe Jr. was not so lucky and the murky details about his death are cleared up by the author.
Following Jack’s service, he returns home and begins his journey in the world of politics. Logevall also refutes the idea that Joe Sr. pushed his kids into public office. In fact, Jack was acutely aware of politics and had his own ambitions. But before he reaches the Senate, the Kennedy family is forced to confront more heartache as the lives of Kick and Rosemary take sharp turns. Without dwelling too much on the circumstances, Logevall explains both events with the right amount of detail to explain what happened and how the family reacted. Kick was the sibling that resembled Jack the closest in spirit and her defiance directly challenged Rose’s puritanical views. And her choices in men push Rose to the brink and readers will be surprised the family’s response to her passing in 1948. All of this was not lost on Jack, who confronts his own mortality throughout the book.
Towards the end of the story, Jack’s future wife Jacqueline Bouvier (1929-1994) (“Jackie”) enters the story but the two do not immediately become an item. In fact, there were maneuvers behind the scenes to bring them together and the author shows, and after they do become a couple, issues remain due to a notorious habit of Jack’s which serves as the “elephant in the room” in the book. Kennedy was widely known for his romances and affairs after marrying Jackie. Personally, I did not pay much attention to the women he had romances with, though I knew of the stories beforehand. As a young attractive bachelor with money, I am sure Kennedy had his pick of women, but I also had to remember that his roving eye was no secret. However, after marrying Jackie, it was disheartening to see that his philandering did not slow down. His father had his own affairs, and it was something that Jack may have normalized. Or it might have been a side effect of the treatment plan for his medical condition which was carefully kept a secret from the public as he ran for office. And at times, he does show an aloofness to his actions, including his habits of not keeping cash at hand and leaving his places of residency is disarray. But if everyone knew about Jack’s ways, then why did women flock to him? The answer is found in Logevall’s biography, which shows that there was no one like him and he was one of a kind. His uncanny ability to absorb knowledge (enhanced by learning how to speed read) set him apart from peers. And by the time he enters the Senate, his core support unit of Irishmen is formed, and they supported Jack all the way until the last visit to Dallas. People loved Jack, and women loved him more, and he knew how to reach people. And that is a recurring theme throughout the book. He came of age and was destined to make his mark on the world. His college thesis “Why England Slept‘ still holds a place in World War II literature and a place on my bookshelf.
In the Senate, Jack makes friends from both sides of the aisle, including a young politician from California named Richard Nixon (1913-1994) whom he later faces in the first televised presidential debate during the 1960 election campaign. But that is for the second part of the biography. Here, Jack’s eye is on the 1956 Vice-President nomination, but he finds himself up against fierce and seasoned competition in former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) and Senator Estes Kefauver (1903-1963). And though he did not secure the nomination, a star had been born. The electricity surrounding the Democratic convention can be felt as the author replays the buildup to the climactic moment when the crowd shows it support for the upstart Kennedy. Logevall closes the book out with Jack ready for the future and the years 1957-1963 will bring a whole new set of challenges in his life and his own demise. But I am sure Logevall will tell that story as beautifully as he told this one which was written in a style that did not require any significant notetaking. The story flows so smoothly and is so interesting that I was able to retain what I read with ease. Following Jack was a breeze, and I am ready to see where he goes next.
ISBN-10 : 0812997131
ISBN-13 : 978-0812997132
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