By virtue of his birth into wealth and its accompanying privileges, he could have spent his days, all of them alloted to him, in the indolence of the idle rich.
Instead, John Fitzgerald Kennedy became a public servant, far more a man of the people than his father’s son. An astute political manipulator, he pushed his way from the obscurity of being a second son to the Oval Office. Because he was taken from us so abruptly and so long ago, we forget just what a masterful politician he was. We muse on what an elder statesman he might have been.
In Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, Chris Matthews (host of MSNBC’s Hardball) has written a straightforward political-only biography of our 35th President. The forty-eight years since Kennedy’s assassination have made him a mythic figure, and modern journalism’s love of the prurient protrayed him as a profligate. He was neither. Matthews’ study outlines just how JFK was formed, and his conclusions may surprise you.
For example, most historians and many political scientists insist Kennedy ony entered politics upon the death of his older brother, Joe, and at the demand of a father who wanted a son to be the first Irish-Catholic President of the United States. Matthews describes a man openly defiant of his father’s political opinions and less beholden to Joe Kennedy, Sr.’s money and influence than we’ve been led to believe.
Matthews shows us first the young boy who was a cut-up in prep school, whose constant struggle with a then-undiagnosable illness made him bookish and sardonic. We see the young Naval hero who, unlike today’s chicken-hawk neo-cons, used his father’s influence to get into the military. And yet, he was an unlikely hero whose valor was simply his stubbornness that his men would get rescued after his PT-109 collided with a Japanese ship.
That Matthews clearly hero-worships Kennedy–which doesn’t bother me because I did and do–is obvious, but Matthews also shows Kennedy’s flaws and inconsistencies, chiefly his inability to remain faithful to the beautiful, young woman he married and did love. In that, he was his father’s son, and in this book, we come to understand it without excusing it. Kennedy had almost died several times in his life, because of his Addison’s disease; operations on his damaged back, weakened by the steroids he took for the Addison’s, left him in constant pain. He had a fatalism about him, and men who feel they could die at any moment and far too young indulge their appetites.
The most powerful aspect of this book is Matthews’ portrayal of Kennedy as a superb political strategist. Some may say he was a superb opportunist. We realize, however, Kennedy was the President we’d like Barack Obama to be. Indeed, JFK was my generation’s Obama. Obama’s soaring oratory is evocative and can match Kennedy’s, but Kennedy knew how to get down and dirty and had no qualms about it when the cause was right. That is a lesson Obama can learn from Kennedy.
Because this is primarily a political biography, the words “Marilyn Monroe” are nowhere to be found, and I thank Matthews for that. Matthews has given us the Kennedy we should have remembered all along.
I’m also grateful Matthews doesn’t dwell on the horrific details of the assassination. He picks up the story after the fact, an abrupt transition we should appreciate. After all, what could he add that would increase our knowledge and understanding of that day? In Matthews’ book we can hold in our mind’s eye iconic images of the man who stood coatless on a cold, January day and asked us to give back to our country. Though I was only eight at the time, I remembered those words eighteen years later when I took my oath as a federal employee. Because of Kennedy, I asked and did what I could do for my country.
Chris Matthews’ wonderful, touching, and detailed book renewed my faith in a great man. Matthews’ closing words from the book constricted my throat, and I could only read them through my tears:
“Thanks to him, I’d say. He’d come a long way from the kid who caused trouble at boarding school, from being Joe Kennedy’s son. In the time of our greatest peril, at the moment of ultimate judgement, an American President kept us from the brink, saved us really, kept the smile from being stricken from the planet.
“He did that. He, Jack Kennedy.”
Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, 406 pp., from Simon and Schuster, $27.50; also available as an eBook.