It has been more than fifty years now since that tragic day in Dallas in 1963, and yet the public fascination with JFK shows no sign of abating. Despite a presidency of just over a thousand days he is consistently ranked up with the greatest of American presidents; books, articles, documents, films, video games continue to pour out every year; and few policy initiatives or presidential campaigns have been complete without some kind of Kennedy endorsement.
In this truly engrossing book, Larry Sabato sets out to explore that Kennedy legacy, looking first at his campaign for the presidency, his brief tenure in the White House and his assassination in Dallas on 22nd November 1963. He then explores the conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy's death and the various investigations, primarily the Warren Commission and the House Select Committee on Assassinations.
The second half of this book is devoted to the post-Kennedy presidents and how they variously tackled the ghost in the White House, with both Democrats and Republicans consciously positioning themselves as Kennedy's successors, invoking his actions, speeches and legislation as precedents and justification for their own actions. From LBJ who consciously set out to carry out Kennedy's legacy, Bill Clinton who hero-worshipped him, and Obama, whose campaign echoed some of the rhetoric of hope and vigour that was so redolent of the New Frontier, JFK has been consistently cited and evoked far more than any other President, more than Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson.
Assassination, Sabato concludes, made JFK untouchable - and that lack of any definitive answer to the question of 'why?' has only strengthened the legend. It made him mythical, casting his brief presidency in a rose-tinted glow that will never fade, can never be tarnished, and can never be equalled. JFK will always be held up as the ultimate 'might-have-been'; his presidency always a nostalgic 'what-if'. For JFK, like Lincoln, there can be no slow decline, no gradual disillusionment and disappointment, no partisan post-presidency analysis and criticism. JFK will eternally be young and handsome and energetic, will always be the embodiment of America in the hopeful early days of the Sixties, a promise that was destroyed before it could be betrayed.
This is an excellent book which covers the main points of JFKs presidency, the assassination and the many theories about who may have been responsible, before looking at the influence of the Kennedy legacy on every subsequent president.
We learn which presidents quoted JFK most frequently, and who amongst them used his speeches to promote thier own agendas, and who did not.
Well written, engaging and thoughful, this is a superbly researched and very interesting addition to the many books about the life and presidency of one of the United States' most charismatic and influencial leaders.
on 31 October 2013
I am reading this in conjunction with Professor Sabato's online course. What impresses me most is that the book is in conversational style - an intense, high-level and extremely informed style, certainly, but not at all dry and it could not possibly be uninteresting.
There is demonstrably a staggering amount of research behind this book; the acknowledgements page and the bibliography make that extremely clear - but it is applied in such a way as to clarify the subject rather than simply paraded for its own sake.
On the subject of JFK's adulteries, it's not at all as prurient as it could easily be - although I'm still not sure that the other party in a brief encounter could be described as a "mistress" rather than "just another quickie" - and the details about the assassination evidence that was destroyed/lost/not followed up are genuinely horrifying.
We are probably never going to come close to the truth about the awful day in Dallas; but this book gives an extremely powerful and well-written analysis of what was going on then and what is still happening.
on 23 November 2013
Well read, excellently researched, interesting from cover to cover. Excellent treatment as well of not only the assassination but of the failing (and reasons for failings) of the various investigations and the theories of conspiracies.
But the strength and uniqueness of this book is its focus on the Kennedy legacy as it affected the politics, policies and (most importantly) the language of each of the next electorial cycles and the resulting presidencies.
For those who love references, the footnotes and bibliography are excellent and a source of hours (hell, weeks!) of further reading.
This book is a worthy successor to his previous book on President Obama. However, it is still somewhat too kind about a man who was a sexual predator. Many think he, like some others before and after him, was unfit for the highest office in the land. Americans seem to make a habit of electing such people, but who are we to talk given some of our recent prime ministers. Congressional and Senate colleagues referred to Jack Kennedy as 'Mattress Jack'.
The author takes us through Kennedy's time as a congressman, senator and president. He examines his relations with Cuba, the USSR, his handling of the Cuba crisis and the assassination. Much of this is not new.
Like all politicians, Kennedy worked hard to emphasise his good attributes and hide his limitations. His close allies were past masters at shaping his public image. His glamour and charm were a veneer. Undoubtedly, he suffered serious emotional problems and for most of his life physical pain that forced him to take daily injections of dexacortisone plus pain-killing novocaine. All this was kept secret even when he became so ill he had to be hospitalised. Regards behaviour, the Kennedys wrote their own moral code.8
Kennedy's presidency was too say the least undistinguished. Nixon flawed as he was, was far and away superior. As Sabato writes, Jack Kennedy was 'sleazy'. In 1942 he had narrowly escaped being cashiered out of the navy for having an affair with a Danish woman whom the FBI thought was a Nazi agent. Like Clinton, but worse, he was reckless. He seduced a 19 year-old virgin after she had been a White House intern for only 4 days. Many of his adulterous trysts took place in the White House. Like his obnoxious father, who treated his wife abominably, his brothers Edward (who should have been imprisoned after causing the death of a young women by fleeing the scene in a cowardly manner) and Robert, a married man and Catholic, none of the clan could curb their adulterous behaviour. Vast fortunes plus dubious connections in the criminal underworld granted them political power together with a view that the law did not apply to them.
Kennedy achieved very little of note in office compared to the uncouth Johnson. His approach to civil rights lacked sincerity while his support for the Vietnam quagmire was disastrous. There is no significant evidence to indicate he would have achieved more if he had not been brutally murdered.
Many, not all, have praised him for his management of the 1962 Cuba Missile Crisis. True, he rejected some wild advice to bomb the sites or invade Cuba but it needs to be remembered that his own actions towards the Castro regime almost certainly encouraged Khruschev to try and circumvent the American nuclear superiority.
There is an obsession in some quarters with the doings of Camelot, in particular with the many ludicrous 8conspiracy theories about who killed him. Admirers claim for him achievements that are extremely hard to substantiate. Yet one doubts if Kennedy would have beaten Tricky Dick if he had not had Hollywood good looks, a fortune, the right connections on the Hill and elsewhere, and a beautiful wife.. As it was he only scraped home by a tiny margin.
This is a well-written book and, on the whole, a balanced one but you will need to read many other accounts to get an accurate picture of the Kennedy presidency. Jack was a deeply flawed individual who inherited a family name that opened so many doors it encouraged him to behave privately in a scandalous manner. Much of his policy was cosmetic. Nevertheless, given the nature of American politics he has become a symbol of idealism. Those who have succeeded him have as a result had to contend with the view they are throwbacks to a more boring and less exciting age.
The name Kennedy still rings the right political bells as witness the recent ambassadorial appointment of
Caroline (his daughter).
Larry Sabato has another book on Kennedy due out next December.