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An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963 Audio CD – Abridged, Audiobook, CD
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Everywhere acclaimed for its compelling narrative, its fresh insights, and its dispassionate appraisal of John F. Kennedy's presidency, this #1 national bestseller is the first full-scale single-volume biography of JFK to be written by a historian in nearly four decades. Drawing on previously unavailable material and never-before-opened archives, "An Unfinished Life" is packed with revelations large and small - about JFK's health, his love affairs, RFK's appointment as Attorney General, what Joseph Kennedy did to help his son win the White House, and the path JFK would have taken in the Vietnam entanglement had he survived. Robert Dallek succeeds as no other biographer has done in striking a critical balance - never shying away from JFK's weaknesses, brilliantly exploring his strengths - as he offers up a vivid portrait of a bold, brave, complex, heroic, human Kennedy.
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I recently read his biography of LBJ (shorter version), which I enjoyed very much, finding it conscientious and balanced.
In my view this volume has the same virtues. Dallek mostly succeeds in avoiding getting too swept away by the drama, glamour, and controversies of Kennedy and his entourage.
I found the early part of the book, particularly his relationship with his mother, father and elder brother Joseph, fascinating, as the author clearly did too.
Joe Kennedy would, and did, do anything to get his son the presidency, once his elder brother, who was seen as a sounder and healthier bet, had been killed in WW2.
But according to Dallek Joe would argue his corner with his son, but even when, as was often the case, his views diametrically opposed Jack’s, this would never compromise his support for him.
Also fascinating is how close his relationship with Bobby was, particularly in the campaign for the presidency, and throughout the years in power. Never mind LBJ, Schlesinger, Rusk, Sorensen or McNamara; Bobby was almost always his principal support, his gofer, his hatchetman, his Rottweiler.
For me, Kennedy’s presidency was defined by the cold war. When he came to power, Russia and the US had literally a handful of nuclear weapons apiece. This capability increased exponentially during JFK’s short time in office. Kennedy and Khruschev had to discover and define the limits of a new kind of politics. Both had extravert, dramatic natures and the game played out in a series of dramatic crises: the Bay of Pigs, Berlin, the Missile Crisis.
These last two, successfully managed by Kennedy after his errors in the first, were the making of him as president and established his own self-confidence and his domestic and international reputations.
There were also rumbling subplots in Latin America and Vietnam, in some ways even harder to solve, because to do so meant coming to grips with the very essence of the cold war. JFK, like so many presidents before and after, saw any left wing government anywhere in the world, as a potential launchpad for communism, and despite his pronouncements, Woodrow Wilson-like, of people’s rights for self-determination, over and over again Kennedy, again like so many other presidents before and since, sent in the CIA.
However, this was a process that Kennedy wrestled with, especially in Vietnam, and in my view it is the finest achievement of Dallek’s book to present this struggle in perspective.
Kennedy was aware of this contradiction, seeking to find ways of withdrawing from a repressive role in ways that would be acceptable to the US voters and to Congress.
Hounded by difficulties in Congress, Kennedy was able to achieve much less domestically, but nevertheless did not let this prevent him from a series of attempts to pass legislation relating to racial problems, education and health, initiatives which were mostly consummated by LBJ under more favourable conditions.
By and large I found this book admirably comprehensive, thoughtful and fair.
One minor quibble: I felt let down by the index which seemed incomplete on several occasions when I wanted to check something out.
Several aspects emerge clearly. One of the most remarkable is what Kennedy managed to achieve despite a catalogue of illnesses and the pain in which he frequently found himself, so much so that the American public did not know about this until after his death. The book documents in detail how Kennedy was reluctant, against the advice of military and naval chiefs and of some of his advisers, to commit American combat troops and sanction direct American attacks. Towards the end of his life he hoped to be able to disengage from Vietnam after the 1964 election. This did not mean that he did not sanction indirect measures to subvert Castro's regime in Cuba or Diem's in Vietnam.
His relationship with the mercurial Khrushchev before, during and after the Cuban Missile Crisis is very well brought out.
Kennedy's main interest was in foreign affairs. That was partly because in Congress an alliance between Republicans and conservative southern Democrats made effective domestic reforms - in education and Medicare - impossible. Most particularly was this the case in Civil Rights. He frequently voiced support for civil rights, but the civil rights leaders were disappointed that he did not support their demonstrations, claiming that they would make the passage of the Civil Rights Act, which he introduced only in June 1963, more difficult. Dallek suggests that, had he not been assassinated shortly before the 1964 election, he would have won that election against Goldwater with the same landslide majority that Johnson would achieve, and would have been liberated to enact all the reforms for which Johnson has, rightly, been given the credit.
Kennedy was fortunate that on the whole the press in his day did not report on his promiscuous private life. Clinton should have been so lucky!
My only major criticism of the book is that there is nothing on the contents of or the debate about the Warren Commission's report on the assassination of Kennedy.
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