Whatever your politics, if you’ve watched Chris Matthews on his “Hardball” TV show, you can’t fail to be impressed with his breezy, energetic delivery and his erudition about issues of the day. He writes just like he talks, and every page of Jack Kennedy resounds with his voice.
This is not an objective, or even an exhaustive biography. One might argue that you could learn as much about Kennedy from Caro’s deep-plunging biography of LBJ as from Jack Kennedy. However, it is a wide-ranging look at a life of one of the most important political—and cultural—figures in American history from the pen of an enthusiastic admirer who is not afraid to look squarely at the invisible moles beneath the charming visage.
Matthews starts at the beginning and traces JFK’s development through his lonely, sickly childhood (Matthews never mentions it, but the situation begs comparison with growing up of Teddy Roosevelt.), through the familiar story of PT 109 and on to the presidency. We see a boy and man determined to prove himself against the odds. First, for his parents’ attention in the shadow of a favored older brother, then against pain and adversity in war, and finally against the political and religious establishment to become the ambitious officeholder who would be president. The pain followed him always—the back and the gut were always weak. He was given last rites three times. He didn’t survive the fourth, of course.
Matthews takes JFK to Dallas, but wisely skips the details of the assassination. Instead he jumps ahead to Jackie’s interview with Theodore White a few days after, in which she invokes the image of Camelot as an apt description for her late husband’s legacy. The aftermath becomes more poignant than any repetition of the event could possibly have been.
I came away from this book in some ways more admiring of Kennedy than ever, particularly for his refusal to bomb and invade Cuba during that missile crisis. However, I lost respect for him as a man. His philandering was legendary and has always been a spot of tarnish on his trophy, but I never before realized its magnitude.
After his election to the Senate, for example, he took off with his buddies for a Cote d’Azul cruise. Jackie was eight months pregnant. She went into early labor and was delivered of a stillborn by cesarean. He wasn’t present. As he often wasn’t present.
Aides tell stories of his simply ignoring her at important events to the extent that she’d just leave without his noticing her exit. He and his buddies would go on periodic “girling” expeditions. Even allowing for standards of the day or for both Jackie and Jack’s parental backgrounds preparing them for such behavior, it’s behavior to be despised. And, though there’s a nasty and salacious component to the public’s hunger for exposure of private lives, I would have welcomed a little more willingness on the part of the press to print what they certainly knew.
Whatever you know or don’t know about JFK, Chris Matthews gives you a fresh and entertaining look.