John F. Kennedy loved the clam chowder at Boston’s Union Oyster House. He loved a lime daiquiri. He loved crew-neck sweatshirts and polo shirts, almost never tucked in. He loved the Army-Navy game, a match of tennis and a breezy sailing afternoon on a yawl named the Manitou.
And he loved to read. He read in the bathtub, he read while knotting his tie, sometimes he stayed in bed all afternoon at Camp David, polishing off two books before dinner. He read history, biographies, memoirs: Edmund Burke, Churchill’s Marlborough, even a spot of Ian Fleming.
In her taped testimony about America’s 35th president, Jacqueline Kennedy lingered on how her husband always had several books going at once. So there is a certain poetry to the Niagara of books – histories, biographies, memoirs, several score of them – that has poured forth from publishing houses to mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination Nov. 22.
This amounts to perhaps the last real Kennedy moment, a grand repast of reminiscence, a festival of books about the life and the death of – and here the irony is too pungent to ignore – the first television president.
Many of these books are reprints, many are anthologies. Most are heroic. A very few offer new, important insights. But all are poignant reminders of another time–and of the terrible shared experience of that fateful Friday in November a half century ago.
The class of the field, Robert Dallek’s Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House, is itself a reminder of how, in the Kennedy years – when the word “fallout” was a mortal health threat and not a common metaphor – the notion of nuclear war tumbled effortlessly from the lips of men who prided themselves on their probity and sobriety. Dean Acheson, commissioned by Kennedy to examine American options in Berlin, urged Kennedy to “accept nuclear war rather than accede to the demands which Khrushchev is now making.” And it is a reminder of how, in the first months of the Kennedy administration, domestic and international pressures bore down on a president who was immensely unprepared for either. He had a fiasco at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, a jarring summit with Nikita S. Khrushchev, and challenges in Laos and Vietnam that he feared made him look weak, which they did. “There are limits to the number of defeats I can defend in one 12-month period,” he told John Kenneth Galbraith, the Canadian-born economist.
Later, the president was challenged by missiles in Cuba, and depended heavily on the one aide who mattered most, Robert F. Kennedy, whom Dallek portrays as an “instrument of his brother’s ideas and intentions,” a role that “allowed Kennedy to provide the sort of effective leadership that carried the country and the world to a peaceful resolution of the most dangerous Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.” Not so successful in those early years was the Kennedy domestic record, for there was scant progress on the most pressing issue at home, civil rights, despite his soaring rhetoric to the contrary. This is where a second important new book comes in, Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days, which makes the (plausible if not entirely persuasive) argument that in his last months Kennedy emerged as a president no longer merely of promise but one finally of prominence, even greatness. Nowhere is this more evident than in civil rights, where Kennedy moved from the passive voice to the active, becoming a believer in integration and voting rights rather than a beleaguered observer of someone else’s movement.
Clarke’s is an imaginative book, positing that, unlike the preceding patrician president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose first hundred days paved his way to historical glory, Kennedy’s last hundred days did so – the tragedy being, of course, that JFK never served his first full term nor reached his presidential potential.
The structure of the book – more a daily diary than a sculpted narrative – sometimes gets in the way of the theme, which is more implied than explained. That said, this is an intelligent work, chock full of insights. One example: With the death of his older brother Joe Jr., whose hair was flecked with stardust and whose character was charged with destiny, John Kennedy “ended up living Joe’s life instead of his own, having the brilliant career that his father had always imagined for Joe.” And yet Clarke shows us how in his last hundred days JFK became something else entirely, his own man, modifying his views on the urgency of the civil rights movement (he came to see delay as disingenuous); the saliency of winning the space race (he invited the Soviets into a joint lunar mission); and the trajectory of the Cold War (he spoke increasingly of peace, not confrontation). This was a political figure who as a White House candidate had called Khrushchev “the enemy” but who, in his last October, sent surplus American wheat to the Soviet Union.