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Title
Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours that Made History
Author
Andrew Cohen
Genre
History
Publisher
Signal/McClelland & Stewart
Pages
404
Price
$34
Year
2014

John F. Kennedy remains the standard by which all postwar U.S. presidents are measured – and not only because of the oceans of ink spilled in his name. By the 50th anniversary of his assassination in November of 2013, something like 40,000 books had been written about JFK, many inspired by an apparently inexhaustible desire to sift through the murky circumstances of his death.

This ongoing postmortem is partly fuelled by the Massachusetts scion's iconic stature among baby boomers. Kennedy, following the stable, grandfatherly term of Second World War hero Dwight D. Eisenhower, mirrored the transitional shift from Frank Sinatra to Elvis Presley and Leave it to Beaver to The Patty Duke Show. But there is a more important historical reason for our continuing fascination with Kennedy: his presidency, however foreshortened, was breathtakingly eventful. It is estimated that Kennedy faced 15 significant crises during his 1,036 days in office. Notable among these were the Cuban Missile Crisis, still judged to be the last occasion the world faced nuclear annihilation, and the erection of the Berlin Wall, which added considerable fuel to the Cold War antipathy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

As the title suggests, Andrew Cohen's breezily pleasurable Two Days in June: John F. Kennedy and the 48 Hours that Made History offers a detailed, forensic analysis of a short but eventful chapter in the Kennedy narrative. The two seminal days in question are June 10 and 11, 1963. On the first, the then 46-year-old president used the occasion of a commencement address at Washington, D.C.'s American University to float a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. On the second, in response to Governor George Wallace's attempt to thwart the desegregation of the University of Alabama, Kennedy went on network television to deliver a paradigm-shifting appeal to the U.S. Congress to enact civil rights legislation, at the same time as asking viewers to closely examine their own hearts and minds on the question of race relations.

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Faced with these daunting tasks, Kennedy still managed to squeeze in his daily swims, an afternoon nap or two, and possibly a late-night, extra-marital assignation. Kennedy also popped in for the cocktail portion of a large dinner party at the home of patrician journalist Joseph Alsop, in order to imbibe the latest gossip on the Profumo Affair, the U.K. sex-and-spy scandal threatening to topple the government of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.

Life was considerably more stressful for Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen, author of many of the president's most enduring utterances, including, it has been said, the indelible 1961 Inauguration appeal, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Masterful as he was, Sorensen – who once claimed to have slept nine hours in an entire week – was given just more than two hours to craft the civil rights address, finishing just four minutes before Kennedy started speaking the words into the camera. As it was, Kennedy extemporized to fill the allotted 15 minutes. Remarkably, the concluding two minutes sprang entirely from the top of his head.

Cohen's ability to convey the white-knuckle reality of the moment is the book's abiding strength. Although chunks of the story are necessarily rooted in speculation and conjecture, much of it is based on the 1963 TV film Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment by pioneering documentarian Robert Drew, who was granted liberal access to JFK, as well as the president's brother and closest adviser, Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

Two Days in June is stuffed with biographical sketches of key and peripheral figures, including English author Antonia Fraser, an Alsop dinner guest primed by Kennedy for the dirt on Profumo. We also learn that novelist Richard Yates, author of the postwar American classic Revolutionary Road, was commissioned by Robert Kennedy to write a speech on civil rights, although there is no evidence any of his material was used by Sorensen. If anything, the abundance of parenthetical information too often detracts from what is supposed to be a focused, minute-by-minute account of a crucial episode in Kennedy's presidency.

In terms of legacy, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by the U.S., the Soviet Union and the U.K. less than two months after Kennedy's speech, opening the door to future attempts to minimize the threat of nuclear war. As for civil rights, Kennedy's successor Lyndon Johnson is rightly credited with having done considerably more to advance the cause of racial equality, but Kennedy's speech was instrumental in moving the dial on what was – and remains – America's most intractable issue.

Vit Wagner is a Toronto writer and teacher.

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