On JFK

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This piece first appeared in The Sunday Business Post in 2013 (the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination) as a review of two books: JFK’s Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke (Penguin) and To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace by Jeffrey D. Sachs (Bodley Head).

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This November it will be fifty years since John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, bringing an era of seeming hope and promise to a horrifying end. Kennedy’s ghost haunts us like the ghost of no other twentieth century statesman: his death still marks, for many people, the shadow-line between American innocence and experience, between the bright stability of the postwar boom years and the chaos and confusion that followed.

When he accepted his party’s nomination for President in Los Angeles in 1960, Kennedy promised a “New Frontier – the frontier of the 1960s, a frontier of unknown opportunities and paths.” It was what America was ready to hear. Kennedy was young, he was handsome, he was rich, he was a gifted speaker. His beautiful wife had style in spades. He was a war hero: when his Navy torpedo boat, PT-109, was sunk by a Japanese destroyer in the Pacific, Kennedy swam for four hours with the life-jacket straps of a burned crewman clenched between his teeth. He was a voracious reader. His biography of eight maverick Senators, Profiles in Courage, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1957.  He was the saint of liberals, an American success story, confident and charismatic, born – it sometimes seemed – to be the leader of the free world.

Only one or two observers sensed the darkness underneath. “Kennedy’s most characteristic quality,” wrote Norman Mailer in 1960, “is the remote and private air of a man who has traversed some lonely terrain of experience, of loss and gain, of nearness to death, which leaves him isolated from the mass of others.”

Mailer was closer to the truth than he could possibly have known. Behind the suntan and the perfect orthodonture (Mailer remarked that Kennedy’s teeth were “clearly visible at a distance of fifty yards”) was a man driven by chronic illness and a rabid sexual appetite. The Kennedy White House was corroded by paranoia and by the young President’s obsessive hunger for risk.

The Kennedy countermyth is by now as familiar as its obverse. We now know that the 1960 Presidential Election – in which JFK triumphed by the narrowest of margins – was stolen for him by his father’s mob cronies and by the Democratic Party machine in Chicago. We also know that Kennedy installed auditory surveillance devices in the Oval Office and in various key meeting rooms, including the room in which his ad hoc crisis committee discussed the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. And we know that the deep bronzing of Kennedy’s skin was actually a symptom of Addison’s disease, an adrenal gland malfunction that doctors treated with steroids and amphetamines.

Young women – starlets, prostitutes, Washington staffers – were brought to the White House every day to serve as Kennedy’s sexual partners. There were dangerously high-profile affairs – with Marilyn Monroe, of course, but also with Ellen Rometsch, a prostitute suspected of being a Communist spy. Kennedy told one aide that unless he had sex with “a strange piece of ass” every single day, he developed crippling migraine. His administration was perpetually on the brink of scandal; only luck, and family connections, kept the public image clean.

The fascination of all this is easy to explain: behind the war stories and the garden parties at Hyannis Port, behind the thrilling oratory and the winsome smile, there was the grim reality of the Kennedys: a family committed to attaining wealth and power by any means necessary – hugely glamourous, hugely sordid.

There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of books that get written about the Kennedys: the hagiographical retelling of the myth, and the muckraking exposure of the countermyth. Two new books, timed to coincide with the anniversary of the assassination, tend towards the hagiographical end of the scale.

Thurston Clarke’s JFK’s Last Hundred Days is a sombre, respectful – at times too respectful – account of Kennedy’s last three months on the job. It was an eventful period, and included the death of Kennedy’s infant son Patrick, born prematurely in August 1963, as well as the passing of the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, ratified by the US and the Soviet Union, one of Kennedy’s greatest achievements.

Clarke’s pages contain a good deal of gossipy stuff about family holidays and so on – sample photo caption: “Jackie was not a keen golfer but gamely tagged along” – and his interpretations of JFK’s seamier antics err on the side of the generous: “His principle motive for taping selected conversations and meeting was probably to provide accurate and irrefutable material for his presidential memoirs.” Sure.

In comparison to Jeffrey Sach’s To Move the World, however, JFK’s Last Hundred Days is a model of unillusioned clarity. Sachs’s text stretches to 169 pages; the rest of his book is bulked out with reprints of Kennedy’s speeches. The prose is execrable: “hardliners on their own side who denied that the other side would abide,” goes one particularly abominable phrase. Worse, Sachs thinks Kennedy and Khrushchev “saved the world” during a Missile Crisis they started in the first place.

Balanced books about the Kennedys are hard to come by. Clarke’s effort goes some small way towards capturing the complexity of the man: it is particularly good on Kennedy’s lifetime of ill-health. Sachs – an academic and a UN Special Advisor – adds nothing to the familiar tale, beyond a reminder, useful in its way, that despite the squalor of his personal history, Kennedy did at least intend to make the world a better place. Which is something.

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