JFK’s Last Hundred Days
The Transformation of a Man and The Emergence of a Great President
by Thurston Clarke (Tunisia 1968)
The Penguin Press, New York
Reviewed by Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98)
“That’s the trouble with all you historians!” JFK railed at his aide Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had praised FDR effusively in his New Deal trilogy. “You made all those New Dealers seven feet tall. They weren’t that good. They were just a bunch of guys like us.” — JFK’s Last Hundred Days
In this his newest book, Thurston Clarke focuses on the three months leading up to John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s assassination at the age of 46, fifty years ago this month. Clarke, author of eleven widely acclaimed works of fiction and nonfiction, paints an honest portrait of the fascinating, complex, and elusive man who served less than two years of his term as the 35th president of the United States.
The JFK Clarke portrays was six — not seven — feet tall. He was neither saint, nor matinee idol, nor miracle worker. And he knew it. He could be chronically impatient, easily bored, mendacious, and reckless - especially when it came to driving cars, conducting extramarital affairs, and exposing himself to crowds, such as the crowd that greeted him in Dallas on that fateful November afternoon in 1963. Clarke writes:
Because of his passion for secrecy and his practice of compartmentalizing his life, no one among his friends and aides knew all of this, but they knew enough to know that his courage and mendacity, generosity and sudden rages, idealism and cunning had made him a very complicated, human, and appealing man. And because he had also succeeded in communicating some of this to the American people, they sensed that despite his wealth and education, he was not only like them, but genuinely liked them….
The people returned that affection. In fact, Kennedy was beloved. Clarke reports that in a poll conducted within a week of his assassination by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 79 percent of Americans mourned JFK like “someone very close and dear.”
In this gripping, meticulously researched and beautifully written day-by-day account of Kennedy’s last hundred days, Clarke keeps his readers at the edge of their seats. We know the ultimate, tragic ending to this story; but the principals in the narrative do not. During these last days, the Kennedy’s third child, Patrick, is born prematurely and dies within days; to recover from this blow, Jackie goes on a cruise of the Greek islands on Aristotle Onassis’s opulent yacht; meanwhile, JFK juggles pressing issues at home (Civil Rights, Medicare) and abroad (Cuba, the Soviet Union, Vietnam), while romping with his young children Caroline and John in Jackie’s absence. One such scene in Clarke’s telling is especially poignant:
After the Judiciary Committee left, Caroline and John came into his office to model their Halloween costumes. “Do you think he will know who we are?” Caroline asked [Evelyn] Lincoln [JFK's secretary]. She assured them he would be fooled. “Why, it’s Sam and Mary!” [JFK] exclaimed. He called his father in Hyannis Port and handed them the receiver so they could shout “Trick or Treat!”
Clarke carefully recounts that Kennedy’s aides repeatedly warned him to skip Dallas on his reelection campaign tour because they saw and felt ominous signs, but JFK dismissed their warnings. When one Secret Service agent raised this sensitive subject, Kennedy told him, “Floyd, this is a political trip. If I don’t mingle with the people, I couldn’t get elected dog catcher,” adding, “We’ve got an election coming up. The whole point is for me to be accessible to the people.”
In Fort Worth, Texas, on the morning of November 22, 1963, Clarke tells us, before leaving for Dallas, John F. Kennedy opened the Dallas Morning News and saw a full-page advertisement placed by a right-wing group calling itself the “American Fact-Finding Committee.” It was bordered in black like an obituary, headlined “Welcome Mr. Kennedy to Dallas,” and listed twelve charges against him. … He handed the paper to Jackie, open to the nasty advertisement. “Oh, you know, we’re heading into nut country today,” he said to her. “But, Jackie, if somebody wanted to shoot me from a window with a rifle, nobody can stop it, so why worry about it?”
It is worth noting here, as Clarke does in his last chapter, “After Dallas,” that among Kennedy’s intentions was that of withdrawing a thousand advisers from Vietnam by the end of 1963 and removing more in 1964 because he believed that war “unwinnable.” At the time of his death, there were 16,300 advisers in Vietnam, but no combat units. Clarke writes:
By December 1965, after [Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon] Johnson had escalated the war and sent U.S. combat units into battle, there were 185,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam and almost 1,600 American dead. By the end of 1967, U.S. forces numbered 485,000 with almost 16,000 killed.
Since his tragic death in Dallas, an estimated 40,000 books about John F. Kennedy have been published, many mythologizing the man. The fiftieth anniversary of his assassination is bound to bring many more. But if you have time to read only one of them, make sure it is this riveting portrayal by Thurston Clarke of a great American president who was just a man - a “guy like us” - not a myth.
Bonnie Lee Black, MFA, is the author of three published memoirs, the most recent of which is How to Make an African Quilt: The Story of the Patchwork Project of Segou, Mali (Nighthawk Press 2013). She lives and teaches in Taos, New Mexico. Visit her website at: www.bonnieleeblack.com.