Reviewed by Don Schlenger (Ethiopia 1966-68)
I WAS A SENIOR in a suburban,New Jersey high school when John F. Kennedy was elected President in 1960. Staunchly Presbyterian and Republican like my parents and many of my classmates, I was sure that the White House would soon become Vatican West. Six years later, my wife, Jackie, and I were on a charter flight to Addis Ababa to begin our two year service as Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia. As I made my way through Chris Matthews’ new book, Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero, I was able, after almost five decades, to formulate answers to Matthews’ questions, ‘What was he like?” and “How did he do it?” I’m not sure why, after five decades, these questions were important to me, but I do know, reading through the book, that it was personal.
In a preface introducing his family’s life and beliefs, Matthews recounts the effects that Kennedy’s election to the Presidency had upon these suburban Philadelphia Catholics. Then, beginning in the first chapter, “Second Son”, Matthews recounts the boy’s life at Choate, and takes us chronologically through Kennedy’s personal history, education, military service, and political life, each chapter bearing a title pointing to its contents:: “Skipper”, “War Hero”, “Bobby”, “Hardball”, “Charisma”, “Zenith”, and “Legacy”. His chapter on meeting, courting and marrying Jacqueline Bouvier is entitled “Magic”.
Kennedy did not have an easy childhood or adolescence. On the contrary, he spent much of his early life in bed, in school infirmaries, and in hospitals. Scarlet fever, appendicitis, a stomach problem that lasted all his life, asthma, chronic back pain, and three times given last rites. ‘This lonely boy reading history, his wife, Jackie, said much later. None of this brought his mother to his side. “She never loved him” said Jackie… Matthews points to the bedridden child behind the man: a reader of history and heroic tales, a sickly boy who grew into an inner directed, self-created man. Idealistic and pragmatic, gregarious and distant, a rebel and a true believer.
Matthews takes Kennedy through Choate, the London School of Economics, Princeton, finally Harvard, London with his Ambassador father and family, and his book Why England Slept. Then to a very detailed description of his service as a naval lieutenant of unbelievable courage and determination.. And, finally, the decision to seek a Congressional seat and the titanic amount of preparation and ‘retail politics’ that got him elected and would serve him later as a template for both his Senate and Presidential campaigns.
Many tidbits, insights, and scenes that were both informative and surprising: Kennedy’s earlier admiration for and friendship with fellow Navy veteran Richard Nixon, the public vs. the private marriage to Jackie, his ability to compartmentalize almost everything in his life, including his friendships and the compartmentalization of those relationships Some were Irish Mafia friends, political friends, friends from school, from the Navy, and, mostly by himself, his relationship with Ted Sorenson. These groups did not overlap, again the ability to compartmentalize.
There is a chilling scene in which Robert Kennedy, as counsel for the Senate rackets committee in 1959, is interrogating Sam Giancana, and contemptuously says to him “I thought only little girls giggled, Mr. Giancana”. Wow! That public humiliation of Giancana was not likely ever forgotten.
Matthews’ account of Kennedy’s years as President likewise offers scenes of which I was not aware . But I was most struck by the incredible number of crises, achievements, and critical moments packed into such a short time: the Bay of Pigs, the Peace Corps, Berlin crisis, Cuban missiles, unforgettable speeches, civil rights, the test ban treaty, Krushchev, Wallace, Ross Barnett, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, Hoover. Events, especially in 1963; one after another, foreign and domestic, in which his courage, grace, and humanity were on display, as well as the coldly detached, pragmatic politician’s craft and guile.
I loved this book. It felt like like a conversation more than a text. Matthews set out to explain who Jack Kennedy was, what he was like, and how he got that way. And he succeeded. The author’s enthusiasm and passion for his subject is contagious.His research, from personal interviews to oral histories to sources at the Kennedy library in Boston, is evident, and his relaying of events puts the reader right there. I remember many of the things which happened during his presidency. As a young man, I identified very strongly with Jack Kennedy, who was both tough and idealistic, and both an inspiration and a hero to me. In one of my college classes shortly after his death, the professor, who was a true mentor , wondered in class if Kennedy had come to a dead end as President, having reached a stalemate with the Congress and facing real, and perhaps unsolvable problems both foreign and domestic. He made a good case for this. I preferred then, however, as I do now, to celebrate his courage, grace, and the impact he had upon both upon my life and upon the nation and the world. We certainly have not seen his equal since. To Chris Matthews, thank you for this wonderful book.
Don Schlenger has worked in public education for over forty years, first in New Jersey and most recently in North Carolina. He has been a classroom teacher, guidance counselor, basketball coach, and union negotiator. For the last nine years, Don and his wife, Jackie, have worked with autistic adolescents in the Wake County, North Carolina, school system