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JFK: Volume One: 1917-1956
by Fredrik Logevall
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John F Kennedy and Donald J Trump have a surprising amount in common. Both are the second sons of wealthy, self-made fathers from up-by-their-bootstraps immigrant families. Both fathers were domineering, callous, money-obsessed and racist. In both families paternal hopes were pinned on the first-born boy to follow in his father’s footsteps, before tragedy struck. Each older brother died relatively young (Kennedy’s in combat during the second world war, Trump’s of alcoholism). It was then up to the second son to fulfil his father’s ambitions.
The difference between them, though, is that Trump took on this mantle by trying to be like his father. Kennedy never did. Trump’s older brother Fred Jr was always a bit of a disappointment – Fred Sr thought him weak and lacking in ambition – whereas Donald was a chip off the old block. Kennedy’s boorish and confident older brother Joe Jr was everything his father could have hoped for. It was Jack who seemed to be the weakling – a sickly child, bookish and with too many ideas of his own. It was a surprise to the family when he turned out to be the one destined for greatness.
Jack never fully embraced his father’s politics, which is what saved him. Joe Sr was an isolationist, an antisemite and an appeaser, and his adoring oldest son aped him in all these attitudes. Jack knew the world was far more complicated than that. He had another quality that distinguished him from his father – he was extraordinarily physically brave. Jack was in pain for much of his life (from what was later diagnosed as Addison’s disease, along with the various botched attempts to treat it). He rarely complained and never let it slow him down. He had a seemingly limitless store of what Hemingway defined as guts: grace under pressure. Unlike his father. Unlike Trump.
It was JFK’s courage, along with his father’s lack of it, that contributed to Joe Jr’s untimely death. The two brothers, always competitive, both signed up to serve in the second world war, despite their father’s opposition to the conflict. Jack’s motorised torpedo boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer killing two of his crew. He managed to swim with the remaining 10 men to an uninhabited island, then set out on his own in shark-infested waters to find rescue. Seven days later he brought them all back alive. It was a tale of remarkable heroism, much burnished in the retelling, and it drove his older brother to undertake a near suicidal mission as a bomber pilot, from which he never returned. Joe Jr was also determined to remove the stain on his family’s honour from his father’s time as US ambassador in London, when along with being an advocate of making peace with Hitler he had also ducked out of London to his country estate during the blitz. “Yellow” Joe, as he became known, couldn’t simply be redeemed by sickly Jack. His oldest son died trying to make amends.
These remarkable rivalries within the Kennedy family – propelled by valour, vanity and greed – form the backbone of volume one of Frederik Logevall’s riveting life of JFK, which takes the story up to 1956. They serve as a vignette of American history in the middle years of the 20th century, where valour, vanity and greed were also the driving forces. We are used to thinking of the Kennedy legend through the fate of three siblings – Jack, Bobby and Teddy – two of whom suffered violent early deaths, and any one of whom could have been president (also, in the background, is another untimely death, of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick, which probably cost Teddy the White House). But this book is about a different threesome of ill-fated Kennedy siblings – Joe Jr, Jack, and Kathleen (or “Kick”), who was also killed in a plane crash – and it too is haunted by another near-death experience, the disastrous lobotomy administered to their sister Rosemary, which turned her from a learning disabled young woman into an institutionalised psychiatric patient who wasn’t spoken of within the family for 20 years.
Dominating it all is the frightful and formidable paterfamilias Joe Sr. Logevall paints a richly sympathetic portrait of the old monster, paying tribute to his many gifts as well as sparing us none of the grim details of the dark side of his personality. He was a skilled businessman, who secured his fortune by selling out of Wall Street in the summer of 1929, sensing as almost no one else did that the market was about to crash. He had extraordinary energy and drive. But he was also a cold and heartless womaniser, a paranoid and remorseless self-publicist, and a man who reduced almost everything to transactional questions of hard cash. Jack neither disowned nor disdained his father and he greatly valued his support (especially when it came to the hard cash). He followed him in one respect, being if anything an even more compulsive and careless womaniser. But he knew when to avoid his politics.
Briefly, in 1939, when Joe Sr was US ambassador to London, there was talk that he would be the Kennedy to make it to the White House. Critics of FDR hoped he might challenge him for the Democratic nomination on an “America first” ticket. In Robert Harris’s Fatherland, which imagines a world in which the US sues for peace with Hitler, the Kennedy who is inaugurated in 1961 is Jack’s father. Ambassador Kennedy was an ally of Charles Lindbergh, the closest America had to a fascist cheerleader and the man who becomes president in 1940 in Philip Roth’s dystopian counterfactual novel The Plot Against America. In reality, Joe Sr’s reputation was ruined in 1940, when Churchill, a man he despised, decided to fight on and FDR decided to back him. The Ambassador, as he liked to be known, had terrible political judgment. He invariably followed his prejudices rather than the facts. ‘Mr Churchill’s sun has been called to set very rapidly by the situation in Norway,’ he cabled FDR in April 1940. Within a month Churchill was prime minister.
It is hard not to be struck by the line that runs from Joseph Kennedy’s foreign policy to Donald Trump’s. Kennedy Sr believed in letting dictators alone. He thought the US shouldn’t pay for anyone else’s defence. He viewed international relations almost exclusively in terms of what it meant for business, particularly his own. He worried that fighting fascism would be too expensive, which meant it would never be worth it. His son Jack, who had travelled widely and read many history books, believed almost the opposite. He understood that America would soon be called on to play a global leadership role. In that capacity, creating the right impression mattered more than obsessing about the bottom line. Unlike his father, JFK was extraordinarily skilled at creating the right impression.
As a result, he emerges from this biography as a less clearly defined figure than many of those around him. Logevall has written a superb book but its central character remains elusive. JFK’s great courage went along with less attractive qualities. He cared little about other people’s feelings. He lived for the moment, often oblivious to what this did to those around him. Early in his marriage to Jackie, his new wife had to get used to being left alone at parties, after Jack had gone off with another woman who had caught his eye. His political convictions sometimes seemed equally fickle. He had shrewd political judgement and an eye for the main chance. But it is often hard to say what he really believed.
JFK understood that his own political gifts weren’t enough. He was an excellent and indefatigable campaigner, yet he needed his father’s money and contacts to win his seat in Congress in 1946 and in the Senate in 1952. He also needed his little brother Bobby, who came in to manage that Senate race at the tender age of 26. Robert Kennedy took his political outlook from Jack, but he followed his father in his ruthless approach to the hard business of getting other people to do what you want. All the Kennedys were close to Joseph McCarthy at the height of his red-baiting antics in the early 1950s. Jack recognised when the time was right to distance himself from McCarthyism: he saw the value in Commie-bashing but also knew the risks of being associated with an unscrupulous blowhard. Joseph Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy never made that leap. They stuck with McCarthy to the bitter end.
Jack had the charm and the grace but his little brother had the steel. JFK came to rely on Bobby to do his dirty work. How that helped him reach the White House is for volume two. But already from this book it is clear that the ultimate fulfilment of the Kennedy clan’s political ambitions required that the glamorous, nimble Jack distance himself from his father and move closer to his younger brother. Which means he never really distanced himself at all.
He may or may not have been a great president: it was hard to become that in a mere thousand days. But mass media made the 20th century the first age of superstars, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy blazed among the brightest.
The reader of this tale gapes at the narrative of a man so smart, witty, rich, handsome and charismatic. His courage was manifested less in the Pacific war than in overcoming lifelong sickness and pain — Addison’s disease, spinal disorders, recurrent malaria, near-death hospitalisations, ah yes, and venereal disease.
Even today, when priapic extravagance has become a qualification for national leadership, Kennedy’s sexual energy seems remarkable. He flaunted it in sickness and health; while engaged, married and pursuing power. His horrible father conquered an array of Hollywood women headed by Gloria Swanson. Jack outdid him, practising on Gene Tierney, then allegedly topping the bill with Marilyn Monroe.
I should here add, as does Fredrik Logevall, that none of this implies that JFK was Mister Nice Guy. He treated women like taxis; his staff like, well, staff. Friends and political associates were expendable. His Irish charm was legendary, but, in the words of one intimate, “he was nice to people, but heedless of people”.
Like many rich folk, he was insouciant about money and seldom carried cash. When a wartime comrade, “Red” Fay, lent him $20, the sailor had to write twice to get it back. As a congressman and senator he was shifty about McCarthyism and statutory racial desegregation. He may have been ignorant of some of the dirty deals his dad made to launch his political career, but they would have played badly at Arthur’s Camelot.
This is the first of two volumes by a Pulitzer-winning Harvard professor of the highest gifts, and the most compelling biography I have read in years. Logevall’s subject knew nothing of the approaching bullets, but he was always in a hurry. On a 1951 world trip, this congressman with a passion for poetry scribbled lines from Andrew Marvell: “But at my back I always hear/ Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” He became one of the best-read, most widely travelled presidents in US history.
Jack, as he was nicknamed, was born in 1917, the third of nine children fathered by the Boston Irishman Joe Kennedy, who got rich as a Wall Street insider trader, then became notorious as the 1938-40 US ambassador to the UK — who believed Britain doomed and not worth saving.
Franklin D Roosevelt characterised the old monster as “terrifically spoiled at an early age by huge financial success, thoroughly patriotic, thoroughly selfish and thoroughly obsessed with the idea that he must leave each of his nine children with a million dollars… To him the future of a small capitalistic class is safer under a Hitler than under a Churchill.”
The ambassador’s story as told by Logevall is almost as fascinating as that of Jack. Although his eldest son, Joe Jr, was much less intelligent, he was the one earmarked to become the Kennedy president. Joe Jr slavishly adopted his father’s politics before being killed in an experimental bomber in 1944. Kennedy connections did a lot of premature dying: son-in-law Billy Cavendish, heir to the Duke of Devonshire, was killed in Belgium; his wife, Kathleen, Jack’s beloved sister “Kick”, in a 1948 air crash.
Jack started life as a somewhat feckless, academically lazy teenager, then got progressively more serious. One of his lovers, the former Miss Denmark Inga Arvad, described him as “the best listener between Haparanda and Yokohama”. He exploited his status as an ambassador’s son to tour Europe and met everybody who was anybody. He parlayed a Harvard thesis on international relations into Why England Slept, a bestselling book denouncing appeasement and isolationism.
He was that rarest of Irish Americans, an Anglophile, whose privileges as a student included an African-American valet and stenographers to type his thesis. As for his wartime career as a naval draftee, Kennedy scarcely deserves applause for getting his boat rammed by a Japanese destroyer, Logevall observes, but displayed genuine fortitude in saving most of the crew afterwards.
The journalist John Hersey, who had married a former girlfriend of Jack’s, made him famous with a big New Yorker piece about PT-109, which anointed him a hero. The lieutenant with the trademark shock of hair, whose health issues were not assisted by Pacific injuries, emerged bent on a career in politics. He won — some said bought — a Boston congressional seat in 1946, before he was 30, but found the House unrewarding. It did not make him special enough: already his ambitions flew much higher.
Foremost among his qualities were energy, competitiveness, focus, curiosity. He was overwhelmingly preoccupied with America’s global leadership role in the Cold War, much less so with domestic issues. His brother Bobby became his devoted political lieutenant.
There has been a host of JFK biographies, but this one excels for its narrative drive, fine judgments and meticulous research, especially about money, women and the subject’s early writings. Among Logevall’s most important observations, he notes that during the decade before Dallas, Kennedy lived with a tension between his own intelligently nuanced view of the nationalist and ideological forces at play in the world — especially in Indochina, which he had visited — and the crude anti-communism of an instinctively conservative US electorate: “Many voters liked simple explanations and quick fixes.” His caution about telling the American people unwelcome truths persisted.
Jack was already a senator when, in 1953, he married Jacqueline Bouvier, who was attracted by his looks, wealth and her own taste for living dangerously. He respected her reading, culture, grasp of languages: “Jackie interested him, which wasn’t true of many women.”
Nonetheless, it was strong stuff even by Kennedy standards that, when she suffered a stillbirth in August 1956, Jack was on a Mediterranean sailing trip. He showed no haste to fly home until a friend allegedly advised him: “If you want to run for president, you’d better get your ass back to your wife’s bedside or every wife in the country will be against you.”
This big book, which breaks off in 1956, makes the story seem a cliffhanger even though we know what is coming. Now back home, Jack discussed the future with Joe Sr, who urged that his outsider status, as a descendant of Irish Catholic immigrants, could be an asset with new Americans in a 1960 presidential run. His son fell quiet, then looked up and smiled: “Well, Dad, I guess there’s only one question left. When do we start?”
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