Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Book Review: A Question of Character - A Life of John F. Kennedy

It used to be that I picked up most books about the JFK assassination and read and kept them. Then I started picking up bios of JFK, always used. In June I bought at a thrift store A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy by Thomas C. Reeves (1991, Prima Publishing, ISBN 1-55958-196-4). I began reading it right away, finishing its 491 pages (including notes) in about a week.

The opening paragraph of the Preface is instructive:

It seems that I have always liked John F. Kennedy. I first saw him on television in 1956 when I was an undergraduate. The young senator was courageously struggling at his party's national convention to win the vice presidential nomination, and I was taken with his good looks, energy, inspiring language, and grace in defeat. A look at Kennedy's credentials as a war hero, intellectual, and liberal convinced me that he had a splendid future.

That tells the framework of where the author is coming from, but you sense a "but" coming. The Preface goes on to describe how the early biographies and memoirs of JFK were totally positive, what he later terms the Camelot School of Kennedy historians. Such people as Schlesinger, Sorensen, O'Donnell and Powers rushed out books that showed JFK to be a president who would have been envied by both Washington and Lincoln had they been alive.

But the "but" comes. By 1975, twelves years after Dealy Plaza, the literature began to take on some negatives. By 1977 it was exploded by Judith Cambell Exner's book revealing her affair with him. In the decade after that, the Camelot School did their best to maintain the illusion of excellence of JFK's life and presidency, but it was only a matter of time until more truthful, more balanced books and articles began to come forth.

Some time ago I read Seymour Hersh's The Dark Side of Camelot, published in 1997 but researched beginning around 1992. I was shocked at some of what I read in that. Well, not really shocked, as I had already come to know that JFK was not the man many thought he was. But before that book I assumed his failings were in personal character, not in his job duties.

Hersh exploded that myth. Except it had already been exploded by Reeves, five years earlier. Hersh spent a lot of time on Kennedy's womanizing. Reeves does also, but he goes more into the failings in doing the job Kennedy was elected to do, as well as in credentials. Here are some of the items that are well explained.
  • PT 109 and war record. I need to read some more on this, but Reeves says that in all of WW2 one, and only one, PT boat was ever rammed by a Japanese ship, and that was PT109, under JFK's watch. The reason: these boats were so fast that they could easily out maneuver a much larger vessel. That this PT boat was rammed was a blight on JFK's war record. He showed some heroics in rescuing his men, but it was an apparent lapse on his part that cause the boat to be sunk in the first place.
  • Profiles In Courage. I had heard something about this book being significantly edited, by Ted Sorensen, and that JFK should not have been given full credit for it, certainly not a Pulitzer. But Reeves shows convincingly that Kennedy had almost nothing to do with the writing. Sorensen did it all, including the research. And the Pulitzer was won because papa Joe Kennedy bought it. As I say, Reeves is quite convincing.
  • Kennedy's health. Hersh showed how JFK's health was a basket case, which seemed to be at its best right when he became president. Reeves fills in some gaps Hersh left out (or, since Reeves came before Hersh, that Hersh decided didn't need to be covered). Massive doses of medicinal drugs and "feel-good cocktails" kept JFK going. Reeves says even Jackie took amphetamines with JFK.
  • Work ethic. Reeves explodes the myth (and Hersh spread the ashes) of JFK supposedly being a hard worker as president, as he had been a slackard legislator. At first he barely worked half a day, though later the demands of office grew on him and he was forced to put in longer hours. One disturbing event Reeves documents is the separation of Kennedy from the nuclear football, when JFK furtively traversed tunnels under New York City to get to a two-hour stand. And Reeves speculates that, given JFK's normal MO, this could have happened many times.
  • Political expediency. Reeves says JFK had no core of beliefs upon which to base policies. Everything he did (except maybe the Cuban Missile Crisis) was done based on "what will get me re-elected?" This is why he became ineffective in dealing with Congress; of course, many of them did not respect Kennedy because of his poor record as representative then senator. But this book is quite revealing in how the political calculation pretty much trumped any consideration of "what is best for America?"

I'm out of time for tonight, but will come back to this in another post in a day or two. Let me say the book is well worth the read if you can find it, even at full price instead of 50 cents as mine cost. It's going into my library.

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