Public opinion polls repeatedly find that John F. Kennedy is one of the most admired presidents in American history. But in important respects he remains an enigma. Was he an inspirational hero who avoided nuclear war or a reckless gambler who took us to the brink of Armageddon? Was he pragmatic or idealistic? A hard worker or a dilettante? Did he deserve the success he achieved or was it largely a product of his father’s fortune?
Political commentator Chris Matthews admits that in the 1960 presidential election (when he was 11 years old) he was a solid Nixon supporter despite the fact that he and the Massachusetts senator were both Roman Catholic Irish-Americans. Over time, however, his political loyalties shifted to the Democrats, and his interest in Kennedy and what made him tick increased. He writes: “A half century of political life later, my fascination with the elusive spirit of John F. Kennedy has remained an abiding one. He is both pathfinder and puzzle, a beacon and a conundrum.”
For many years, Matthews collected and analyzed the recollections of people who knew and worked with Kennedy. And as longtime chief of staff to the late House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill (D) of Massachusetts, the successor to Kennedy’s seat in the House, Matthews had ample opportunities. He was an avid, attentive listener who kept careful notes and records. His latest book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, is an effort to organize what he learned and, in doing so, to explain the hold that Kennedy has on America’s national psyche.
Matthews does not claim to have all the answers. But he has identified a number of characteristics and traits that Kennedy developed in response to the challenges he faced. His illnesses as a child made him self-reliant and gave him the idle time to become a dedicated student of history. He learned in high school and college that he had a gift for making close friends and attracting followers. World War II taught him that, despite his precarious health, he had “stamina and courage,” which served him well when he entered the “rough and tumble” of Massachusetts politics.
The most interesting parts of the book are the retelling of Kennedy’s initial election to the House of Representatives in 1946; his close, upset victory over Republican Henry Cabot Lodge in the 1952 Massachusetts Senate race; and his even closer triumph when he won the presidency in 1960. As a seasoned political operative, Matthews assesses Kennedy’s political career with an expert’s eye and judgment.
He describes in detail the hard-nosed politics practiced by the Kennedy family, the willingness to bend the rules (in 1946, Kennedy broke into the Massachusetts State House after hours to file his nominating petitions because he’d failed to file them when the office was open), and the effort to build a comprehensive network of volunteers to advance his political career. Matthews suggests that such actions were critical to Kennedy’s success.
But despite the overwhelmingly positive picture, this is not hagiography. Matthews makes explicit the notorious womanizing, Kennedy’s abandonment of friends when he no longer needed them, and his willingness to hide serious health problems from the public despite the knowledge that they probably impaired his judgment.
A simple way to describe the weaknesses would be to say that Kennedy liked living on the edge. Matthews writes about one adventure: “The tale is a fine example of the sort of risk Jack Kennedy enjoyed taking – dangerous on the downside, with very little on the up, except for the tremendous sensation it gave, short-lived but long savored.... It was his way of coming alive and it would never change.”
Though it is arranged chronologically and covers all aspects of JFK’s all too brief life, Matthews’s book is built more on personal reminiscences rather than on more formal research. But whatever it lacks in the accouterments of an academic biography, the book is rich in thoughtful observations and insights.
Even readers who are knowledgeable about the life and times of Kennedy will come away with a much deeper and richer perspective of this legendary figure. By coupling what he learned from friends and colleagues of Kennedy with his own astute knowledge of politics, Matthews has produced a valuable addition to the literature about the life and career of our 35th president.
It is impossible to read a biography of Kennedy that is built on personal recollections of friends, colleagues, and opponents without finding similarities and differences with today’s political world. For example, the self-indulgence that Matthews finds in Kennedy has, sadly, become all too common in contemporary politics. On the other hand, Kennedy’s ability to weigh both sides of an issue and assume the legitimacy of the other side is something that one can only wish would, once again, become a feature of our national political life.