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A profile in secret courage

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, Robert Dallek, Little, Brown: 712 pp., $30

June 01, 2003|Jack Newfield | Jack Newfield is the author of numerous books, including "Robert Kennedy: A Memoir," to be reissued in the fall by Nation Books.

John F. Kennedy had the intellect of James Madison and the libido of James Brown. He had charm, wit, a remarkable wife, a fortunate face and a special style. But judged on substance and accomplishment, he does not rank in the company of our greatest presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and FDR. He had only those 1,000 days in the White House. Yet the public's interest in him seems to keep growing rather than fading with the passage of time. He will be dead 40 years this November, but the books keep coming.

"An Unfinished Life," by presidential historian Robert Dallek, is among the best: comprehensive, judicious, evenhanded, original. It has the sober judgment and nuanced accuracy that makes it ring true in all the controversial and tricky parts. It contains original material from the archives of Dr. Janet Travell on JFK's multiple health problems, which were more severe than we realized and that caused him tremendous pain. He had to take a pharmacy of medications every day. Kennedy kept his maladies secret and even lied about them, but he was also his own secret profile in courage in the way he applied his iron will to coping with chronic suffering.

The book also contains new information about JFK's erotic escapades, which, Dallek concludes, "were no impediment to his being an effective president." (I quibble with this assessment. JFK's dangerous liaisons with Judith Exner, who was also mob boss Sam Giancana's mistress, and with East German call girl Ellen Rometsch, who may have been a security risk, made the president vulnerable to that master blackmailer J. Edgar Hoover, who wanted to keep his job.)

"An Unfinished Life" advances our knowledge of Kennedy through Dallek's access to previously sealed medical records as well as to oral histories, letters, White House tapes and the archives at the Kennedy Library. He has done the follow-up interviewing necessary to flesh out these archival scoops. The prose style, however, is only serviceable. Dallek's writing lacks the evocative lyricism of Robert Caro, Richard Reeves, Marshall Frady and Taylor Branch. The sentences walk but don't fly.

This biography, however, reminds us of why we remain so fascinated with the martyred leader, who, before his death, was just discovering his stride. We tend to take it for granted now, but JFK was America's first Roman Catholic president, and his life touched the soul of Irish Americans by breaking a barrier of bigotry. As the great sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once wrote, "I stopped feeling like a mick that day Kennedy was elected president."

Second, Kennedy died young, with unfulfilled and untested potential. When he was murdered, he still had unresolved conflicts and dramas involving Cuba, civil rights, Vietnam and the Cold War. And he left us with the tantalizing what-if of a second term dangling like an unfinished song. There is still that sense of "We hardly knew ye," as the Irish say. American popular culture seems obsessed with a pantheon of artists who died young: James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Bruce Lee, Tupac Shakur, Sam Cooke, Hank Williams, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin. As the handsome young president, JFK remains the biggest star in the industry of tragic fame.

Also, JFK's true measure as a leader is problematic. Who was this cool, reckless president who so brilliantly averted nuclear war with artful diplomacy during the Cuban missile crisis but who also appointed segregationist judges in the South during the civil rights movement? Why didn't he fully embrace racial equality and voting rights until his televised speech in June 1963?

In February 1966, Robert F. Kennedy was preparing for an appearance on "Meet the Press" by having Arthur Schlesinger and Fred Dutton impersonate reporters and ask him sharp questions about Vietnam. During this rehearsal Schlesinger asked Kennedy to assess JFK's responsibility for the origins of America's involvement. "I don't know what would be best," RFK began, "to say he didn't spend much time thinking about Vietnam or to say that he did and messed it up." Then RFK thrust his hand up towards heaven and asked, "Which, brother? Which?"

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