The wordy subtitle of Thurston Clarke’s latest book on the Kennedys tells it all: Like his two previous ones — “The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America” (2008) and “Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America” (2004) — this is an exercise in unabashed Kennedy worship. To be sure, in the subtitle we are spared “Inspired America” and “Changed America,” but “The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President” is a pretty massive assertion, especially the second half of it, and it’s one that cannot be sustained by the known facts.
Yet if Clarke (or, more likely, the person in his publisher’s office who dreamed up the subtitle) strains too hard to give weight to his infatuation with John F. Kennedy, “JFK’s Last Hundred Days” is a considerably better book than one would expect from a hagiographer. Beginning a half-century ago this week — on Aug. 7, 1963 — Clarke patiently walks the reader through the 100 days leading to the terrible end of the story in Dallas. Relying primarily (though not exclusively) on secondary sources, Clarke does an interesting and in many ways persuasive job of what he proposes at the beginning: “to view John F. Kennedy through every prism and search through all his compartments during the crucial last hundred days of his life — days that saw him finally beginning to realize his potential as a man and a president — in order to solve the most tantalizing mystery of all: not who killed him, but who he was when he was killed, and where he would have led us.”
Note that in his actual text Clarke is more modest in his claims than whoever wrote the overwrought subtitle. He merely tells us that Kennedy at the time of his assassination was “beginning to realize his potential as a man and a president,” which the evidence strongly suggests is true. He “wanted to be celebrated as a great man who had shaped his times,” Clarke writes, but probably Kennedy himself knew better than anyone that on Nov. 22, 1963, he was a long way from achieving that lofty ambition. In both his public and his private lives, though, he had made significant progress. He had presided over the writing, enactment and signing of the test ban treaty; he had delivered what was to date the most compelling presidential speech in American history on civil rights; and he had begun to confront the terrible implications of that quagmire called Vietnam. He had lost a son, Patrick, only days after the premature baby’s birth, but his marriage seemed to have strengthened, and he delighted in, and doted on, his children, Caroline and John.
The difficulty, of course, is that he was a serial philanderer. Somehow — Lord knows how — Jacqueline Kennedy seems to have come to terms with this and perhaps even genuinely to have loved him despite it, but it was the snake in the grass as he approached the presidential election of 1964. Just about everyone expected him to be reelected, especially if (also as expected) Barry Goldwater was the Republican nominee, but the venal director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, had compiled an incriminating dossier on him, and scandals on Capitol Hill revolving around the influence-peddler and sexual procurer Bobby Baker threatened to bring his secret life out into the open. He was walking on a very thin wire, even as his prospects seemed so bright.
Here, though, we venture into the realm of might-have-been. Clarke — though he does not avoid calling Kennedy’s womanizing “so compulsive and careless that even those who believed they knew him well would struggle for decades to fathom it” — has no better idea than any of the rest of us whether this would have burst into the open had he survived to make the campaign of 1964. Clarke does plunge fairly deeply into might-have-been with regard to what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam, arguing that he was preparing to reduce the American presence there with the ultimate aim of ending it, leaving it to the Vietnamese to settle their future for themselves. Kennedy himself had fought valiantly in World War II and had a loathing of war: “Kennedy was not a pacifist. But his experiences in the Pacific, his fear of a nuclear war, and his sensitivity to the suffering that modern warfare inflicted on noncombatants, particularly children, all pushed him” toward pulling the United States out of Vietnam. Clarke believes — and there is fairly persuasive evidence to support that belief — that Kennedy felt he couldn’t do that until after the 1964 election, for fear of being cast as an appeaser, but that he would be free to do so once reelected.
Kennedy also hoped to push through sweeping civil rights legislation, but we tend to forget that at the time of his death Congress was still hamstrung by segregationist Southern Democrats against whom he had made little real progress. Had he lived, even had he been reelected by a decisive margin, that opposition would not have withered away. The best that probably could have been hoped for was an unsatisfactory compromise, as opposed to the genuinely effective legislation that Lyndon Johnson got through Congress in 1964 and ’65 by exploiting the nation’s grief over his assassinated predecessor.
Clarke is on firmer ground when it comes to Kennedy’s evolution as a man. He can be a trifle soupy when writing about the changes in his marriage, but it does seem true that the death of Patrick was a terrible blow that brought him and Jacqueline closer together rather than tore them apart, as often happens to couples who suffer grievous losses. Initially he had resisted fatherhood, but as Caroline and then John Jr. began to walk and talk, he discovered that fatherhood could be quite wonderful and behaved accordingly. Clarke believes that he had matured into a person of “kindness, humor, intelligence, and humanity” and portrays him with sympathy and candor in a long paragraph toward the book’s end that deserves to be quoted in full:
“His friends knew a man who was kind and gregarious, delighted in children, venerated courage, paid excessive attention to ceremony and his appearance, possessed an irreverent sense of humor, and was a secret romantic, yet also what [the journalist Hugh] Sidey called ‘a serious man on a serious mission.’ They knew a man who had brought his competitive spirit to the greatest contest of all — that with other presidents for a favorable verdict from the high court of history. They knew a man who was chronically impatient with anything that bored him, had a chip on his shoulder about the WASP establishment, lied easily and often about his health and sex life, and could be too cautious politically but too reckless when it came to . . . extramarital affairs, and exposing himself to crowds such as the one greeting him at Love Field [in Dallas]. Because of his passion for secrecy and his practice of compartmentalizing his life, no one among his friends and aides knew all of this, but they knew enough to know that his courage and mendacity, generosity and sudden rages, idealism and cunning, had made him a very complicated yet appealing man. And because he had succeeded in communicating some of this to the American people, they sensed that despite his wealth and education, he was not only like them but also genuinely liked them, and really did prefer the workers in the kitchen to the WASPs in the dining room, the middle-class Americans greeting him at Love Field to the businessmen awaiting him at the [Dallas] Trade Mart.”
That he was denied the opportunity to test himself to the fullest may well be one of the great calamities of American history. Certainly had he been granted enough time to extract us from Vietnam, the agonies of the 1960s and ’70s might never have been inflicted on us, and that alone is reason enough to mourn his loss. But, purely and simply, we don’t know anything except that Lee Harvey Oswald altered the history of the United States, and perhaps the world, in ways that will forever be mysteries. That is about as firm a conclusion as I can draw from this heartfelt if rather overly partisan book.
JFK’S LAST HUNDRED DAYS
The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President
By Thurston Clarke
Penguin Press. 432 pp. $29.95