JOHN F. KENNEDY: A Biography
By Michael O'Brien. Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 971 pp. $35
"Where is the heart in the man?," a contemporary of John F. Kennedy asked, and more than four decades and several hundred books later, it remains a good question. Although Michael O'Brien never satisfactorily answers it, no one else has either, and his diligent, exhaustive, nearly thousand-page, decade-in-the-making biography provides more evidence that this intensely private man, who was so adept at compartmentalizing his friends and emotions, may have placed his heart in a lock box without a key.
Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy after their second presidential debate in 1960
(Richard Darcey / Twp)
Unlike other recent Kennedy biographers (most notably Robert Dallek in his 2003 An Unfinished Life), O'Brien offers no new scandals or revelations. Instead, he lays out every major and minor dispute surrounding Kennedy's life, then presents the theories and interpretations offered by such diverse authors as Dallek, Herbert Parmet and Nigel Hamilton. O'Brien, a retired history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley, weighs the evidence, considers earlier authors' conclusions and renders a judgment that is usually thoughtful and convincing, sometimes tossing a bouquet to the winner along the lines of "Biographer Nigel Hamilton has provided the most richly detailed account of Kennedy's courtship with [the Danish beauty Inga] Arvad."
Considering the number of Kennedy books that are in our future, it may be rash to credit anyone with having the last word on anything, but it is difficult to imagine anyone improving on some of O'Brien's Solomonic rulings. He refutes allegations that Kennedy bought the 1960 West Virginia primary, pointing out that the FBI, the West Virginia attorney general and the Charleston Gazette all investigated the election, and none "uncovered any noteworthy evidence of wrongdoing by Kennedy's campaign." He reminds anyone tempted to dismiss Kennedy as a lightweight confection of charm and beauty that, by and large, "it wasn't John Kennedy who downgraded issues and upgraded charm" but the media and the public. He is particularly good on the subject of Rose Kennedy, scolding her critics for failing to recognize that "hands-on mothering was not fashionable in her day" and noting that then-popular theories cautioned mothers not to demonstrate physical affection for their children. After considering the evidence that Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage was the work of ghostwriters (especially wordsmith Theodore Sorensen), he concludes that "Kennedy deeply believed he wrote enough of Profiles to claim real authorship. He may have been mistaken in his judgment, but there is no evidence he tried to deceive. He could accept the Pulitzer Prize with a clear conscience."
Unfortunately, readers wishing to explore the basis for judgments like these will discover that O'Brien's publisher, St. Martin's, has decided that footnotes are a quaint anachronism and has excised them from the massive final edition of John F. Kennedy. In their place is a sniveling note blaming "length and production constraints" for their omission and identifying a Web site where they can be downloaded. Anyone who is unsatisfied with this arrangement should search out a set of the bound galleys sent to reviewers; these "constraints" did not prevent footnotes from being included in them.
At times, O'Brien smothers his verdicts with unnecessary details. He includes excerpts from a banal telephone conversation between JFK and Arvad, quotations from favorable reviews of one of JFK's favorite books (a biography of the 19th-century British statesman Lord Melbourne) and the revelation that when Sen. Joseph McCarthy visited the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port in July 1949, he "arrived at Cape Cod on a Northeast Airlines flight."
Other details are more telling. The fierce criticisms that Kennedy and Sorensen lodged against an authorized 1960 biography by historian James MacGregor Burns are a catalogue of Kennedy's weaknesses: a detachment that some might construe as a lack of moral passion ("the impression should never be given that he does not believe deeply in what he says," Sorensen wrote in his critique), his timidity in dealing with McCarthy ("implies it is a much larger issue in his life than it actually has been"), the appearance that he was not deeply religious ("not true" and "certainly unverifiable") and the state of his health. O'Brien slams Sorensen for having "seriously distorted the truth by insisting to Burns that Kennedy was not plagued by illness at Choate" and notes that after this fusillade, Burns made almost two dozen changes in the manuscript, "some of them major."
O'Brien's book suggests that there may be little new to learn about the life of John F. Kennedy but that his life still has plenty to teach us. (The same lessons can be gleaned from Parmet and Dallek's shorter, more elegant biographies.) Some passages in John F. Kennedy are such a reproach to the current state of affairs that they leap from the page. We learn, for example, that JFK had a "graceful command of language" and was "invariably sharp, sparkling, and supremely confident" when he answered reporters' questions. Before meeting with a hostile audience of Protestant ministers in Houston during the 1960 campaign, he vetoed suggestions that their questions be screened, even though the event was being televised, saying that it would make it "seem too contrived." O'Brien also reminds us that Kennedy held 64 press conferences during his abbreviated term and "avidly read major newspapers" throughout the day. His administration "opened itself to the press" and "released everything that could be safely released." After meeting with Kennedy at the White House, one newspaper publisher remarked, "I was amazed. He did not dodge a single question." O'Brien writes that Kennedy felt so strongly about his responsibility for the 1961 Bay of Pigs catastrophe that he asked Sorensen, "How could I have been so far off base?" By accepting the blame, O'Brien writes, "Kennedy earned respect from both career [civil] servants and the public."
None of these attributes is part of some Kennedy DNA that can never be replicated, and there is no reason why, if the American people demanded them in a leader again, they could not have them. That O'Brien's book reminds us of this is enough in itself to recommend it, particularly to younger readers to whom this may be news.
Thurston Clarke is the author of "Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America" and the forthcoming "A Prayer For Our Country: Robert Kennedy's Last Campaign."