CERTAIN MEN are destined for only the highest places. John Kennedy was such a man. He was an undistinguished member of the House of Representatives. As a U.S. senator for eight years, he was skillful in framing certain issues and projecting his own viewpoint to a national audience but took little part in the give and take of drafting and enacting legislation.

It was only when Kennedy entered the White House and began to deploy the powers and the prestige of the presidency that his real intellectual quality and his political genius became evident. In two years and 10 months in office, he established his mastery over the political scene, captured the imagination of the nation and much of the world, and became a legend in his own time. His sudden death cut him off before he reached the full range of his anticipated accomplishment and sealed his legend at an unnaturally early stage. Poignant lines come to mind from A.E. Housman's "To an Athlete Dying Young":

Smart lad, to slip betimes away

From fields where glory does not stay

And early though the laurel grows,

It withers quicker than the rose

But has the Kennedy legend withered? The outpouring of books and television programs on this 20th anniversary of his death would indicate that it has not.

For Kennedy to become president at 43 was the rough equivalent in our much larger, more complex, more bureaucratic society of men such as Alexander Hamilton, Pitt the Younger, and Napoleon reaching national power and legendary status in their early thirties. Like them, he was at ease exercising the greatest of authority. He would probably have been an indifferent performer in a subordinate post, say, as secretary of housing or of transportation. For his strength was not in day to day administration or in the myriad details of policy. Rather, his greatness lay in the historical sense, the instinct for words, and the insight into human nature that enabled him to distinguish the great issues of his time from the many small issues and to define them for others in a memorable and vivid way. He had, too, that mysterious amalgam of boldness and caution that enabled him to act upon those issues with the acuity and force of a statesman.

He understood the glory of words and their importance in moving men to assent and to action. But he did not mistake words for deeds or let his later actions become captive to his earlier words. This has confused many commentators who lazily quote, for example, the soaring rhetoric of his inaugural message and mistakenly juxtapose it to the events in Vietnam in 1963 and afterward.

The theme of his exercise of power was the search for compromise, for common ground, for the prudent, well managed, viable solution. He could hang tough and take huge risks if the cause were great enough as he demonstrated in the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962. But having negotiated himself out of that danger, he followed not with confrontation but with conciliation in the form of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and the first major sale of grain to the Soviet Union. The same pattern emerged in his dealings with the business community after the steel price dispute and with southern governors in various civil rights controversies.

Kennedy never stopped learning and growing. He was a wiser and stronger president in November 1963 than he was in April 1961 and would have been even better if he had lived through January 1969. Granted that Kennedy is of lesser historical size than Lincoln, their deaths were comparable in their traumatic effect on contemporaries and in the consequences of the loss of their leadership to the nation. If Lincoln had lived, Reconstruction would have been considerably different. If Kennedy had lived, there would have been no Vietnam war and no Watergate. (It is almost certain that neither Johnson nor Nixon would have gained the presidency.) It is impossible to imagine Kennedy, with his tactile sensitivity to public opinion, digging his heels into wet concrete as Johnson did in conducting an unpopular war for more than three years or perpetuating that war for another four years as Nixon did by deceit and dissimulation.

Kennedy was the last genuinely popular president, widely admired and respected by people of all ages and capable of exciting the minds of foreigners as well as Americans. In recent months, an exile from the Soviet Union, an emigrant couple from South Africa, and an Italian intellectual have volunteered to me comments about how much Kennedy meant to them when he was alive and how severe was the shock of his death. In short, he was a hero.

Inevitably, it has become the fashion of late to denigrate him. Garry Wills' empty and overpraised The Kennedy Imprisonment last year is one example of this fashion. But those who deny the force and genuineness of Kennedy's appeal are simply testifying that they were either not alive at the time or were not conscious of what was going on around them.

In contrast to such books, William Manchester's One Brief Shining Moment is a sensitive and moving celebration of Kennedy the man and the legend. It is enriched by excellent photographs, some of them new to me and depicting Kennedy in diverse ways.

Some Kennedy admirers will find Manchester's occasional lapses into sentimentality cloying. They may wish he had disciplined his enthusiasm within a more austere style as Joseph Alsop did last year in his warm but not uncritical memoir of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Manchester's writing also shows signs of haste or insufficient checking. It is speckled with trivial errors. "Knocko" McCormack was the late Speaker's brother not his nephew. Kennedy could hardly have made one remark to his wife in 1962 and another to her, "years later." But such blemishes aside, Manchester achieves his aim of bringing Kennedy alive for his readers and restoring the atmosphere of the early '60s over which he presided.

Ralph G. Martin's A Hero for Our Timesis somewhat less successful. This long, informal biography is the workmanlike performance readers have come to expect of this author. It is overstuffed with anecdotes, quotes, and "inside information" presented straightforwardly without Manchester's literary grace. Intellectually, the book is shapeless. Although the tone is friendly and affirmative, Martin includes quantities of gossip, some of it contradictory and some of it unpleasant. In the end, because Martin imposes no coherent view on his massive material, he acknowledges that Kennedy's lasting appeal is "mysterious" to him.

There have been better books than these about Kennedy. There are the solid memoirs by Theodore Sorenson and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. or the affectionate Johnny, We hardly Knew Ye by Kenneth O'Donnell and Dave Powers. There will be other, better books in the future. But for a 20th commemoration of a tragic event, these two books in their different ways rekindle memories of an extraordinary man who was and will remain a hero.