By Thomas C. Reeves

Free Press. 510 pp.$24.95

THERE ARE no surprises in this biography of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: no new revelations about East Room policymaking, no unduly original insights into the Kennedy legend, no fresh breaths of scandal. Instead A Question of Character performs two modest but valuable services: It brings together in a single volume all the existing information about Kennedy, much of which was first reported in books or articles of widely varying import and intentions; and, as its title suggests, it undertakes to assess Kennedy not merely in political or mythological terms, but in moral ones.

Thomas C. Reeves, a historian whose previous work has been devoted primarily to the life and career of Joe McCarthy, is a clinical but scarcely dispassionate observer of Kennedy's life. At the outset he admits that "I have always liked John F. Kennedy" and briefly chronicles a personal history of admiration bordering on infatuation that will be familiar to innumerable members of the Kennedy generation, myself included. But it is precisely because of the depth of his sympathies, and his clearly undiminished belief in the principles he once imagined Kennedy to represent, that Reeves's judgment is all the more convincing, not to mention damning; hell hath no contempt like that of the acolyte betrayed.

This isn't the word Reeves actually uses, but it permeates his book all the same: the sense that Kennedy, whose morally charged rhetoric was a speechwriter's sham and whose private behavior was despicable, was guilty of nothing less than betrayal of the American people. As Reeves writes of Kennedy's singularly ill-advised and compromising relationship with Marilyn Monroe: "Such irresponsibility was an affront to the people who had elected Kennedy in the belief that the power and prestige of the presidency were precious and would come before all self-indulgence."

The lamentable truth was that to Kennedy self-indulgence was all. Like the rapacious father who was the "major figure" in his life, Kennedy "was without any guiding intellectual, philosophical or moral vision in his pursuit of office" or anything else, only the all-embracing conviction that "politics, like life, was about winning." Whether he was trying to win his way into elective office or into the bed of a woman who had caught his insatiable fancy, Kennedy had "no principle higher than winning the game," no goal more urgent than that of satisfying -- however fleetingly -- his appetite for conquest.

More emphatically and persuasively than any previous biographer, Reeves locates the vital center of Kennedy's life squarely in his father. Joe Kennedy taught him that attending church was proper behavior but that the moral precepts taught therein were essentially irrelevant: "Real men were profane, aggressive and ruthless; they took what they wanted and broke the rules when necessary. Each of the boys, following in their father's footsteps, would strongly identify with the church and always attend weekly mass, while doing what was to their advantage with little or no regard to its moral content."

This isn't hypocrisy, it's moral obtuseness, an utter inability to distinguish right conduct from wrong. Kennedy's character, "so much a reflection of his father's single-minded pursuit of political power and personal indulgence, lacked a moral center, a reference point that went beyond self-aggrandizement." There are bits and pieces of evidence that toward the end of his life Kennedy began to sense, however vaguely, a moral dimension to the universe, most particularly in his willingness to reach an accommodation with Khrushchev that demonstrated "a sensitivity about nuclear war that many others in Washington and elsewhere did not share." But these were only bits and pieces. The essential man remained as he was, and Reeves's judgment is conclusive:

"The real Kennedy -- as opposed to the celebrated hero espoused by the Kennedy family, the media, and the Camelot School -- lacked greatness in large part because he lacked the qualities inherent in good character. While he had ample courage and at times showed considerable prudence, he was deficient in integrity, compassion and temperance. He was not a crusading reformer, especially early in his administration, because such idealism was low on his agenda of personal priorities. He backed unwise and clandestine activities in Cuba, Laos and Vietnam largely because he was oblivious to the moral content of arguments against them. He failed to be a true moral leader of the American people because he lacked the conviction and commitment that create such exemplars of character for all to emulate."

Yet people sought to emulate him all the same: not because of his actual character but because of the image that he conveyed. Reeves quotes an official of the State Department: "I was there when {the Kennedys} left for Vienna, and they looked great. My God, they looked beautiful." That is what all of us thought, and Kennedy knew just how to exploit it, how to substitute the image of the exemplar for its true character. Beginning with the historic first triumph of imagery -- the opening debate against Richard Nixon in 1960 -- Kennedy quickly became a master manipulator, and in so doing opened the way for the age of imagery in which we now live. It is almost certainly his most enduring contribution to our national life, but it is hardly one deserving of our gratitude.

On the other hand, A Question of Character does suggest that for something else we must be grateful. Though Reeves does not quite come right out and say so, his analysis suggests that the assassination of John F. Kennedy, however cruel and ghastly, may have spared the nation something even worse than the prolonged orgy of grief and hagiography that followed it. He suggests that the gentlemen's agreement by which details of Kennedy's private life were kept secret might well have been violated, for whatever reason, during a second term, and that a vote of impeachment might well have followed.

This, had it come to pass, could have been more damaging even than Watergate. The spectacle of a president of the United States on trial for illicit liaisons within and without the White House, for questionable relationships with ranking figures of the underworld -- this would have been more than the United States of the mid-1960s could have stomached. The proceedings would have torn us apart in ways we can scarcely imagine, and left us with a cynicism about politics by contrast with which the residue of Watergate would seem a mild case of disenchantment. Better that the handsome young president died a mythical if not actual hero, and that the true story of his character emerged so tentatively and gradually that we were given time to come to terms with it. Had we been forced to bear in a single blow the full import of the story Thomas Reeves tells, it would have shattered us.