FORTY WAYS TO LOOK AT JFK

By Gretchen Rubin

Ballantine. 387 pp. $24.95

Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film "Rashomon," portraying a dramatic rape and a murder as seen from four conflicting perspectives, introduced a new word into the English vernacular, Rashomon-like, to describe the rendering of an event or person from multiple, clashing points of view. That such an ungainly term became so widely used shows that it filled a lexical need, perhaps a newly urgent one.

Historians didn't need "Rashomon" to grasp that traditional narratives, told as if from an objective, omniscient viewpoint, often could not do justice to their subjects -- and that a Rashomon-like approach might sometimes work better. Although I know of no school of thought that embraces the multi-perspectival approach as a self-conscious creed, various historians have used it to transcend what they have seen as stale debates. In 1949, for instance, the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl published "Napoleon, For and Against," which examined the French emperor's life by tracing how different scholars had told it.

Such studies, though still far from routine, have proliferated of late. James Goodman's "Stories of Scottsboro" (1994) used shifting accounts of the 1931 case of alleged rape in Alabama to bring out deep-seated conflicts over race, gender and region. Ron Rosenbaum's "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil" (1998) considered varying interpretations of Hitler's life and ideas to probe the source of human evil. Richard Fox's "Trials of Intimacy" (1999), about a celebrated 19th-century sex scandal, and Eric Foner's "The Story of American Freedom" (1998) have, in very different ways, integrated competing viewpoints to better understand a concept or event. In my own book, "Nixon's Shadow" (2003), I tried to use contrasting portraits of the image-obsessed Richard M. Nixon to understand, among other things, how "image" itself came to dominate our political discourse.

In "Forty Ways to Look at JFK," which assembles dissonant takes on John F. Kennedy's personality, policies and image in a single volume, Gretchen Rubin does not cite these or similar works. Indeed, she purports to have devised a new genre: "the 'forty-ways' structure." (Her last book was "Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill"; before that, she wrote "Power Money Fame Sex: A User's Guide.") "I wanted to write a different kind of biography . . . something altogether new," she writes in the new book. But she is traversing well-trodden ground; several books already exist just on the topic of Kennedy's images.

Unlike many of the aforementioned works, Rubin's menu of Kennedy riffs doesn't add up to a broader argument -- either about her subject (as, say, Foner's point about the contested meaning of "freedom") or some larger issue (Rosenbaum's theses about evil). It serves up a wealth of old chestnuts about JFK in a fractured sequence that yields more confusion than insight.

Rubin has an impressive background: She attended Yale College and Yale Law School, edited the Yale Law Journal and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. (She is also the daughter-in-law of former treasury secretary Robert E. Rubin, to whom she dedicates the book.) Her intelligence comes through in the clean writing and in her capacity to digest vast amounts of secondary literature. A few clever chapters -- notably one in which she juxtaposes admiring Camelot-era statements about JFK with later evidence debunking them -- have bite. But the main impression is to wonder how a writer with such gold-plated training could write such a slight book.

Rubin's structure is a gimmick, apparently devised without regard to how specifically it might illuminate Kennedy's complexity. Why, for starters, 40 ways? Fewer chapters would have allowed her to delve more deeply into certain subjects; by the time she reviews the standard background about his affairs or his civil rights policy or his assassination, she's already on to the next thing. And it's not clear what she means by a "way": Sometimes it refers to an interpretation of JFK; sometimes a summary of one aspect of his life (health or marriage or death); sometimes a focus on a single attribute (being "cool" or "promiscuous").

Without criteria to govern her choice of topics, chapters blur together. "Kennedy's Use of the Media: How He Reached the Public," "The Idea of John F. Kennedy: How He Presented Himself," "Kennedy as Hero: How He Saw Himself," "Kennedy in Crisis: How He Shaped His Image" -- the observations in these sections repeat each other. In contrast, other chapters -- "Kennedy as Husband: Two Views," "Kennedy in Vietnam: Two Views" -- include within them more than one "way" of looking at JFK, making the number 40 seem all the more arbitrary.

Finally, "Forty Ways" suffers from the gee-whiz enthusiasm of a student traipsing through fascinating intellectual terrain for the first time. Rubin is shrewd enough to know that the Kennedy mystique -- the Kennedy image in the American mind, as historians once would have put it -- still awaits a magisterial treatment. By reading dozens of biographies, memoirs, polemics and ephemera, she primed herself to write it. She therefore must know that the musings piled upon each other here will strike all but the most unread newcomers as dispiritingly familiar.