Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what the Kennedys ever did for your country. Bring the monkey’s paw of being telegenic into politics? Of all the things that the American political system needed, this was the last. And whatever it was that the Kennedys did, they did most of it a long time ago. The assassination of John F. Kennedy is almost as distant in time as the assassination of William McKinley was when Kennedy took office.
McKinley, by the way, also had great personal popularity. And greater political support, having won reelection in 1900 by a margin of almost a million votes out of some 14 million cast. McKinley’s murder by anarchist Leon Czolgosz grieved and shocked the nation (and gave rise to conspiracy theories) the same way Kennedy’s murder did.
And yet we didn’t endure six subsequent decades of public figures deemed “McKinleyesque.” Despite a late-1890s economic boom, fiscal and monetary policies more prudent than Kennedy’s, and a Spanish-American War conducted with a success very unlike the Vietnam conflict, the McKinley administration wasn’t mythologized in Broadway terms. No one called the McKinley years “The Mikado Era” (the hit musical of the day). The Kennedy tale ought to be finished. But JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century 1917–1956, by Pulitzer Prize–winning Harvard history professor Fredrik Logevall, brings us no closure and implicitly threatens a second 1957–1963 volume and even—spare us—a Legacy third.
History has tried to end the Kennedy saga. In a sense it has been “ever-ending.” By all that’s just and right, the story of the Kennedys’ expansion of their greed from pelf to power should have come to a halt when amoral, priapic, stock-jobbing, isolationist, defeatist, Hitler-appeasing anti-Semite Joseph Kennedy Sr. was recalled from his absurd posting as ambassador to Great Britain and resigned in disgrace in 1941.
Instead the saga ended in a sad heroic irony when Joe Senior’s designated substitute for his own political aspirations, a son with equally obnoxious ideas, Joe Jr., died in combat in 1944.
The saga ended in horror in 1963.
It ended in horror again in 1968.
It ended in callous manslaughter on Chappaquiddick in 1969. Never mind that Ted Kennedy went on for another 40 years as “the Lion of the Senate.” His was an animal act in the political circus with Teddy allowing the bien-pensant to stick their heads in his mouth.
And then the saga ended sometime between 1986 and 1998 while Robert F. Kennedy’s son Joseph P. Kennedy II served six lackluster terms in congress.
And then it ended between 1994 and 2010 while Ted’s son, the drug-addled Patrick J. Kennedy, served eight even more lusterless terms in congress.
It ended in 1995 when John F. Kennedy Jr. founded the frivolous politics-as-lifestyle magazine George. It certainly ended in 1999 when John crashed his plane, killing himself, his wife, and his sister-in-law.
It ended in 2009 when John’s sister, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, striving to be appointed to fill Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat, used the phrase “you know” 168 times in a 30-minute interview with cable TV station NY1.
And it ended in 2020 when Joe Kennedy II’s son, Joe Kennedy III, after four of the seemingly hereditary dim terms in the House of Representatives, ran in the Democratic Senate primary against incumbent Ed Markey—and lost. Kennedy and Markey had no political or ideological (or for that matter ethnic) differences. Joe ran against Ed because Ed was old and in the way. It was the first Massachusetts election where a Kennedy had failed. Even the Associated Press, never quick on political-trend uptakes, ran a September 2, 2020, headline: “Kennedy Loss in Massachusetts May Mark End of ‘Camelot’ Era.”
It ends. But it never stops. And the Kennedy ceaselessness always loops back to John Fitzgerald. Him and his damn charm.
In 2013, as the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination approached, the New York Times published an article by executive editor Jill Abramson. The Times—always standing ready at the eternal flame, Bic lighter in hand—titled the article “Kennedy, the Elusive President.” Ms. Abramson wrote, in what I suppose she thought was a lament, “An estimated 40,000 books about him have been published since his death… and not one really outstanding one.”
Logevall’s is another. In his JFK and all the rest of these “not really outstanding” books, the problem isn’t Kennedy’s elusiveness. The problem is our elusiveness about Kennedy. We don’t want to grasp and hold in our minds the reality of the man. Nor do we want to dwell on the fecklessness and mediocrity of his kith and kin. After two generations of partisan tarnishing, we want a political memory that gleams.
Don’t let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment…
A false memory will do. (Camelot lyricist Alan Jay Lerner went to prep school with Jack.) We’re afraid—no, we know—that if we inspect John F. Kennedy too closely, we’ll wonder what we saw in him. To the extent that there’s even a real “we” left to wonder. Anyone old enough to vote for Kennedy in 1960 is over 80 now. (And 49.55 percent of them voted for Nixon.) But the distant, hazy, reminiscent glow lingers, especially in high places such as the Harvard history department.
No thanks, however, to this particular book. Logevall does his clumsy best to walk upon his knees to the shrine. Yet JFK is a life of a saint that makes a hula hoop of his halo. The facts haggle with the hagiography. Logevall has done too much research. The devil (or his lapsed human instrument) is in the details, and so very many details of Kennedy’s life are provided here that Logevall turns into an accidental iconoclast.
HE TRIES hard to portray Jack Kennedy as an important, serious, substantive political figure. As the venerated modern philosopher Yoda says: “Do or do not. There is no try.” He attempts to demonstrate Kennedy’s innate sympathy for the poor by dragging out a prep-school essay on social justice. But then Jack describes the fate of those less fortunate than he in terms that would have birthed a million hostile stories about Mitt Romney: “A boy is born in the slums, of a poor family, has evil companions, no education, becomes a loafer, as that is all there is to do, turns into a drunken bum, and dies, worthless.”
Logevall wants us to see Jack as a keen and thoughtful observer of international politics, even on a 1937 college-summer-vacation jaunt through Europe. Then he quotes the kid. “Fascism seems to treat them well,” Jack wrote in his diary after two days in Milan. At an inn in Munich, Jack noted, “Had a talk with the proprietor who is quite the Hitler fan. There is no doubt about it that these dictators are more popular in the country than outside due to their effective propaganda.”
After graduation in 1939, Jack (with hospitality and official contacts arranged by ambassador dad) traveled through Eastern Europe and the Middle East. Logevall insists on taking us along. According to Jack, after visiting Danzig, “the situation up there is very complicated.” Jack finds the USSR “crude, backward, and hopelessly bureaucratic.” In Palestine Jack thinks…thinks what people who think they are thinkers think to this very day: “The important thing is to try to work out a solution that will work… two autonomous districts giving them both self-government.”
Logevall doesn’t let us turn our eyes away from Jack’s diary account of his 1945 postwar visit to Germany. “You can,” Kennedy wrote, “easily understand how that within a few years Hitler will emerge from the hatred that surrounds him now as one of the most significant figures who ever lived.” Well, “significant” is one way to put it. Logevall’s take: “The phrasing was…insensitive.”
Logevall makes much of Jack’s Harvard senior thesis, which combined tepid criticism of appeasement with lukewarm apology for it. Logevall defends its supposed author: “Subsequent claims that Jack…must have had help with the organization, writing, and analysis, do not hold up under scrutiny.” He writes this even though he notes, in the same paragraph, “the important help he received from Seymour [a Joe Sr. PR man], Hopper [a Harvard professor], and Wild [another]” plus an “army of stenographers and typists.”
Logevall makes much of Jack’s thesis being published as Why England Slept and becoming a bestseller—even as he himself details how Joe Sr. leaned on publishers, connived to get Henry Luce to write a forward (Joe Sr. was “carrying on a long-term love affair with the man’s wife”), and arranged for a rewrite by New York Times Washington bureau chief and self-effacing Kennedy sycophant Arthur Krock.
By the time we get to Kennedy’s 1956 Pulitzer-Prize–winning bestseller, Profiles in Courage, Logevall gives up and admits that Ted Sorensen wrote it. Don’t worry—Logevall doesn’t surrender. “Certainly it never occurred to Kennedy or Sorensen or anyone else involved in the project that they might be acting unethically,” he writes. And “in core respects Kennedy was the book’s author.”
Logevall flails around for an example of Kennedy’s own political courage. Jack’s sick-in-bed dodge to keep from voting on the censure of his dad’s old pal Joe McCarthy must therefore be quickly passed over. Kennedy’s equivocating stance on Brown v. Board of Education (“He bobbed and weaved”) has to be skipped by. Logevall whistles as he walks past the graveyard of Kennedy’s 1954 judgment on Vietnam. (“In a television interview, he in effect called Indochina a lost cause.”)
Finally Logevall resorts to Jack’s brave Senate vote for… the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Port of Boston pooh-bahs, you see, looked askance upon it. Logevall quotes Joe Healy: “If ever I saw a person make a decision in conscience and on merits… it was the St. Lawrence Seaway decision made by Jack Kennedy.” Joe Healey was one of Joe Kennedy lawyers.
SO: He was a man of no abiding political principles, a plagiaristic pseudo-intellectual, a liar about his health and fitness, and a gross philanderer. But, it turns out, he also wasn’t a very nice guy.
Logevall collects telling anecdotes without seeing what they tell. Jack and his older brother Joe are teased for being Catholic at their private grammar school. Logevall describes Joe as “more pugnacious and combative” and “challenging older boys to fight.” Meanwhile Jack uses the “popular schoolyard currency” of marbles for “betting on his brother to win the scraps.”
Jack and Joe construct a homemade parachute for jumping off the roof of their house. They persuade the family chauffer’s son to try it first. Citing a “bad ankle sprain” as “the only damage,” Logevall says the “escapade didn’t go quite as planned.” I’d say it went exactly.
Jack’s best friend at Choate, and for the rest of his life, was Lem Billings, who was in love with Jack. In just one example of how that love was repaid, Jack, parking by Harvard Stadium with Kennedy haphazardness, rammed into the bumper of a woman’s car “four or five times.” She reported him to the police. Jack pretended he’d loaned the car to Billings. Jack wrote to Lem, “Tell [the officer]… you’re sorry and you realize you should not have done it, etc…. You write him a gracious letter and admit it.” Logevall comments only, “Lem, dutiful as always, went along.”
Jack was a cheapskate. He and his roommate at Harvard, the impecunious Torby Macdonald, went to dinner on a double date. When the $12 check arrived, “Jack,” Torby said, “dug into his pockets and came up with exactly nothing…we had to borrow from the girls to get out of the place.” Which story Macdonald—a life-long Kennedy political ally—gently prefaces with, “Jack certainly never made anyone conscious of his wealth.”
Jack was a rude cheapskate. As PT-109 hero and about-to-be Massachusetts congressman, he promised to visit his war buddy Red Fay and Red’s family and friends, “then showed up late…bailing early on a party in his honor in order to go to a movie with another friend…. Characteristically short on cash, he borrowed $20 from Fay.”
“To Fay,” Logevall writes, “it was a disconcerting sign that his friend might be undergoing a change as he donned his political mantle, and not for the better.” Characteristically short on an ability to hold a grudge against Jack, as every acquaintance of Kennedy’s seemed to be, Fay later served as his undersecretary of the Navy.
Jack was not of a public-spirited ilk. The discovery of a drug effective against the Addison’s disease from which Kennedy suffered “set off a mad rush for cortisone, and the Kennedys scrambled to store away supplies of it in safe-deposit boxes around the country so that Jack would never go without.” Logevall’s critique? “[Jack] drew encouragement from the fact that his physical condition had improved markedly.”
And what about his relations with the opposite sex? “Jack’s general disregard for women’s feelings stayed the same,” Logevall writes, continuing the sentence with the magnificently inappropriate analogy, “his cavalier attitude toward material possessions also had not changed,” and concluding the paragraph with a comparison of jilted women to lost wristwatches. “When another in a long line of wristwatches somehow vanished, Paul Murphy, who oversaw Joe Senior’s New York office and often paid the family’s bills, intervened.” (Murphy recommended cheaper wristwatches.)
Jack’s cheating on Jackie began on the eve of honeymoon moonrise. A few weeks before his 1953 marriage, Jack began an affair—to be continued a couple of years later—with a 22-year-old Swedish aristocrat, Gunilla von Post (who politely waited until Jackie Kennedy died to publish her torrid account).
Jackie herself is treated by Logevall with something like Logevall’s own description of “the now familiar Jack Kennedy detachment.”
“The main thing for me was to do whatever my husband wanted. He couldn’t—and wouldn’t—be married to a woman who tried to share the spotlight with him,” Logevall says Jackie later said. Logevall later says, “She loved being married…. But the cheating hurt all the same, especially coming soon after [not to mention before] their wedding.”
In August 1956, Jackie was eight months pregnant. Jack flew to the Riviera for a just-us-boys weeklong sailing trip with Torby Macdonald. “A subsequent newspaper report,” writes Logevall, “suggested several bikini-clad young women were aboard.”
At home with her mother in Newport, Jackie began to hemorrhage. The baby girl was stillborn. Robert Kennedy rushed to her bedside, made arrangements for the infant’s funeral, and advised his parents “not to tell Jack about [what] had occurred…. So Jack was initially told that Jackie felt poorly.”
Jack immediately—or reluctantly—came home. “The evidence is fragmentary,” Logevall says and cites one account where Florida Congressman George Smathers reached Jack on the yacht and told him, “If you want to run for president, you’d better get your ass back to your wife’s bedside or every wife in the country will be against you.”
Logevall uses Jackie to do the tsk-tsking by proxy: “She was incensed by his obtuse neglect of her needs in favor of his own.” The author merely concludes, “When it came to marital relations he was Joseph Kennedy’s true heir.” Then he blandly changes the subject. “In September, with Jackie recovering at home, Kennedy took to the road to campaign for Stevenson.”
WHERE the hell’s the charm in Jack Kennedy?
There’s the money. There’s the looks. There’s the occasional flash of wit (for which Logevall does not have much ear). Logevall can cite the charm. Logevall can quote attempts to describe the charm. But Logevall is too plodding and academic and lost in the details of being himself charmed by Jack Kennedy to capture Jack Kennedy’s charm.
The quality was better limned 80 years ago, before Jack had been heard of, by the aphorist Logan Pearsall Smith: “Charming people live up to the very edge of their charm, and behave just as outrageously as the world will let them.”
The world did—and does and maybe always will—let Jack live up to that very edge, and right over it, and out into the thin air of a legend in which nothing actually legendary happened.
It wasn’t just romantic love that Jack attracted. “All of us who were in contact with [Kennedy] immediately fell in love with him,” enthused Hollywood producer Dore Schary, who’d made a film featuring Jack for the 1956 Democratic convention.
“I fell in love with Jack Kennedy immediately,” gushed Kennedy’s future FCC chairman Newton Minow. “I was really taken with him. I was taken with his whole attitude, his whole appearance, his whole—he really sent me.”
Charm and charisma are readily confused. They shouldn’t be. Charm comes from the Latin carmen—“song, verse, incantation.” In English, since the 16th century, the word has had a meaning of influence, persuasion, inducement. Charisma’s root is the Greek word for a “gift of grace,” which endows its possessor with a power of leadership and authority.
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was charming when he lived. He was charismatic after he died.
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