Wednesday, May 07, 2008

THURSDAY THIRTEEN #66 -- Remembering JFK


John F. Kennedy was once a sick, lonely little boy who found solace in books and believed in heroes like King Arthur and Robin Hood. So there’s a symmetry to his becoming a hero himself, one later generations have discovered through books. That’s how I became inspired by him, and because of his example I view politics as an honorable profession and I see politicians as public servants.

This TT first occurred to me when Caroline Kennedy endorsed Barack Obama by writing that he’d be a President like her father. If you’re wondering what makes JFK so influential, check out these 13 books. JFK comes alive on these pages.

BTW, this month marks the 91st anniversary of JFK’s birth. I prefer to think of him now, rather than on the anniversary of his death in November. It seems that his assassination has overshadowed his life, which is too bad, because it was quite a life.

1. An Unfinished Life by Robert Dallek. A serious look at his life and presidency. Dallek – a respected LBJ scholar who is very familiar with these times – takes pains to put everything in the proper, and fair, context. Civil rights, Russia and Cuba (both the Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs), the race to the moon … it’s all here, including Kennedy’s enduring legacy, which Dallek movingly writes continues “to speak to our better angels.”

2. JFK: Reckless Youth by Nigel Hamilton. How I love this book! Taking us from Brookline to Congress, it’s a “warts-and-all” portrait of the boy who became the man. (There are so many warts that the Kennedy family now regrets giving the author access and, regrettably, plans for the second volume have been abandoned.) Yes, there’s the affair with “Inga Binga.” His relationship with his family is explored – especially enlightening was the tension between mother and son. JFK and Rose seemed to be very gifted at annoying and disappointing one another. His pre-war trip to Europe is examined extensively, as are his Navy heroics. But most moving were his illnesses and the pain and loneliness he learned, at a very young age, to live with. This book taught me that no matter how good a life looks from the outside, you have no idea how it feels on the inside.

3. A Thousand Days by Arthur Schlessinger. Written in 1965, before many of the salacious details of JFK’s personal life were well known, this is still a valuable and important read. Schlessinger was a member of the Kennedy inner circle, and he makes us feel as though we know what it was like in the Oval Office. But again, if you’re looking for tales of naked swimming parties or sex sessions with Marilyn Monroe, this is NOT the book for you.

4. Conversations with Kennedy by Ben Bradlee. A famous journalist recalls his close friendship with his most famous buddy. A joy to read. There’s a lot of machismo on these pages – in the 1960s, these two WWII vets believed they’d done exceptionally well for themselves (one was editor of Newsweek, the other was, well, Leader of the Free World). A personal, affectionate, yet very credible portrait.

5. President Kennedy: A Profile in Power by Richard Reeves. The JFK that emerges from these pages is a consummate politician. Free of ideology or emotion, but with charisma and drive to spare, Reeves’ Kennedy evolves from a mediocre Senator to a good-enough President who kept cool during crises. Did I like this book? Not really. But reading it has given me a more balanced portrait of the man.

6. Jack: A Life like No Other by Geoffrey Perret. A portrait of a man who loved life and lived it to the hilt. Because it’s a biography of the man who became President (as opposed to his Presidency), there’s a lot here that’s not flattering. (Yes, the Addison’s disease and the women.) But his leadership qualities, his intellectual curiosity and sophistication, his wit, his vision for the country and the world …all that’s inspiring is here, too.

7. Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye by Kenny O’Donnell and Dave Powers. An affectionate look at the man by two of his closest and most loyal friends. There’s a lot of detail in this book and I learned a lot. However, it’s not remotely balanced. O’Donnell and Powers loved the Kennedy brothers, especially the President, and are protective of his legacy. I respected and even appreciated it as I read this warm, funny and ultimately poignant memoir.

8. Grace and Power: The Private World of the Kennedy White House by Sally Bedell Smith. There’s not a lot of history here, but a lot of humanity. How did JFK and Jackie handle life in the White House? How did it effect their relationship, their relationships with their children and their families? What’s it like to be at the center of history when history is being made?

9. The Kennedys and the Fitzgeralds by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I’m a big fan of DKG, and this was a happy union of writer and subject. She looks at the Kennedys as the ultimate American immigrant tale, beginning in Ireland and ending with the Kennedy Inauguration. Rose and Joe Kennedy are really the stars of this tome, but to understand JFK, it helps to understand “the clan.”

10. The John F. Kennedys: A Family Album by Mark Shaw. The coffee table book is a gorgeous, black and white Valentine to Camelot. If you’re young enough to wonder what all the fuss was about, all the talk about the Kennedy Mystique and glamour and vitality and style, it’s captured on these pages.

11. The Kennedy White House by Carl Sferrazza Anthony. He’s a well respected biographer of America’s First Ladies, and he brings that perspective to family life in the White House in the 1960s. It’s as close as I believe This Gal will ever get!

12. PT-109 by Robert Donovan. When asked how he became a war hero, Kennedy used to shrug and say, “They sunk my boat.” He was uncomfortable with all the acclaim that accompanied his heroics because the incident meant so very much to him. The men he served with on that little bucket, the men he lost when “they sunk his boat.” To his death he maintained relationships with his shipmates and gave away PT-109 tie pins to those he wished to congratulate or inspire. This spare story inspired me. JFK overcame pain and fear and discouragement to prevail and keep much of his team alive. He persevered and took chances and showed faith. It was a defining moment in his life, and in the life of this nation because of how much it influenced his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis. When I saw the coconut that played a pivotal role in his rescue at the JFK Library, I admit I welled up. “What man has done, man can do.”

13. Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy by Donald Spoto. This book seems to present a fair view of a complicated marriage. Two independent and basically lonely people, each with a distant mother and a philandering father, would have had a hard time making a go of their marriage under the best circumstances. These were not the best circumstances. But I came away believing that they loved each other – at least as much as they could – and that they certainly loved their children.

PLEASE NOTE: This week I may not be at my keyboard as much as I usually would. So if I don't include you here and don't get to visit your TT, I apologize. Family obligations …

Leave your link in comments and I'll include you here:
1) Sue's TT will make you smile
2) Hootin' Ani's TT is indeed GROSS
3) Anthony North stayed true to the theme, as well, with entertaining results
4) Sandy Carlson has a poetic TT
5) Nicholas takes a crack at last week's alphabet theme but puts a literary spin on it
6) SJR has a yummy TT
7) Janet has a letter-perfect TT
8) Adelle has a funny TT about aging
9) Claudia has a memorable TT
10) Linda R. Moore offers us a choice of 13 great photos
11) Susan Helene Gottfried (and the band) come up with 13 reasons not to rehearse
12) Journeywoman has a remarkable Mother's Day TT
13) Lori has a tender TT devoted to moms
14) Kay's TT was inspired by her love of the grape
15) Yellowrose's Garden lists her mandatories
16) Amy Shipp shares vacation ideas

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White Women? Check.

Blue-collar white males? Check. Populists (as opposed to "elitists")? Check.

I don't think Barack Obama will have too much trouble bringing those groups back into the fold with John and Elizabeth Edwards by his side. After all (except for women over 50), those groups made up John Edwards' natural constituency. I was surprised that Hillary was able to woo them after Edwards dropped out, but she did … successfully, too.

Still, I don't think the rift between Clinton-Obama supporters is so deep, so irreconcilable that Barack can't convince voters that he is more in tune to them and their needs than John McCain. Naturally having a good ol' boy with a moonlight-and-magnolias accent and his courageous, angel of a wife at Obama's side will help.

The Edwards' haven't committed yet, but they will once Obama becomes the undisputed nominee. And I hope there's a Cabinet position in the offing for this man. John Edwards could be a terrific activist attorney general in the Bobby Kennedy mold.