The very thought astonishes: Almost 42 years have now passed since
President John F. Kennedy was slain at age 46 by an assassin's
bullet on that freeway entrance ramp in Dallas. To those of a
certain age, it seems like only yesterday.
Is 42 years enough historical distance to allow an unbiased account
of his life and his presidency? Michael O'Brien, a retired history
professor from the University of Wisconsin and biographer of
several other political figures from the recent past (Philip Hart,
Theodore Hesburgh, Joseph McCarthy) has made the effort in this
massive (905-page) account of Kennedy's life. It is detailed almost
to the point of overwhelming the reader with data; it will probably
--- perhaps this is a validation of O'Brien's effort at
impartiality -- both please and outrage just about everyone,
whether friend or foe of his subject.
O'Brien stresses Kennedy's insatiable thirst for information about
every problem that came his way, his willingness to listen to
everyone whose advice he thought might be worth hearing, and his
decisiveness once his mind was made up. He also emphasizes
Kennedy's tendency to allow political considerations to color
important decisions and the wide gulf that often separated what
really went on in his administration from what the public was
deliberately led to believe.
One of the author's tactics is to assemble a motley chorus of
historians, politicians, journalists and acquaintances whose
on-the-record public comments tend to back up his own
interpretations. Most of the time he will summarize all sides of an
important question and then, in cases where controversy still
persists, allow Kennedy the benefit of the doubt. For example,
O'Brien concludes that Kennedy's Pulitzer-winning book PROFILES IN
COURAGE was not entirely ghost-written, as his detractors have
claimed, though it did benefit from the work of several other
wordsmiths and researchers.
Questions of relative emphasis arise as one reads. Kennedy's
lifelong history of serious illness is traced in great detail, as
is also the influence on him of his imperious father and his
ambitious brother Bobby, both important threads in Kennedy's story.
But O'Brien gives equal if not greater weight to an exhaustive
account of Kennedy's voracious sexual appetite, devoting several
full chapters to it and threading it through other sections of his
narrative as well. This seems overdone. It would be a shame if
public perception of this truly probing and informative biography
were to be based mainly on its laundry list of JFK's bed
The 1963 assassination itself, too, is dispatched in a couple of
pages at the very end of the book. Given O'Brien's penchant for
thorough research and multiple interpretations of events, one
wonders why he simply ignored the controversy around the event
itself and its subsequent effect on world history.
One answer might be that no room could be found for such things in
this behemoth of a book -- but room might well have been made if
less space had been devoted to trivia about his sex life, his
dinner parties, and whose job it was to cut his toenails.
The author's industrious digging, while often clogging his
narrative with unnecessary detail, also turns up insightful
quotations that sum up a situation in a few words (Jacqueline
Kennedy on her husband's family: "They never relax, even when
they're relaxing." A staffer on JFK: "I never heard of a President
who wanted to know so much.").
O'Brien does not gloss over Kennedy's politically inspired
reluctance to denounce Joseph McCarthy, the unprincipled
Red-hunting Wisconsin demagogue, or his initial timidity in ducking
a leadership role in the civil rights struggle --- but he does give
JFK credit for later reversing himself on the latter issue. There
is constant emphasis on the young President's wit, charm and
youthful energy. One of O'Brien's chorus of historians sums up the
author's own viewpoint: "To a large extent, his style was as
important as his substance."
The book's size has caused the publisher to eliminate O'Brien's
footnotes. If you want to consult them you can either go online to
the publisher's website or write to the Kennedy Presidential
Library in Boston. It might be worth the trouble.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 22, 2011