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An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963


Why another Kennedy book? I was asked repeatedly during the five years I worked on this biography. The availability of new materials — written contemporary documents, telephone and Oval Office tapes, and entire oral histories or parts thereof — seemed ample reason to revisit Kennedy's personal and public lives. I also took guidance from science writer Jacob Bronowski: "Ask an impertinent question and you are on your way to a pertinent answer." As I worked my way through the records, I was startled by how many fresh things could be said based on the combination of old and new files about the man, his family, and his political career. To cite just a few examples, new documents reveal more clearly the cause of the accident that killed Joseph Kennedy Jr. in World War II, how Bobby Kennedy became attorney general in 1960, and what JFK thought of U.S. military chiefs, their plans for an invasion of Cuba, the American press corps in Saigon, and the wisdom of an expanded war in Vietnam.

As with all our most interesting public figures, Kennedy is an elusive character, a man who, like all politicians, worked hard to emphasize his favorable attributes and hide his limitations. He and those closest to him were extraordinarily skillful at creating positive images that continue to shape public impressions. My objective has not been to write another debunking book (these have been in ample supply in recent years) but to penetrate the veneer of glamour and charm to reconstruct the real man or as close to it as possible. The result is not a sharply negative portrait but a description of someone with virtues and defects that make him seem both exceptional and ordinary — a man of uncommon intelligence, drive, discipline, and good judgment on the one hand, and of lifelong physical suffering and emotional problems on the other. I have not emphasized one aspect over the other but have tried to bring them into balance. Learning, for example, a great deal more than any biographer has previously known about Kennedy's medical history allowed me to see not only the extent to which he hid his infirmities from public view but also the man's exceptional strength of character. In addition, I have tried to understand his indisputable womanizing, including previously unknown instances of his compulsive philandering. More significant, I have ventured answers to questions about whether his health problems and behavior in any way undermined his performance of presidential duties.

I have also tried to judiciously assess the negative and positive family influences on his character, the record of his navy service, his House and Senate careers, and, most important, his presidential policies on the economy, civil rights, federal aid to education, health insurance for seniors, and poverty, and, even more consequentially, on dealings with Russia, nuclear weapons, space, Cuba, and Vietnam. I have not hesitated to say what I believe Kennedy might have done about the many ongoing problems certain to have faced him in a second term, however open to question these conclusions may be. "It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it," said Joseph Joubert, a French philosopher of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

I believe this biography provides the most authoritative discussion to date on Kennedy the man and his political career. Nonetheless, however much it may be a significant advance in understanding, I have no illusion that I am recording the last word on John F. Kennedy. The economist Thorstein Veblen was surely right when he cautioned that "the outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where one question grew before." Add to this the man's almost mythical importance to Americans and hundreds of millions of people around the globe and you can be certain that future generations will be eager for renewed attention to him in the context of their own times.

February 2003

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963
by by Robert Dallek

  • Genres: Biography, History, Nonfiction
  • paperback: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316907928
  • ISBN-13: 9780316907927