Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...
Jack Kennedy was the mythological front man for a particularly juicy slice of our history. He called a slick line and wore a world-class haircut. He was Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab. - James Ellroy, American Tabloid
Mitigating circumstances: This is the ninth among my presidential bio(ish) reads over the past month and change. I’ve been concurrently reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which is an amazing book about an amazing president. As a result, I'm not really sure that this qualifies as a "book review" per se.
Having accounted for said circumstances, let me just say that I’m seriously underwhelmed when it comes to JFK. The book itself was well-researched and even-handed. In fact, I’m no Kennedy expert, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the NYT was right in assessing An Unfinished Life as the best single-volume Kennedy biography. I’m just not all that impressed when it comes to Jack Kennedy the man, especially given all the hoopla around him. Maybe I’m not giving him sufficient credit given that he was only in office for 1,000 days, but the word overrated definitely comes to mind. (See also: James Ellroy’s take in American Tabloid.)
Assorted bitchings and/or moanings:
We get it - being president makes you sick! Nixon, Eisenhower, Ford and JFK bios all go on about how “behind the scenes” doctors were juicing our heads of state to get them through their respective terms in office. It’s pretty much safe to assume from here on out that every POTUS is using PEDs (Presidential Enhancing Drugs). That being said, the whole Addison’s Disease thing is pretty interesting and Dallek would be doing a disservice to the reading public were he to skip out on the trials and tribulations of keeping the JFK machine up and in service. It also turns out that Dallek got unprecedented access to Kennedy's medical files, so I guess that's kind of a big deal.
I’d take things a step further re. James Ellroy's Bill Clinton comparison. With Clinton we all have our suspicions, but most people can only count on one hand the names of women who he took to the Lincoln bedroom (or whatever bedroom, or the oval office - you get my point). If the press can give a list of ladies with whom you’ve gone for a roll in the hay that stretches from here to Hanoi, you’re not Clinton-esque, you’re a veritable poonhound. I don’t particularly count this against Kennedy, I'm just saying that he could have given Carlos Danger a run for his money.
Not Dallek’s fault but definitely true:
There are few events in modern American history that get more air time than JFK's assassination. There’s this overwhelming sense that the good times would have rolled in ways we can’t even comprehend had Kennedy not taken that fateful trip to Dallas. I’m no timespace continuum wizard, so I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing that Kennedy would have had some disappointments up his sleeve along with a trick of two he may have turned. I didn’t come away from this book disliking the guy, but I can't help but feel that he's kind of overhyped. And yeah, I am holding him up next to Lincoln which might not be fair, but (as Dallek points out) the American public consistently rated him above Lincoln in their polls of greatest presidents, so the comparison bears mentioning. Guess what American public? You’re wrong. I can’t even tell you how wrong. You know what? Go read Team of Rivals. Right now! Then, when you’re done and have realized how awesome Lincoln was you can think about what you’ve done. Then, if you want to read a good biography about JFK, you should probably check this book out.