Nearly sixty years after his death, an aura of glamour still surrounds John F. Kennedy, and his family name continues to carry political weight (Kennedy's daughter, President Obama's ambassador to Japan, addressed the Democratic national convention in August). Young people today continue to hold Kennedy in high regard, less because of his actual accomplishments than the image of his White House as a modern-day Camelot. Historians, so often killjoys when it comes to popular legends, have a more mixed assessment.
In the first volume of a projected two-part biography, the Harvard historian Fredrik Logevall offers a compelling narrative of Kennedy's life to 1956, when, at the age of thirty-nine, he narrowly failed to secure the Democratic nomination for vice president. While innumerable books in multiple languages have been published about Kennedy – a disproportionate number of them about his assassination – Logevall's well-written and deeply researched work demonstrates that room definitely exists for a new account of his life. The author of a Pulitzer prizewinning study of how the United States became involved in the Vietnam War, Logevall aims to place Kennedy's life "within the wider setting of the era". Thus, he includes well-informed background on everything from the flu epidemic of 1918 to the impact of television on post-Second World War politics. (If Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to use the mass media – in his case radio – to deliver his message to Americans' living rooms, the charismatic Kennedy was the first to take advantage of how TV magnified the importance of a candidate's personal image.)
Born in 1917 in the Boston suburbs, Kennedy, universally known as Jack, was the second of nine children of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy, descendants of famine-era Irish Catholic immigrants. His father made a fortune in banking, stock brokerage (including insider trading), and investments in Hollywood, and became FDR's ambassador to Great Britain. According to Logevall, his wealth in 1935 amounted to over $3 billion in today's money. While Rose wanted Jack to go to Catholic schools, her husband insisted that he get the best education money could buy and learn to interact with sons of the Protestant elite. This meant Choate and Harvard. Logevall makes it clear that his father played a pivotal role in Kennedy's early accomplishments. How many college students, when writing a senior thesis, got to interview the British ambassador to the United States, received in the mail source material gathered by the press attaché at the US embassy in London, or, when the thesis was published as a book, had a preface written by Henry Luce, one of the founders of Time Inc?
But among the common criticisms of Kennedy that Logevall seeks to counter is the idea that his rise resulted mainly from his father's wealth, ambition for his sons, and connections. To be sure, Joseph P. Kennedy, the subject of a superb biography by the historian David Nasaw (2012), is almost as much a protagonist of this volume as Jack himself. But Logevall makes a convincing case that Jack quickly became his own man. His decision to run for Congress in 1946 arose from a genuine interest in politics, not simply, as many historians claim, the wartime death of his older brother Joe, Jr., whom their father hoped would continue his political legacy. Moreover, unlike his brother, who almost always parroted the elder Kennedy's political opinions, Jack was an independent thinker. He broke with his father's notorious isolationism, advocating American involvement in the war well before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Later, Logevall writes, Jack became a "strident Cold Warrior", who rejected his father's warning that the Truman administration's policy of containment would lead to the deployment of American troops in endless conflicts around the world. As a member of Congress, Kennedy made anti-communism "his leitmotif", criticizing Truman for "allowing" China to fall into communist hands and supporting the crusade against internal subversion. But after a visit to Indochina in 1951, Kennedy concluded that the French war effort there was doomed to failure and that the United States should not become associated with opposition to the nationalist sentiment sweeping the colonial world.
To his credit, Joseph Kennedy did not mind Jack's "capacity for independent thought". At family dinners he would grill his sons on politics and international affairs, insisting not that they agree with him, but that they back up their views with hard facts. (He did not much care about his daughters' opinions.) If not exactly an intellectual, Jack had strong intellectual interests. Logevall writes of his "penetrating and analytical mind" and wide reading, and considers "Why England Slept", Kennedy's senior thesis and bestselling book about the origins of appeasement "an original contribution to knowledge". As for Profiles in Courage (1956), Kennedy's book about senators who defied their party in the name of higher principle, which won a Pulitzer prize, Logevall seems of two minds. It has long been known that much of the book was drafted by Jack's aide Theodore Sorenson and edited by Allan Nevins and other historians. Kennedy, however, "was the book's author", Logevall writes, since he mapped out the overall framework. But Logevall also suggests that Jack "should have refused the Pulitzer", given how little of the actual text originated with him.
Logevall shrewdly notes that the courage Kennedy celebrates mostly consists of moderates seeking compromise, since there are two sides to every controversy. This sensibility appears to anticipate Kennedy's initial reluctance as president to embrace the civil rights movement. Defending Kennedy against the charge that he was indifferent to the issue of racial justice, Logevall claims that while in Congress he was "a steadfast advocate of civil rights". He acknowledges, however, that when Kennedy sought the vice-presidential nomination he repositioned himself as a "gradualist" who would not force hasty change on the segregated South. Ironically, Kennedy received more support from southern delegates than the eventual nominee, Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, considered a traitor by white supremacists for refusing to sign the Southern Manifesto, which advocated resistance to the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision of 1954.
Kennedy's failure to speak out against the demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, even though he disdained his lies and bluster, is another instance in which political ambition trumped principle. Logevall attributes this reluctance to McCarthy's friendship with members of the Kennedy family, including the father, and his popularity among Irish Catholic voters. But if Kennedy was not always a profile in political courage, personal bravery is another matter. Beginning in childhood, Jack was plagued by ailments of one kind or another. He suffered stoically through almost constant back pain and operations that often proved unsuccessful. Twice, he was so gravely ill that a priest administered last rites in the hospital. Despite his infirmities, Kennedy, who could have spent the Second World War at a desk job in Washington, successfully lobbied for combat service. Logevall gives a vivid account of Kennedy's heroic actions that saved most of the crew of a torpedo boat in the South Pacific after it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. True to form, his father arranged for Reader's Digest to publish a condensed version of the journalist John Hersey's account of this episode, greatly enhancing Jack's public reputation – a "masterstroke of public relations", Logevall calls it.
After his death, revelations surfaced about Kennedy's numerous affairs before and after his marriage. Logevall devotes considerable space to what he several times calls, archaically and perhaps offensively, his subject's obsessive "skirt-chasing". From his father, Kennedy imbibed a standard of personal behaviour – do what you want, but take care of your children and don't embarrass your wife. Numerous reminiscences by former girlfriends testify to Kennedy's charm and good looks. But Logevall also quotes one who thought that his father's "low opinion" of women rubbed off on Jack. During his years in Congress, Jack's rented Washington townhouse hosted a kind of continuous fraternity party with women from every walk of life – actresses, journalists, secretaries, professional tennis players – coming and going at all hours of the day and night.
Kennedy's behaviour is difficult to condone today, while what Logevall calls his "general disregard for women's feelings" shows a recklessness and sense of entitlement not uncommon among the very rich. It remains unclear what light, if any, this disregard sheds on his presidency. For that, and the ways the political issues detailed in this book – civil rights, the Cold War, Vietnam – played out during Kennedy's time in the White House, we must await the second volume of this insightful biography.