The highway to Camelot – A masterful biography of JFK is a reminder of imperilled beliefs | Books & arts
17th October 2020
JFK: Growing Up in the American Century, 1917-1956. By Fredrik Logevall. Any house; 816 pages; $ 40. Vikings; £ 30.
J.OHN FITZGERALD KENNEDY was only 43 when he became president – a whipper snapper compared to Donald Trump, who was 70 when he was first elected, or Joe Biden, who is 77. His government exuded youthful energy and glamor, but also a sense of high public purpose. JFK believed that happy people like him had a duty to serve the public, and happy countries like the United States had a duty to serve the world.
Fredrik Logeval’s blockbuster book follows JFK’s life from his birth in 1917 to 1956, when he decided once and for all to run for the presidency (a second volume will tell the rest of the story). It’s pretty much everything published on the subject, based on years of work in the archives, but written with a wonderfully light touch. Sometimes it reads more like a novel than a biography, so vivid is the prose and so extraordinary is the material. It’s also perfectly aligned, with America in the doldrums, its polarized politics, its global reputation torn to pieces, and its discredited political class, especially on the Republican side. JFK reminds readers of what America once was – and could be again.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty in writing a biography of Jack (as he has always been called by friends, family, and journalists) is that he is surrounded by legends. The Kennedys and their courtiers bear primary responsibility for this: Jack’s father Joe managed his image as a Man of Fate from an early age and later his professional acolytes, particularly Arthur Schlesinger junior, turned the current story into hagiography. Nature helped: Jack and Jackie Bouvier, who he married in 1953, were a ridiculously good-looking couple, and the Kennedy clan was a quaint bunch.
Myths inevitably provoked counter-myths. Joe Kennedy, the founder of the family fortune and America’s ambassador to Britain in the late 1930s, is often portrayed as a right-wing monster whose mentally ill daughter Rosemary was lobotomized for showing interest in sex. Jack himself is often portrayed as a spoiled, rich child who only went into politics on the orders of his father and treated women like trash.
Mr. Logevall, a professor at Harvard University, is skilled at handling the legends and defusing them over time, but never letting them dominate his narrative. He doesn’t gloss over “the ambassador,” as the family patriarch was called: he was an isolation reactionary who tried to keep America out of World War II, had a soft spot for Joseph McCarthy, and was appalling toward women. But he had his good points: “Say what you want to say about Joseph P. Kennedy,” writes the author, “not every multimillionaire father is so interested in his children who believes in them so passionately and who together mediates with them his wife had a firm commitment to the public service from a young age. “His nuanced image of young JFK shows him as a plump person rather than a hero or villain – a character cursed with a sense of entitlement (especially when it comes to women) but blessed with the deep desire that Understand the world and improve it.
Jack was far from a passive vehicle for his family’s political ambitions. He tried to free himself from his father’s prejudices: his first book “Why England Slept” (1940) was a criticism of the appeasement of Hitler and developed into a leading proponent of liberal internationalism. He also broke away from the populist political style his family had adopted, presenting himself as a shy, cerebral figure rather than a pole repulsed in the Irish-American form that was his legacy. “Jack Kennedy had a fundamental dignity,” said one friend, “a pride in his demeanor that would appeal to any Irishman who was a little embarrassed about the sentimental, cheesy style of the typical Irish politician.”
What did it mean to him?
He was more than just a rich kid with a silver spoon in his mouth. Mr Logevall doesn’t hide the fact that his father’s money and connections helped: the ambassador played a crucial role in getting Why England Slept – an expanded thesis – into print. But Jack was also his own man. He showed real bravery commanding a boat in the Pacific during the war (though it was his family name that made sure his exploits were celebrated on the New Yorker’s sides). He also endured more than his share of tragedy. Two of his siblings – his older brother Joe junior and his beloved sister Kathleen known as Kick – died before he was 40 years old. He was the victim of a mysterious illness that was later diagnosed as Addison’s disease, and which he was hospitalized for months, leaving him with almost permanent back pain.
In his narrative of Jack’s childhood, Mr. Logevall also tells a story of ethnic ambition and cultural assimilation. The Kennedys had every reason to hate America’s WASP elite. Her ancestors fled Great Britain-ruled Ireland during the famine and, upon arriving in Boston, encountered a brahmin class claiming power and privilege. But the clan’s response was not to enjoy resentment but to move forward. First, they beat the WASPs in everything they cared about, from politics to making money. JFK’s grandfather, PJ Kennedy, went from limo owner to senator. The ambassador made a fortune in the traditionally WASP world of Wall Street before cementing it in Hollywood.
Then they joined them. Jack attended a WASPy boarding school, Choate, and the Brahmins’ favorite college, Harvard, and developed into a thorough Anglophile when his father became an ambassador. That he admired Winston Churchill is no surprise; But he also made a cult following of Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s first prime minister, for his charm, casualness, demeanor, and female conquests. His sister Kick married a British aristocrat. The setup of the Kennedys in Hyannis Port was very similar to the Bush family’s grounds on the Kennebunkport coast, right down to the daily sporting routine and rough domestic arrangements. They were rightly called the first Irish Brahmins.
The most important thing they shared with the old WASP elite was a sense of public duty. At first this may have been a soup of vengeance: Joe no doubt liked the fact that he, a child of the Irish diaspora, represented the most powerful country in the world at the court of St. James. But for Jack that matured into something broader and deeper. One of his favorite political aphorisms was a line from Rousseau: “As soon as a man says of state affairs, ‘What is important to me? ‘Can the state be given up as lost. “
His belief that America must take responsibility for overseeing the global system first awakened by reading Churchill was strongly reinforced by his extensive travels, including visits to Hitler’s Germany, and war experiences. His second book, Profile in Courage (1956), reflected the role of leadership in a democracy, particularly how statesmen should react when their constituents and parties are out to do something dangerously stupid. The often quoted lines from his inaugural address: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you. Ask What You Can Do for Your Country ”may seem a bit overworked today, but they expressed the essence of his political philosophy.
One of America’s great trials in the years to come will be whether the elite can regain the sense of public duty that JFK has invigorated. Mr Logevall shows that political careers could take a heavy toll even if politics were less polarized and the press more tame. Jackie, in particular, turned pale at the “insane pace of politics” and her husband’s relentless work schedule. However, recent American history bears testimony to what happens when the talents ignore the quiet living politics and rich private sector rewards, and leave the public to carnival barons and clowns. ■
This article appeared in the Books & Art section of the print edition under the heading “The Road to Camelot”.
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