Profile in Patriotism: The JFK Bio as Timely Reminder

JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956

By Fredrik Logevall

Random House/September, 2020

Reviewed by Lisa Van Dusen

September 24, 2020

These days, if you happen to be reviewing a historical  political biography, you can’t help but scan for parallels with our current crises — the war on democracy, the deadly global pandemic, the more dehumanizing impacts of technology, the hyper-corruption exacerbating all three — even if what we’re living through seems unprecedented, which it is and it isn’t. History offers too many lessons to ignore.

The first third of JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956, Fredrik Logevall’s first volume of a two-volume John F. Kennedy biography, is a nostalgia bath — all the Kennedy folklore of Boston and Honey Fitz and Rose-and-Joe and Gloria Swanson and Jack at Choate and Harvard and the burgeoning rivalry with Joe Jr. Not much fodder for historical parallels but certainly more serene, feet-up reading right now than, say, Bob Woodward’s bestselling Rage. (With enormous respect to the author, I read to escape from Donald Trump).

The parallels in JFK with our current world war kick in around the time that Joseph Kennedy Sr.’s embrace of appeasement and defense of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain during his own tenure as Ambassador to the Court of St. James prove to have been naïve, foolish and terribly miscalculated.

Luckily, Joe Kennedy’s second son was, in his own way, a rebel. For all his privilege, Jack Kennedy lived in constant pain and with intermittent hospitalization from a young age. He used his immobilization — as so many historical figures bedridden by childhood illness have — to read everything he could, shaping his worldview and personality in a way that separated him from both the preconceived notions of his family and the expectations of his father. While Joe Jr., as the designated dauphin, was still parroting his father’s isolationist views about the inadvisability of America entering the war, young Jack Kennedy was relatively free to make a nuisance of himself in European capitals, questioning the received wisdom of his old man and researching and writing his Harvard thesis, published as Why England Slept. Yes, it was midwifed to bestseller-dom by Henry Luce and Arthur Krock, but it was also a respectful, thoroughly argued dissent from his father’s views on American engagement and a diffusion of blame beyond Chamberlain and the apologist set to the understandable war aversion of the British people and the Hitler denial it fed. Because it was so widely read, Why England Slept helped Roosevelt make the case for America’s existential imperative to fight the Nazis.

By being the weaker brother on paper because of his physical ailments — chronic back pain, Addison’s Disease, a duodenal ulcer by the time he returned from his service in the Pacific — Jack Kennedy developed strengths his brother didn’t possess. They included: independence of thought; a self-deprecating wit that reveled in absurdity and tilted toward irony over sarcasm; a seemingly insatiable curiosity about the world — past, present and future; and a sense of his place in it that wasn’t skewed by either his own insecurities or other people’s grandiose expectations. Remarkably enough for someone living in perpetual pain, he also seemed entirely at ease in his own skin.

In Logevall’s reading, the devastating death of Joe Jr. in 1944 during a failed bombing mission did not, per conventional wisdom, force Jack into politics to fulfill his father’s need for a president in the family; it made a choice he was already destined for less fraught with ambivalence. As Logevall writes of JFK’s first political victory in the Massachusetts Eleventh in 1946, it was the product of more than family money and the gallantry of his war-hero aura following the sinking of PT109. “In substantive terms,” Logevall writes, “he had fashioned, through his writing and his speechmaking, a political philosophy that transcended the narrow, selfish vision of his father and elder brother, in the form of a pluralist, liberal internationalism — idealistic yet infused with pragmatic realism — that would soon resonate with a broad cross section of Americans.”

Joseph Kennedy Sr. suffered from an affliction that has kept other powerful men from true greatness: the curse of seeing the world through the distorting prism of their own egos, so that humanity is divided into supplicants and enemies, quid pro quos and unsettled scores. Jack Kennedy didn’t possess that tragic, sometimes catastrophic flaw, perhaps because the same perspective on life accrued through his multiple brushes with death gave him a saner relationship to power.

The flaw he did inherit from Joe Kennedy — an apparently avocational belief that monogamy is for suckers — played out in the transactional netherworld between his father’s antediluvian misogyny and his own combination of cavalier sexual sportsmanship and genuine, respectful friendships with his own sisters. Per the truism that there are two kinds of philanderers — those who hate women and those who love them — Jack Kennedy’s philandering was, apparently, more exuberantly amenable than sleazy and predatory, not that that would’ve been much consolation to his wife, Jackie. “He had the kind of bantering, unforced Irish charm that women so often find fatal,” recalled actress Gene Tierney, who dated Kennedy, in one of several passages devoted to the future president’s disarming effect on women. Where any of that would have situated Jack Kennedy as a post-#MeToo politician functioning in 2020 is a time-travel counterfactual Logevall doesn’t explore. (I once met the widow of a Kennedy cabinet member, then in her dowager 80s, at a dinner in New York. She wistfully recalled watching Jack Kennedy eat ice cream after a double-date dinner at the White House. “He was the sexiest man I’ve ever met,” she deadpanned conspiratorially, as though confessing to grand larceny.)

The obvious link between democracy and freedom wasn’t decoupled until lately, as the tension between democracy and totalitarianism began playing out not between competing governments but between corrupted, democracy-degrading governments and their bamboozled citizens. Logevall’s re-telling of Kennedy’s political rise reminds us of a time when the stakes of tyranny were still so fresh in the minds of millions that such breathtaking fraud would have been unthinkable.

JFK is also a walk with Kennedy through an era that defined America’s place in the world, from the superpower realignments of WWII to the founding of the post-war multilateral institutions to the Cold War. The stakes weren’t obfuscated or obscured by undeclared loyalties or hidden agendas: Defeating Hitler was about restoring democracy and reclaiming freedom; the institutions of the liberal world order created a rules-based system that would disincentivize tyranny; setting aside the perversions of McCarthyism, the Cold War was about defending democracy and upholding freedom against a competing system whose undesirability was based on its contempt for both. The obvious link between democracy and freedom wasn’t decoupled until lately, as the tension between democracy and totalitarianism began playing out not between competing governments but between corrupted, democracy-degrading governments and their bamboozled citizens. Logevall’s re-telling of Kennedy’s political rise reminds us of a time when the stakes of tyranny were still so fresh in the minds of millions that such breathtaking fraud would have been unthinkable.

John F. Kennedy belonged to a breed of American male who used his privilege to bring something good to the world by learning everything he could about important events and ideas, by identifying and mastering his weaknesses, by using his own pain as a path to empathy, and by testing himself to hone his strengths, especially strengths of character. Tom Brokaw called them the Greatest Generation but it may be that history simply elevated a strain that was already there, and that may well still be. The last American president to exemplify it was Barack Obama, with the modern version of that testing evident in both Dreams from My Father and the Audacity of Hope, in his decision to eschew a more lucrative career springboard for a community organizing job on the South Side of Chicago, in his determination to test both himself and his country against a false assumption about what America was or wasn’t ready for, and, in office, to continually call Americans to their highest ideals. That Joe Biden, his vice president whose approach to public service, to personal challenges, to honouring the values that have long been at the very least aspirational goals of the best American leaders is currently defending those values against an existential threat to American democracy presented by an incumbent president makes this book more meaningful that it would have been a decade ago.

In his 1961 State of the Union address, Jack Kennedy said, “Let every man and woman who works in any area of our national government, in any branch, at any level, be able to say with pride and with honor in future years: ‘I served the United States government in that hour of our nation’s need.'” It has taken a relentless propaganda war on character, public trust, public service and national purpose to make that presidential vision, for now, seem like a thing of the past. The world is finding out, in this consequential fall, whether that effort will ultimately succeed or be turned back like previous, appalling tides.

This is not a book for Kennedy haters, conspiracy theorists or sensation-seekers. It’s a classic biography that provides a sympathetic but not hagiographic portrait of a man to whom fate was both generous and cruel. And a reminder of not so much a bygone America as a less corrupted, and therefore more authentic one.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.