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John F Kennedy: An Unfinished Life 1917-1963 By Robert Dallek

Passionate about nothing: Cal McCrystal finds that even the legendary priapism of the President had a robotic quality

A great many books have been written about John F Kennedy since his assassination in Dallas, Texas, in 1963, before completing one presidential term. They are a mixture of hagiography, vendetta, gossip, acuity, sympathy and scholarly detachment, and range through the late President's competence, stamina, physical health, sexual adventures and wealth, not to mention who killed him and why. The public's lasting fascination springs from not only the manner of his death, but the fact that, according to his friend, the American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr: "He glittered while he lived, and the whole world grieved when he died."

A great many books have been written about John F Kennedy since his assassination in Dallas, Texas, in 1963, before completing one presidential term. They are a mixture of hagiography, vendetta, gossip, acuity, sympathy and scholarly detachment, and range through the late President's competence, stamina, physical health, sexual adventures and wealth, not to mention who killed him and why. The public's lasting fascination springs from not only the manner of his death, but the fact that, according to his friend, the American historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr: "He glittered while he lived, and the whole world grieved when he died."

Some of these earlier volumes are unimpressive as attempts to over-burnish, or undermine, a legend for either sentimental or vengeful reasons. Others, such as Richard Reeves's President Kennedy: Profile of Power (1994), with no axe to grind, are admirable. Robert Dallek's new biography falls into the latter category.

It is a conscientiously objective and balanced work. He is neither revisionist nor restorationist; rather, I would say, a revisionist of revisionism. With the help of hitherto unreleased documents, Dallek re-examines Kennedy's responses to the American civil rights movement, his perception of the threat to national defence and economic interests at various times, his diplomacy, his standing as a Great Democrat. It eschews hyperbole and is, well, polite.

Dallek leaves no doubt about the appalling strains Kennedy had to endure in protecting American democracy, in enhancing and maintaining his own profile, in curtailing the lunatic factions who seek to influence or destroy every presidency (and occasionally succeed), and in responding wisely to thoughtful advice. One wonders, given his physical ailments, if he hadn't been murdered might he have died in office anyway? One wonders too at how malleable, if not gullible, is public opinion in a much trumpeted democracy. To quote Schlesinger again: "Unless the American democracy figures out how to control the Presidency in war and peace without enfeebling the Presidency across the board, then our system of government will face grave troubles" - words as pertinent to the United States today as in the Kennedy years.

John Kennedy's advantages as a political runner are obvious enough: millionaire family, decent education, heroic war record, handsome visage, beautiful wife, powerful obliging networks in high and low places, a media that didn't skulk outside bedrooms. The "culture of disparagement", prevailing in democratic politics since the Nixon presidency, had not yet taken hold. The public greeted JFK, the author says, as an American aristocrat.

Any "aristocratic" aura that may have clung to the Kennedy presidency and its subsequent legend has dissipated ("Every hero becomes a bore at last," as Emerson put it), which I imagine enabled Professor Dallek to view his subject with such clarity. Yet part of the Kennedy enigma refuses to disperse also. The President, we are told, was an early admirer of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and wrote an interesting paper on the French philosopher at school. Little of Rousseau's influence seems to have lingered.

Rousseau believed passionately in the abolition of inequality. Kennedy was in favour of it too - up to a point, but he found it hard to "empathise" with black Americans and moved with exaggerated caution on civil rights legislation. Further, no one appears to have witnessed Kennedy being passionate about anything; even his notorious philandering had a robotic quality, and, despite his charm and wit, he conveyed surprising coldness to those around him. The Frenchman, with an ardent faith in the morality of sentiment, demonstrated that the heart is the seat of virtue. Kennedy, on the other hand never lost his belief in the supremacy of rationalism. His actions were dictated largely by scepticism, expediency and (unusually for Americans) a strong sense of irony.

Probably it was a jolly good thing that Kennedy lacked passion in coping with his hawkish generals and what John Stuart Mill called "the tyranny of the majority" in the Cold War and domestic crises that attended his Presidency. These included the Cuban missile crisis, in which his skill and nerve averted nuclear war, and the disturbances over civil rights, particularly in the South, in which his caution averted unstaunchable urban bloodshed. America at that time was in one of those periods in which democracy passes under a cloud, requiring faith and courage to be a democrat (as presently, for example). It is as difficult to be an idealist when Daddy has bought you the Oval Office, as when Big Business and neoconservativism have adorned you with the epaulettes of Commander-in-Chief 40 years later.

Nevertheless, Kennedy re-emerges here as a man of common sense, compromise and courage. Leave aside the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco, on which he never had much of a grip, and his dodging of certain decencies (he refused to criticise Joe McCarthy). His Administration produced some good things, including an outward, non-isolationist approach to the world, especially to Africa, and helped put a stop to some bad things, including Jimmy Hoffa, the corrupt labour boss. Which brings me to the burdens under which Kennedy laboured.

His health, despite outward appearances, was terrible: Addison's disease, Crohn's disease, adrenal insufficiency, arthritis, "unremitting back pain", colitis, duodenal ulcer, osteoporosis, prostatitis, malaria, urethritis. As the first Roman Catholic to be elected President, he was regarded by many extremists as a leper. These problems were added to by what were perceived to be three foreign policy reverses during his first six months in office. One was over Laos. (Despite a public warning to Moscow that the US would act against the Communist drive towards the Mekong, Kennedy decided instead to negotiate for the de facto partition of Laos.) The second loss of prestige was over the Bay of Pigs, and the third was over Khrushchev's erection of the Berlin Wall without any serious US reaction.

Kennedy and his vice-President and successor Lyndon Johnson will be remembered positively for their efforts to dilute racism, or at least its worst effects. Had Congress - particularly Southern Democrats - not tied his hands on this and other domestic issues, and had the President lived, it is likely that his administration's achievements, on civil rights, health care, child welfare, would have been remarkable. That is not to ignore John Kenneth Galbraith's point, that Kennedy and his VP "were not the true source of the great movement to civil rights. It was the result, instead, of the violent and non-violent explosion from below... "

Almost everywhere here you find assertions and contradictions about Kennedy's policies, impact and character. The man who advocated freedom, advancement, and even non-alignment for Third World peoples could refer to an Italian-American attorney as "that goddamn guinea". The honeymooning bridegroom who wired his parents that "Jackie is enshrined forever in my heart" could go cruising with several young women while Jackie was struggling with an impending miscarriage. Camelot glittered, but behind the scenes it could be a tawdry place.

One recalls a Thomas Jefferson letter to John Adams in 1813, agreeing "that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents... There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents." This book, in my view, puts John Kennedy somewhere in between.

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