Since the beginning of English settlement in America, there has been a strain of American thought that has regarded the New World as the scene of a great moral experiment. For adherents of this view, America would become the home of a distinctly righteous and well-ordered society. John Winthrop, leading a group of Puritan settlers to Massachusetts, envisioned the society they would build as “a Citty vpon a Hill, the Eies of all people…vpon us.” Consequently, Winthrop exhorted his followers to embody the ideals of Christian life in their community as an example for the rest of the world. Years later, the founders of the United States shared Winthrop’s sense of a moral mission and believed that their republican experiment could be safeguarded only by private and public virtue. As George Washington declared in his farewell address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Ever since, the expectation that the United States should cleave to a higher moral standard than other nations has warred with the American ideal of liberty in personal matters. Nowhere has this tension revealed itself so dramatically as in the exemplary level of conduct Americans demand of their political leaders. From the time that Alexander Hamilton was effectively debarred from running for the presidency because of the exposure of an adulterous affair, private sins have ended the careers of American statesmen. While a hypocritical salaciousness has played a part in the American people’s condemnation of erring politicians, their moral veto has also expressed the conviction that in a republic, the dignity of the governing institutions demands that only the best men and women be chosen to hold office. If the people were to elect freely the same sort of creatures who might rise in a tyranny, this would undermine the very rationale for a republican democracy. It would also deny the belief in a special mission for America. Hence, the American people’s interest in the virtue, or character, of statesmen is a legitimate expression of civic concern. It is as a manifestation of this interest that Thomas C. Reeves’s A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy must be judged.
Reeves’s biography of Kennedy is a thoroughgoing exploration of the relation between character and statesmanship in modern politics. President Kennedy is an apt subject for such a study because of the reputation he enjoyed during his lifetime and after as a man of exceptional distinction. Reeves’s book, however, is an exercise in disillusionment. An early enthusiast for Kennedy and his family, Reeves found his faith battered in the middle 1970’s as revelations about the former president’s womanizing, contacts with organized crime, and attempts to assassinate the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro were authoritatively documented. This contradicted the image of the Kennedy Administration as a second Camelot presided over by a spotless knight. Fascinated by the distance between the glittering memory of Kennedy’s presidency and the sordid facts being unearthed, Reeves embarked upon a personal quest for the truth. The result is a stunning indictment of the cult of personality that was manufactured for John F. Kennedy by his family and supporters.
Reeves maintains that Kennedy lacked the qualities of character, such as integrity, compassion, and temperance, that Americans reasonably expect from their leaders. Step by step, Reeves demolishes the walls of lies erected to protect the memory of the former president. The Kennedy he reveals is a tragically flawed man, unable to control his appetites, who was manipulated into public office by his father and who eventually came to relish political life only for the power it brought him. Yet A Question of Character is more than an exposé of a tarnished president. Reeves’s book is also a searing indictment of the style of American politics that made Kennedy’s rise possible. As such, it joins a growing body of work, including Roger Morris’ Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician (1990) and Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson (in two volumes, The Path to Power, 1982, and Means of Ascent, 1990), that condemns both the men who emerged to national prominence in the years following World War II and the politics, based on the manipulation of the mass media, that they pioneered.
The roots of John F. Kennedy’s personal and political journey lie in the experiences of the Irish peasants who migrated to Boston in the nineteenth century. Despised by the ruling elite of Boston because of their customs and religion, the Irish reacted by organizing politically and wresting control of the city machinery. Both of John F. Kennedy’s grandfathers rose to prosperity through politics, his maternal grandfather even serving as Boston’s mayor. Yet political success did not translate into social respectability, and the leading Irish families still were denied access to the centers of social prestige by the city’s Brahmin aristocracy. This snobbery infuriated John F. Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy. A brilliant young businessman capable of wooing and winning the Mayor’s daughter, Rose Fitzgerald, in 1914, Joseph determined to have his revenge on the class that rejected him by seeing to it that he and his children rose as far and as fast as possible. Through banking, playing the stock market in the halcyon days of the 1920’s, investing in the motion-picture industry, and even bootlegging, Joseph built up an immense fortune. He used his money to become a power in the Democratic Party. President Franklin D. Roosevelt rewarded Joseph for his services by naming him ambassador to Great Britain in 1937. Joseph Kennedy’s dreams of political...
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