In the years since John F. Kennedy’s death on November 22, 1963, at the relatively young age of forty-six, the American public has consistently held him in the highest esteem. Numerous public opinion polls have shown that Americans still rank John F. Kennedy among the two or three greatest American presidents. The only other presidents whom Americans consistently admire as much as John F. Kennedy are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Even revelations about Kennedy’s personal weaknesses, such as his womanizing, have not had an adverse effect on public attitudes toward his life and political career. Author and historian Robert Dallek readily admits that this incredible admiration for a president whose service in the White House was under three years cannot be fully explained by Kennedy’s assassination, because two other martyred presidents, James Garfield and William McKinley, are not greatly admired by either historians or the general public.
To research this book, Dallek consulted previously unavailable documents in the John F. Kennedy Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and relied on oral interviews with people who had known Kennedy. The Kennedy family granted Dallek access to the late president’s medical records, also previously unavailable and now located in the Kennedy Library. Dalleck consulted a physician who enabled him to understand Kennedy’s complex and various medical conditions. This is a very reliable and well-researched biography.
During his lifetime, Kennedy led the public to believe that his parents were loving and concerned parents who raised their children in a warm and religious family. The reality was quite different; his family was dysfunctional. His father, Joseph, was a womanizer and a shady businessman and financier who relied on inside information to make a considerable fortune in the stock market in the years before insider trading was a federal offense. President Kennedy’s mother, Rose, was a distant mother who felt justly abandoned by her husband, whom she refused to divorce not only because her Catholic faith opposed divorce but also because she did not want to give up the elegant lifestyle her husband’s vast fortune made possible.
Joseph and Rose set incredibly high standards for their children and especially for their four sons. They sent Jack, their second son, to Choate, even though the headmaster of this prestigious boarding school made no effort to hide his contempt for Catholics such as the Kennedys. Joseph and Rose ignored their son’s dislike for this school because they wanted him to get to know the sons of influential Protestant businessmen. Dallek demonstrates that the teenage Jack Kennedy suffered from a severe case of Addison’s disease (an adrenal illness) that required several hospitalizations at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. Letters to his friends make it clear that Jack would have preferred to live closer to home during and after his lengthy medical treatments, but his parents ignored his pleas.
Dallek argues persuasively that Jack Kennedy sought to separate himself from his parents in order to affirm his own identity. His father was an isolationist, even while he was serving as the American ambassador to Great Britain in the late 1930’s. While he was an undergraduate at Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1940, Kennedy reacted against his father’s isolationism; his senior thesis, which was also published in 1940, was titled Why England Slept. In this work, he analyzed the disastrous efforts by British prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain to appease Adolf Hitler. Kennedy argued persuasively that the United States should support its British ally and oppose the absolute evil of the Nazis. Kennedy’s opposition to the dangers of the Axis was not merely theoretical. He could have easily obtained a deferment from the draft because of his serious medical problems, but he asked his father to hide his medical records from Navy doctors so that he could be accepted as a candidate for officer training.
Dallek describes well Kennedy’s real courage in the Solomon Islands when he swam through shark-infested waters to save the sailors serving under his command on the sunken PT-109. Although he...
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