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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

This is the first volume of a two-part biography of John F. Kennedy by Herbert S. Parmet, Professor of History at Queensborough Community College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York. The volume covers the period from Kennedy’s birth to the announcement of his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. Published seventeen years after the assassination, this painstaking study is more serious and objective than the books released heretofore which generally were written by close associates of the late President. Although acquainted with these personal accounts, Professor Parmet makes extensive use of the letters, memoranda, pre-Presidential papers, and other sources available in the John F. Kennedy Library. These are supplemented with interviews and an extensive survey of media coverage. The picture that emerges from this study does not vary greatly from the commonly held view of John Kennedy as a person or public figure. The picture shows, however, less of the glamorous side of his life and more of the man’s hard work, planning, and manipulation.

The lack of glamour is due in part to the more realistic and objective viewpoint of the pre-Presidential period and in part to the author’s writing style. Parmet’s story does not race along with the fluency, the extravagant adjectives, or the elegant prose of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s A Thousand Days or David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest.

The title of the book itself suggests the story might be less than glamorous and refers to a major focus of the book—the persistent ill health which plagued Kennedy until the late 1950’s, and even then he had problems with his back. His most serious medical problem was Addison’s disease, and he may also have suffered from malaria. His improved health in the late 1950’s was partially due to cortisone treatment for the Addison’s disease. Beginning with scarlet fever at the age of three, Kennedy was continually beset with one or another childhood disease, which may have been a manifestation of Addison’s disease which impairs the excretions of the adrenal glands and reduces immunity to infection. Throughout his school years, first at Dexter and then at Choate and Harvard, it was a rare term in which he did not spend at least one week in the infirmary or hospital, and usually it was more. Illness forced his withdrawal from the London School of Economics a month after he entered. As if these problems were not enough, he ruptured a spinal disc in football practice at Harvard. At various times including during his adult years, he experienced a complete physical collapse, another symptom of Addison’s disease. Perhaps the periods of his worst health were the fall of 1954 and spring of 1955 when he underwent back operations, which were complicated by Addison’s disease, and on two different occasions his life was in danger. Before Addison’s disease was brought under control, Kennedy was not expected to live beyond his forties.

The picture conveyed by this emphasis on Kennedy’s ill health is so different from his popular image that it would be difficult to accept had the author not included a series of photographs which show Jack to be as frail and ill as he is described in the text.

It is interesting that a person with such ill health would strive for public office, especially one who is wealthy enough to live without working. Rose and Joseph Kennedy expected high performance from their children, however, and after his older brother, Joseph Jr., was killed in World War II, the father’s goal of having a son in the White House was transferred to Jack. Anyone else might think it presumptuous to expect one’s son to become President, but the elder Kennedy had achieved spectacular success in amassing wealth and power, and from his vantage point the presidency did not seem an unreasonable goal. Such a goal was not uncongenial to Jack who had demonstrated an interest in public affairs as early as his...

(The entire section is 1,920 words.)