President Kennedy

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

PRESIDENT KENNEDY: PROFILE OF POWER by Richard Reeves is a major addition to the many volumes published about the youngest American ever to be elected president. The public’s fascination with Kennedy began even before his election in 1960. His youth, his charisma, and his family captured the attention of much of the world in the early 1960’s. His death at the hands of an assassin in 1963 only contributed to the Kennedy mystique.

Reeves successfully demythologizes Kennedy. After his death most writers and commentators eulogized Kennedy as the young hero cut down in his prime. More recently journalists and historians have written about a Kennedy who was more interested in sexual conquests than statesmanship, a man of more profile than courage.

In Reeves’s account, Kennedy is neither a saint nor a sinner. Reeves does not ignore the darker side but the focus of the biography is on Kennedy as president. And here Reeves’ work is most revealing. His Kennedy is a politician, worrying about his 1964 reelection. His interest in domestic affairs was minimal: the growing Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King was only of marginal concern. It was the Cold War with the Soviet Union, along with its manifestations in Cuba, Berlin, and particularly Vietnam, which dominated Kennedy’s presidency.

This Kennedy is a pragmatist, not at idealist. What emerges in these pages is a portrait of a man who was eminently human, whose rhetoric inspired many in America and abroad, who avoided a nuclear war at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, who got America more deeply involved in Vietnam, and who carried on an active love life—unfortunately with the knowledge of J. Edgar Hoover. PRESIDENT KENNEDY: PROFILE OF POWER is both significant and readable.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLXIX, November 20, 1993, p.2.

Boston Globe. October 17, 1993, p.16.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 17, 1993, p.2.

The New Republic. CCIX, November 29, 1993, p.32.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, October 24, 1993, p.11.

Newsweek. CXXII, October 18, 1993, p.84.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, August 9, 1993, p.426.

Time. CXLII, October 18, 1993, p.102.

U.S. News and World Report. CXV, November 22, 1993, p.19.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, October 31, 1993, p.5.

President Kennedy

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Richard Reeves’s President Kennedy: Profile in Power joins the many previous historical and biographical studies, serious and otherwise, of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and his era. The fascination with Kennedy began even before his election and has continued, both in print and in film. Kennedy was the youngest person ever to be elected to the presidency of the United States, and the nation’s first Roman Catholic president. Succeeding Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961, he symbolized the passing of the torch from the major figures of World War II to a new generation of Americans. His youth, his charisma, his intelligence, and his family became apart of the American consciousness during the three short years from his election until he was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas in November of 1963.

For many Americans, Kennedy and his administration embodied all that was noble about the hopes and aims of the United States. Camelot was on the banks of the Potomac River, and Kennedy was the young King Arthur searching for the Holy Grail. It was a time of hope and optimism. His rhetoric resonated for many in the early 1960’s. The plea in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” inspired many Americans, young and old, to volunteer for the Peace Corps. His ringing statement at the Berlin Wall, “Ich bin em Berliner,” gave hope to millions in Germany and beyond. The period also saw the continued growth of the Civil Rights movement, a movement that eventually ended legal segregation in the United States. Yet his death in Dallas, followed by the murders of Robert F Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, by the deaths and injuries suffered by Civil rights demonstrators, and by almost sixty thousand American dead in Vietnam, gave that decade something of the feeling of being both the best of times, under Kennedy, and the worst of times, under his successors.

His apotheosis came after his martyrdom in Dallas-few then living would ever forget the precise moment they heard the report of the shooting-and the immediate response in biography and history largely portrayed Kennedy as the fallen leader of noble causes, a feeling that only increased when his achievements were compared to the failures of the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Later, however, revisionist writers have discovered a different Kennedy. His image has been clouded, partially because of discoveries concerning his personal life and the many sexual dalliances he had during his marriage to Jacqueline Bouvier—even while he was president, and even in the White House-and partially because of his failure to push his domestic policies through Congress. The myth of Camelot was seriously tarnished; it was said that Kennedy too often exhibited more profile than courage, to paraphrase the title of his own history of courageous statesmen.

Thirty years after Kennedy’s assassination, however, Reeves presents a biographical history that is neither excessively adulatory nor condemnatory. This is not a return to Camelot: Kennedy’s personal peccadilloes are covered. Yet these are not the central concern. The result is an examination of the Kennedy presidency that does justice to the man and his administration in the context of his time. The focus is on Kennedy as president, the issues and problems he faced and embraced-a story told from the Oval Office, not from the president’s bedroom. While not new in its essential outline, by concentrating upon Kennedy the politician and statesman Reeves gives the reader a portrait of Kennedy that is undoubtedly more representative of his historical significance and relevance than most earlier studies.

Reeves’s Kennedy was primarily a politician. He wanted to be president; he refused to wait his turn in spite of his relative youth, and he captured the Democratic nomination in 1960, easily deflecting questions about his religion and his lack of national experience. In a controversial and narrow election, tainted by questionable voting tactics particularly in Illinois, he defeated Richard Nixon, the incumbent Republican vice president.

What is striking in the Kennedy portrayed by Reeves is the president’s acute awareness of and overriding concern about the political ramifications of his many decisions. From his earliest days in the White House, his eyes were upon his reelection in 1964. Often this focus paralyzed him-he was generally unwilling to deviate fundamentally from the programs and policies inherited from the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, in spite of his ringing slogans...

(The entire section is 1889 words.)