As President Obama struggles to find his political footing, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that at least some of his woes may be rooted in a historical Democratic Party presidential divide. On the one side are what might be called loners; on the other, dynasts. The loners — Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter — were brilliant professorial types who campaigned as moralistic, independent reformers and came to grief. By contrast, the members of family dynasties — Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy — were intimately familiar with rivalries and power politics long before they entered the Oval Office.
By Chris Matthews
Illustrated. 479 pp. Simon & Schuster. $27.50
In his engaging biography, “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero,” Chris Matthews firmly sets the nation’s first Roman Catholic president in the context of his family. Matthews, the host of “Hardball” on MSNBC, makes no secret of his fervent admiration for Kennedy, but does not shy away from pointing to his shortcomings. He says that he has always been fascinated with Kennedy, and that “anytime I’ve ever met a person who knew him — someone who was there with J.F.K. in real time — I crave hearing his or her first-person memories.” Matthews, who has a deep knowledge of American political history, draws on conversations with numerous people, including his old boss (and onetime speaker of the House) Tip O’Neill and some of Kennedy’s former aides.
Matthews emphasizes the baleful shadow cast by Joseph P. Kennedy, the patriarch who drove his sons relentlessly. As Roosevelt’s ambassador to Britain in the late 1930s, he was a stalwart apologist for the Nazi regime and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. According to Matthews, “after Kristallnacht, when it was starkly evident that there could be no accommodation with Nazism, Ambassador Kennedy was out there on his own.” John Kennedy, who had “devoured” Winston Churchill’s works as a teenager, sought to model himself on Churchill. Matthews reports that he sent a letter to The Harvard Crimson in June 1940 implicitly repudiating his father’s disgraceful position. His senior thesis, “Appeasement in Munich,” later published under the title “Why England Slept,” argued that America had to be ready to battle the Third Reich. The book was well received in Britain as well as in this country.
Kennedy’s penchant for Churchillian stands distinguished him from many Congressional Democrats in the postwar era. As a candidate for the House of Representatives in 1946, he referred to the Soviet Union as a “slave state” and was still angry that the Roosevelt administration had supposedly sold out Eastern Europe at Yalta. He went on to denounce the Truman administration for losing China to the Communists. As a senator, when it came time to censure Joseph McCarthy — an Irish-American chum of the family — Kennedy was conveniently laid up in the hospital. Matthews astutely notes that the issue was of “tribal significance” in Massachusetts and says that according to Kennedy’s aide Ken O’Donnell, it would have been “political suicide” to condemn McCarthy. Matthews adds, “A part of him, the stubborn part — the part still dominant — cheered just about anyone liberals loved to hate.”
By the late 1950s, however, he had begun to woo liberals in preparation for a presidential run. Matthews further suggests that the Bay of Pigs episode, which President Kennedy refused to escalate by sending in American forces, and the Cuban missile crisis, which he safely negotiated to a close, impressed on him the importance of averting nuclear war. In his visionary 1963 address at American University, he called for “general and complete disarmament,” an aspiration that another Irishman, Ronald Reagan, helped promote two decades later. Kennedy also established the Peace Corps, moved toward embracing civil rights and stared down corporate chieftains. Whether he would have become a great president is a matter of speculation. But Matthews offers a valuable reminder of Kennedy’s skill at uniting toughness with inspirational leadership.