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John F. Kennedy: The American Presidents Series: The 35th President, 1961-1963 Hardcover – May 8 2012

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Times Books; 1st edition edition (May 8 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805083499
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805083491
  • Product Dimensions: 15.1 x 2.5 x 21.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 318 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #511,081 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

About the Author

Alan Brinkley is the author most recently of The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He is also the author of Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression, which won the National Book Award, and The End of Reform: New Deal Liberalism in Recession and War. He is the Allan Nevins Professor of History at Columbia University and has also taught at Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

The Irish Prince
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born into an Irish American world that his family helped change forever. For generations, Americans of Irish descent had faced almost insuperable boundaries to their aspirations. Until the first decades of the twentieth century, most Irish Americans lived in insular communities and were largely excluded from many professions. They attended Catholic schools and—for those who chose to enter politics—ran for office in Irish wards and won votes from mostly Irish voters. Rarely did they attract support from outside their own communities. But the two families who gave birth to the first Irish American president broke new ground.
One of John Kennedy’s grandfathers, John F. Fitzgerald, was himself a politician who crossed the boundaries that had limited Irish American ambitions. He was a charming, garrulous, energetic man who graduated from Boston College, enrolled briefly at Harvard Medical School, and was elected to Congress in 1894. Twelve years later, he became the first Irish American mayor of Boston, serving three terms between 1906 and 1914. For years, he remained one of the best-known political figures in the city. (He lived long enough to see his grandson elected to Congress, and he predicted that he would become president.) Fitzgerald’s wife and second cousin, Mary Josephine Hannon, gave birth to six children. The eldest of them was Rose Elizabeth Fitzgerald, born in 1890.1
The future president’s other grandfather was Patrick J. Kennedy, who left school at fourteen to support his large and struggling family. But despite his scant education and his impoverished beginnings, he saved his earnings and bought a small string of taverns and bars. Later he opened a liquor importing company and later still bought substantial interests in a coal company and a bank—enterprises that made him a wealthy and substantial figure in the Irish American community. His wife, Mary Hickey, was herself the daughter of a prosperous tavern owner. She had four children—among them Joseph P. Kennedy, born in 1888.2
Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph Kennedy were exceptional young people within this enclosed world. Rose’s eminent political family made her something of a celebrity at a young age. She attended elite Catholic schools and took an extensive tour of Europe. By the age of eighteen she had abandoned her early hopes to attend Wellesley College to join her father’s political life.3
Joe Kennedy, although from a less eminent family than Rose’s, was more ambitious—and more successful—than almost anyone else in the Irish community. He attended the prestigious Boston Latin School, graduated from Harvard, and moved into banking. By the age of twenty-five, he was the president of Columbia Trust, a modest bank in which his father had once invested. Joe quickly doubled its accounts.4
Rose and Joe had become attracted to each other as early as 1906, when she was sixteen and he eighteen. Rose’s father had another suitor in mind for his daughter—a wealthy contractor and friend of the family—and Fitzgerald tried for years to keep her apart from Joe. But Rose found Joe a much more compelling figure than her father’s choice, and she wore him down. They were married in 1914, and they broke with tradition by moving to a house in Brookline, then an almost entirely Protestant community. Their first son, Joseph Patrick Kennedy Jr., was born in 1915. Two years later, on May 29, 1917, their second son—John Fitzgerald Kennedy—was born.5
*   *   *
Life in the Kennedy family was dominated by Joe’s social ambitions and his spectacular financial success. His marriage to the mayor’s daughter was only one of many steps that would lead him and his children well beyond the Irish world in which they were born. Joe was smart, ambitious, and often ruthless—determined not only to accumulate wealth but also to gain power. Banking, he believed, was the key to the kind of success he sought. “I saw, even in my limited dealings, that sooner or later, the source of business was traced to the banks,” he wrote later. Banking, he claimed, “could lead a man anywhere, as it played an important part in every business.”6
It was not just power and wealth he sought. He could have had a prosperous career as the most eminent Irish banker in the city, but he aspired to rise higher. He wanted to move into the great world of finance—a world dominated by old Yankee families in Boston and New York. World War I interrupted his plans. He left the bank and became a manager of war production at the Bethlehem steel yards in Quincy, Massachusetts. When the army tried to draft him, the Bethlehem executives fought to keep him, calling him indispensable. His success in a world of Yankee businessmen helped draw him into larger and larger worlds. “The key to Kennedy’s spectacular financial success,” one of his colleagues later said, “was his anticipation of the future … his vision of what lay down the road, a vision that was always there, sustaining him and guiding him—that vision was simply phenomenal.”7 In the heady days of the stock market boom in the 1920s, he joined a Brahmin brokerage house, where he expanded his connections in the financial world and became one of the canniest and most successful investors of his era. By 1927, he had relocated his family to Riverdale, just north of Manhattan, where he could be closer to Wall Street. Even before the family’s move, he had accumulated over $2 million, which was only the beginning of his extraordinary rise.
Joe’s remarkable success created problems for Rose. She wanted an ordered and respectable domesticity. But Joe was not much of a partner in the home—traveling constantly, working late, and always looking for new connections and new opportunities. That left Rose alone in a large and complicated home. By the early 1930s, there were nine children: Joe Jr., Jack, Rosemary, Kathleen, Eunice, Pat, Bobby, Jean, and Ted. It was a loud, boisterous, and at times chaotic household that never lived up to Rose’s hopes—perhaps in part because Rose herself was either pregnant or recovering from pregnancy for the first seventeen years of her marriage. After the family moved to Riverdale, they retained a foothold in Massachusetts. Joe purchased a large property in Hyannis Port that became the family’s most enduring home. The celebrated pictures of the Kennedy family in later years—sailing off the coast of Cape Cod, playing touch football on the lawn—were a reminder of decades of outdoor activity and competitive sports. Long before the Kennedys became politically active, the family had already become among the most famous Irish American families in America—a result of Joe’s enormous and conspicuous wealth, and also because of the attractive image of the Kennedy tribe.8
But the attractive, even idyllic, images of this apparently golden family disguised its share of troubles. Rose remained overwhelmed by her large family, particularly after their first daughter, Rosemary, was diagnosed as mildly retarded. Rose had few friends and few activities in New York beyond taking care of her growing family. She distanced herself from her husband sexually except for procreation and traveled extensively around America and Europe to escape the pressures of home. Her absence dismayed her children (and especially Jack). Joe Sr. was still mostly away, traveling on business and expanding his business empire—including an investment in the movie industry. He also maintained an extramarital sexual life—most conspicuously with the actress Gloria Swanson. The children grew up supervised for long periods by servants and relatives.9
Rosemary aside, Jack had the most difficult life of the family. He was under the shadow of his older brother, Joe Jr., who was the recipient of his father’s greatest hopes. Jack developed a competitive relationship with his older brother, who almost always won whatever contests they waged. But a more important part of his youth—and indeed of much of his life—was the long history of illness that began shortly after birth. He was restless and fitful even as a baby, had trouble digesting milk, and suffered frequent stomachaches. By the time he was three, he had experienced scarlet fever, causing his mother “frantic terror” and leading his father to spend hours praying (uncharacteristically) in the Catholic Church, which he rarely attended.10 This frightening illness was followed by other debilitating diseases (chicken pox, ear infections, and undiagnosed stomach, intestinal, and other ailments that made it difficult for him to eat and sometimes left him so weak that he could hardly stand). Sickness plagued him into adolescence and beyond, baffling his doctors, his family, and Jack himself. For months at a time, he was gaunt, pale, and weak. Multiple and often mistaken diagnoses added to his ordeal. Treatment for one problem created problems elsewhere, and there was no definitive explanation of what ailed him. Jack liked to joke about his frequent illnesses, and he tried to disguise the pain and fear that he often felt. But there were also periods of near despair, especially when he was in hospitals for weeks, submitting to endless tests, and still failing to get any answers to what his problems were.11
His illnesses inevitably affected his schooling. Shortly after the family’s move to New York, Jack was enrolled in the Riverdale Country School. But at the age of thirteen, with his grades an undistinguished C+ average, his parents decided he should go to boarding school. Rose Kennedy was especially eager to get the boys out of the house because she felt so overwhelmed by her many children. Jack expected to follow Joe Jr. to Choate, the distinguished boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut, but Rose—on her own—decided in t...
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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By Maurice A. Rhodes TOP 1000 REVIEWER on June 18 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I wanted to read this brief account of Kennedy's privileged life because the previous books in this series have been so compellingly interesting - Truman, both Roosevelts and Johnson about whom I knew little except for his remarkable record in progressing the Kennedy Civil Rights agenda. The books are just the right length for a good review of these political giants who often have feet of clay.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 21 reviews
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
By RBSProds - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Five EXCELLENT Stars. The latest edition in "The American Presidents Series" is an outstanding, detailed, and sobering historical account by historian Alan Brinkley of the family background, political career, the tumultuous "1000 days", and the historical significance of the 35th President of the USA, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The eloquent unchanging 'boilerplate' "Editor's Note" by Kennedy's 'special assistant', the late Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr is very fitting for this volume. Despite one historian who thought the assassinated Kennedy's short tour of presidential duty would be viewed as a "flicker" in the lineage of presidents, his legacy, as shown in this book, endures in a positive light because of his successes and despite his failures and much unfinished legislative business. This historical analysis gives many interesting facts about his life and times. A sickly child in a large family with a father driven for business success and a mother at times overwhelmed by the nine children, JFK was initially a mediocre student at the Choate prep school, during which time he began the sexual prowess which was evident during his White House years. The author tracks JFK's progress through Choate and Harvard, his WWII naval service, and his political career (with his father, Joe, successfully intervening at key times). Mr. Brinkley does a great job putting the major and minor events of JFK's life in context without unnecessarily dwelling on any topic: the true story of PT 109, meeting Jackie, the Catholicism effect, NIxon's knee, the "fluid Presidency" style, the Republican and southern Democrat House coalition against him, the disastrous "Bay of Pigs" invasion, the US vs USSR Vienna summit, the Cuban missile crisis, the "freedom rides" and the volatile civil rights issue, his lack of legislative success, "Ich bin ein Berliner", the expanding Vietnam war, the infamous Kennedy libido & his many women, Hoover, why Jackie fled a White House reception in tears, the assassination, and his incomplete goals for programs such as civil rights, Medicare, HUD, and the war on poverty. The excellent post-assassination "The Afterlife of John F. Kennedy" chapter details the many reasons for the unusual legacy of this presidency. This overview of the Kennedy life and presidential years is an excellent capsule history, laden with details that may be new even for many of us who lived through those "camelot" days of John F. Kennedy's 35th Presidency of the United States. Highly Recommended. Five INTERESTING Stars! (225 pages ~526 KB. Contains some expletives. This review is based on a Kindle download, reviewed in text and text-to-speech modes.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
A New Biography of John Kennedy May 15 2012
By Robin Friedman - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
John Kennedy (1917 -- 1963) served as the 35th president from 1961 until his assassination on November 22, 1963. Many baby boomers, including myself, have strong memories of Kennedy; and many people of all ages tend to see his presidency as a watershed moment for the United States. Alan Brinkley offers a sober, thoughtful, and measured account of Kennedy's life and presidency in his new short biography, "John F. Kennedy", the most recent volume in the American Presidents series edited by the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Sean Wilentz. Brinkley has written extensively on 20th Century American history; his works include books about the New Deal and American liberalism.

It is difficult to think clearly about Kennedy because of the memories his name evokes, coupled with the assassination and the United States' subsequent political history. During and after his presidency, Kennedy was a highly charismatic, graceful figure who, in the view of many, was taking the United States in a new direction with a sense of mission and purpose. He was dynamic and young. Others, on both the left and right, were less enchanted and more critical. Brinkley is fully aware of the divergent views of our 35th president and he works hard to present a realistic assessment. His book suggests that Kennedy was a gifted but flawed individual who overcame severe health problems on the one hand but who behaved recklessly and carelessly thoughout his life on the other hand, particularly in his sexual relationships with women. Kennedy's presidency, Brinkley argues, would not meet the standards of greatness. Its legislative accomplishments were limited. The failed Bay of Pigs invasion and subsequent clandestine activities in Cuba haunted Kennedy's administration. Yet the president had successes in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis and in his belated but eloquent support of civil rights.

The Kennedy that emerges from Brinkely's book is a careful, pragmatic politician with a reclusive temperament. He was markedly cool-headed and unemotional. In one of the most perceptive observations in the book, Brinkley writes, "{i[t is one of the many ironies of Kennedy's posthumous image that a man who himself was so uncomfortable with passionate commitment would inspire so much of it in others." The charisma that Kennedy possessed, the devotion of many people to him, and the possibly inevitable falling-off has generally struck me as, on the whole, unfortunate in its impact.

In its short compass, Brinkley's study covers both Kennedy's life and his presidency. Kennedy's wealthy and powerful father was critical in exerting influence and money in Kennedy's early terms in Congress and in the Senate. During these terms, Kennedy showed something of a devil-may-care character with few strong legislative accomplishments to his credit. An indifferent student for most of his life, Kennedy read widely, achieved fame with his historical writing, and won a Pulitzer Prize. Although his father had to exert pressure to allow Kennedy to serve in the military, Kennedy emerged as a war hero for his naval rescue efforts on PT-109.

Kennedy won a close election for president against Richard Nixon in 1960 and proceeded to establish what he termed the "New Frontier" with the still-famous call from his Inaugural Address: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." In successive chapters, Brinkley carefully parses through the major foreign and domestic issues in Kennedy's administration, from the Bay of Pigs Fiasco, to the Cuban Missle Crisis, to Berlin and Laos, to Civil Rights and to the confrontations with business and with U.S. Steel. Brinkely shows a Kennedy impatient with meetings, the Federal bureaucracy, and hierarchy. He governed in a seemingly undisciplined way. Although the term is usually associated with other leaders, the "imperial presidency" was not far from Kennedy's administration. The book shows both Kennedy's accomplishments and his failings. A late chapter of the book covers Kennedy's role in Vietnam. Brinkley shows that Kennedy played a substantial role in American involvement. He declines to speculate on what Kennedy might have done if he had lived. In the final chapter of the book, Brinkley discusses the many theories put foward following Kennedy's assassination. In explaining the continued fascination with Kennedy, Brinkley writes that many people:

"look back nostalgically to an era that seemed to be a time of national confidence and purpose. Kennedy reminds many Americans of an age when it was possible to believe that politics could be harnessed to America's highest aspirations, that it could be rooted in a sense of national community, that it could speak to the country's moral yearnings."

Brinkley offers a careful, restrained look at Kennedy and his influence on the "national imagination". This is one of the better books in the American presidents series. It portrays Kennedy with understanding.

Robin Friedman
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
John F. Kennedy's Short Presidency--What Did He Do and What Did It Mean? Jan. 27 2015
By Steven Peterson - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is another nice entry in the American Presidents series, originally edited by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr and--after his death-[-Sean Wilentz. In this instance, there is some poignancy in that' Schlesinger was an adviser to Kennedy. The books in this series are brief, making information available to readers who do not want massive 600 page biographies. In that, most of the volumes succeed (although I prefer such massive works!!).

The work itself takes a chronological perspective on Kennedy. We learn of his life from birth to death--with an epilogue about Kennedy's reputation and evaluation after his death.

Kennedy grew up with a degree of privilege. His father, Joseph, became wealthy as a financier and parlayed that into an eminent career. When Kennedy became interested in politics, he was well bankrolled.

Before that, we see his childhood and youth--wracked with physical ailments and sometimes fearing for his life. He was an indifferent student in college, although he was obviously quite intelligent. When World War II began, he became commander of a PT boat--PT 109. When the boat was destroyed in combat, Kennedy handled the crisis nicely--a major boost for him as he became politically oriented.

Then, the development of his political career--House of Representatives and then the Senate; his relationship with his future wife Jacqueline Bouvier; his continual womanizing; the trajectory of his career (a potential vice presidential candidate in 1956). In 1960, he contended for the Democratic nomination for President. He succeeded (with considerable support from his father).

We then see the development of his presidency, from miserable failures (the Bay of Pigs) to successes (The Cuban Missile Crisis). He tended to be cautious and did not leave a real legacy of actual success, although many of his initiatives came about under Lyndon Johnson's presidency. There is also a realistic depiction of his role in the development of the US involvement in Vietnam.

Several positive things about this book: it is realistic; it has a critical element to it; it provides a realistic appraisal of his presidency.

All in all, if the reader wants a rather brief biography of JFK, this is a pretty good option to consider.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
There are two historians named Brinkley--this is the good one June 13 2012
By JLafayette - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I wonder if Alan Brinkley has ever wondered if his "brand" is being tarnished by the quickly-written, turgid books published by Douglas Brinkley. Douglas Brinkley publishes about a book a year and it always shows. He is like so much confetti--a nothingness in the air.

Alan Brinkley, on the other hand, is a true scholar, his books on Huey Long and Henry Luce, among others, reveal the mark of a true historian, one who conducts careful research and provides readers with intelligent, unbiased works that are thoughtful and enduring.

Alan Brinkley's brief biography of President Kennedy is no exception. It's hard to imagine that there could be anything new to say about JFK, especially in the wake of more recent massive works on the 35th president. But Brinkley presents a man who, despite his many health problems, had the kind of drive for public office and abiding sense of irony that was perhaps only combined to such great effect in the personality of Abraham Lincoln.

Brinkley does a nice job of giving us a president who was deeply flawed personally--his legendary sexual daliances may have never brought him down in a more compliant media era, but it certainly left him open to blackmail from Soviet agents. But also we see a JFK who was, like Lincoln, open to new ideas and always evolving. In just a short three-year period Kennedy went from being not very interested at all in the civil rights movement, to embracing it as a moral cause crucial to the future success of America. JFK also entered office determined to ratchet up the stakes between the U.S. and the USSR. By 1963 he was more open to dialogue with the Soviet government. This would probably not have been the approach taken by Ronald Reagan twenty years later, but its important to note that the Soviet leadership during JFK's era was much younger and more willing to push the nuclear button, or at least willing to threaten to do so. By the time of Reagan's ascendancy, many of those same leaders had lost their edge, and were more concerned with the kind of conventional land warfare that allowed Reagan to stand up to them without risking a nuclear holocaust.

Brinkley also nicely uses the archives of the JFK Library in Boston to produce behind-the-scenes correspondence during Kennedy's rise to power and his presidency, giving this book a nicely personal touch.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Frank Anderson - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I read all the Biographies of the Presidents by way of the Presidential series. If you are going to do it, read John Hancock first because he was the first Continental Congress President. You will find as you read these how the lives of each President intertwined with the next. The job is a lineage.