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John F. Kennedy: The American Presidents Series: The 35th President, 1961-1963 [Hardcover]

Alan Brinkley , Arthur M. Schlesinger , Sean Wilentz

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Book Description

May 8 2012 American Presidents (Times)

The young president who brought vigor and glamour to the White House while he confronted cold war crises abroad and calls for social change at home

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a new kind of president. He redefined how Americans came to see the nation's chief executive. He was forty-three when he was inaugurated in 1961—the youngest man ever elected to the office—and he personified what he called the "New Frontier" as the United States entered the 1960s.

But as Alan Brinkley shows in this incisive and lively assessment, the reality of Kennedy's achievements was much more complex than the legend. His brief presidency encountered significant failures—among them the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which cast its shadow on nearly every national-security decision that followed. But Kennedy also had successes, among them the Cuban Missile Crisis and his belated but powerful stand against segregation.

Kennedy seemed to live on a knife's edge, moving from one crisis to another—Cuba, Laos, Berlin, Vietnam, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. His controversial public life mirrored his hidden private life. He took risks that would seem reckless and even foolhardy when they emerged from secrecy years later.

Kennedy's life, and his violent and sudden death, reshaped our view of the presidency. Brinkley gives us a full picture of the man, his times, and his enduring legacy.

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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...

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.6 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 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
8 of 9 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.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Solid Kennedy Bio After A Few Series Stragglers Feb. 4 2014
By Zachary Koenig - Published on
After reading the Truman & Eisenhower books in the American Presidents series and being very disappointed by those entries, I was really hoping that the J.F.K. installment would revive my interest. It did the trick, as I flew through this one faster than many previous!

I think the reason that this bio works so well is because it seems that author Alan Brinkley doesn't really like Kennedy all that much (or, at least doesn't buy into the "Myth of Camelot" like some do). However, that being said, Brinkley still manages to produce a very competent and engaging biography of Kennedy without injecting too much of his own biases into the matter. Essentially, I really felt that Brinkley was able to "see both sides" of the Kennedy Administration, whereas other authors in this series either deify or take to task their subject a bit too much.

Also, Brinkley doesn't let this bio get dragged down in personnel rosters or legislative affairs. He focuses on what I believe this "short bio" series should focus on: the President as a person, as well as the major workings of and events within their administration(s).

Overall, this is one of the best entries in the series. It really revived my interest after a few laggards.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Superb Introduction to the JFK Presidency and Legacy Nov. 7 2013
By dcreader - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination has engendered numerous new studies of all aspects of John Kennedy’s life and presidency, ranging from the critical to the fawning. For those who wish to take stock of the Kennedy Presidency without axe grinding, Alan Brinkley’s 2012 entry in the American Presidents Series provides a succinct, up to date and highly judicious survey. In just over 200 pages (including notes, bibliography and index), Brinkley touches on all phases of Kennedy’s personal life and presidency and provides a nice tour of the enormous literature on JFK. For Brinkley, the challenge for historians of Kennedy is to understand why a President with so modest a tangible presidential record meant, and continues to mean, so much to so many.

Brinkley covers Kennedy’s family, upbringing and education, noting the importance that publication of his Harvard thesis (with considerable rewriting and support from a team of researchers) played in making a name for him, enabling him (along with his family’s money) to win a seat in Congress in 1946, followed by a successful 1952 Senate run. For Kennedy, though, Congress was just a route to the Presidency, and Brinkley details how he matured politically as he ascended the ladder, becoming a formidable national presence during his failed effort to obtain the Democratic party’s vice presidential nomination in 1956.

The next four years would see Kennedy enjoy flowery press coverage of him and his young family, helping him overcome questions about his youth, health and commitment to liberalism raised by his rivals for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. Brinkley does a good job in explaining how Kennedy outmaneuvered his colleagues with what was arguably the first modern primary campaign, combining extensive air travel and large expenditures to win primaries as a means of demonstrating his electability to the small handful of party bosses who controlled the nomination.

Brinkley deals forthrightly with Kennedy’s shortcomings. He covers Kennedy’s womanizing and his efforts to cover up his health problems without going into too many details for a 200 page book. All of the high (and low) points of Kennedy’s presidency are examined, including the Bay of Pigs, civil rights, the Vienna Summit with Khrushchev, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear test ban and Vietnam. The overall picture of Kennedy that emerges from Brinkley’s book is a highly balanced one that will likely dissatisfy both those who continue to idolize him and revisionists who have sought to undermine his legacy on those issues.

In fact, Brinkley gives Kennedy significant credit for championing civil rights legislation (though noting how late he was to act), resolving the Cuban Missile crisis without taking steps that could have led to nuclear war, and negotiating and obtaining ratification of the limited nuclear test ban. He punts on the question of what Kennedy would have done with Vietnam had he lived, though. Finally, he assigns Kennedy a significant share of the blame for his failure to make more progress with Congress on major legislation. Many items on his agenda such as civil rights legislation, tax cuts and Medicare would only become law once LBJ, a master legislator, took the helm.

Brinkley concludes with a look at how Kennedy’s perceived legacy started out brightly (65% of the population claimed to have voted with him after his assassination compared with 49% who actually did) only to falter with attacks from both sides of the political spectrum. Yet, Kennedy left a lasting legacy for many. Brinkley concludes that he remains identified with a particular moment in American history that rested in between the quiet Eisenhower era and the turbulent Johnson/Nixon days when Americans were highly optimistic about the future and therefore remains “as a bright and beckoning symbol of the world that many people believe they have lost.”
5.0 out of 5 stars Good bio on Kennedy April 20 2014
By Jeannie P. Smith - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent - a balanced look at the life of this extraordinary man who was in the right place for America during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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