Chris Matthews writes as much a nostalgic book about Jack Kennedy, as a historical text. The book aims to illuminate how the character of the famed son from Massachusetts was created, and how his self-confidence was used to make sound judgment calls during the Cuban missile crisis.
Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero allows the reader to know Matthews grew up in the midst of the moments of which he writes. There are many who still gravitate back to their childhoods, and see the pivotal times of our nation’s history which they lived through as extra-special. In the case of Jack Kennedy there is no doubt that Matthews is correct about his assessment of not only the times, but also of the man of which he is most curious.
The book makes a point to show that the lack of a loving mother for Jack Kennedy had to be a harsh blow. How could it not be? As Matthews recalls warm memories about his own family life as a boy on the one hand, there is the absence of Rose when Jack is seriously sick on the other hand. Matthews writes of Rose leaving to visit friends in another state instead of being by her child’s bedside. It is a cold thought.
Readers feel the competition between the Kennedy bothers, most notably Joe, Jr., who wanted to best Jack who at the time had already become a war-hero in the Pacific. We read of Joe on his cot clenching his fists while muttering “By God, I’ll show them” as he contemplates another dangerous mission. Joe would die in the skies over Europe when his bomb-laden plane exploded.
Perhaps there is no more personal tension to be felt than in the paragraphs spread over the book dealing with Jack’s father, Joe Kennedy. History is not kind to Joe, Sr., and for good reason as there is not much to hold onto that does not sink with the weight of history. But it is wonderful to read when Jack reaches out, up, and away from his father and breaks new ground for himself.
No one needs reminding of Jack’s bad judgment calls when it comes to being unfaithful to his wife. Matthews, being a true student of history does not allow the fond feelings he has for his subject to shade a complete view of the then-candidate for the White House.
There is a sad scene that takes place following the West Virginia slug-fest of a primary where Jack is reveling in his victory. Ben Bradlee, who would become editor of the Washington Post, recalls how Jack showed no attention to his wife that night as he greeted people as an exhilarated victor. Jackie seemed miserable at being left out of things as she stood on a stairway. As Jack had the greatest moment of his campaign, the moment he knew the nomination was his, Jackie would disappear and sit by herself in the car.
It is those images that leaves readers sitting back and wondering why JFK had such a huge flaw in his make-up.
But for all of the chinks in his armor there is no doubt that when things were rough President Kennedy rose to the occasion and proved what leadership based on a keen intellect was all about.
As a sick boy JFK had constantly read, and his curiosity about the world only increased into his adulthood. His ability to stand up to his father, and the Democratic Party only added a foundation underneath him when he needed to stand up to the military leaders during the missile crisis.
The book shines brightly as we near those days in October 1962 when readers get as close as we can to what made JFK tick as a man, and respond as a president. I suspect that is when Matthews wishes he could have been in the Oval Office, and witnessed the decision-making process play out.
Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero is a book that will take you back to a time not so far removed from our own. It is a book of passion about politics, but with a most candid view of its main topic. This book is well worth your time.