Category: Archive

Echo Focus: Hail to the chief

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

A reviewer for the Charlotte (N.C.) Observer wrote: “Having read nearly 75 books on the Kennedys, I doubted that another 900-plus page biography could hold my interest. I was wrong.”
In the Washington Post, the only major media outlet to review “John F. Kennedy,” Thurston Clarke said that on each issue, O’Brien “weighs the evidence, considers earlier authors’ conclusions and renders a judgment that is usually thoughtful and convincing…”
Clarke added: “Considering the number of Kennedy books that are in our future, it may be rash to credit anyone with having the last word on anything, but it is difficult to imagine anyone improving on some of O’Brien’s Solomonic rulings.”
O’Brien doesn’t shirk from discussing JFK’s great flaw, his “nearly pathological” womanizing; one chapter is entitled “Connoisseur of the Sexual Game.” Yet the president so shines through in other ways that Clarke, himself a noted Kennedy scholar, commends the book to younger people who might be unaware that a politician can indeed possess such virtues.
Despite the praise for his work, O’Brien, a retired University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley history professor, is disappointed that a substantial presidential biography – his fifth book – hasn’t been greeted with some fanfare.
“It kind of hurts that I didn’t get a review in the New York Times,” he said.
It hasn’t helped his cause that “John F. Kennedy” was published just two and a half years after Robert Dallek’s “An Unfinished Life.” Dallek, well known as a biographer of Lyndon Johnson, had generous funding for his JFK project and began his research only in 1998. The Wisconsin professor, in contrast, had to combine his teaching duties with the 19,000 hours he put into the book.
“I wanted a big challenge,” he said about his decision to write about Kennedy. “I felt that every generation should write about their national leaders.”
O’Brien — who was born in Green Bay, Wis. on the very day in 1943 that Kennedy and his men abandoned PT 109 in the South Pacific — was an undergraduate through much of the JFK presidency.
“I was so preoccupied with my studies, that I didn’t pay detailed attention to him,” recalled O’Brien, who’s been married for 38 years and is a grandfather.
“Of course I liked him. My family were Democrats. And my mother loved John Kennedy,” he said. The fact that the president was a Catholic was also a factor in their partisanship. (The historian’s three older brothers joined the priesthood.)
Forty years on, O’Brien’s work is more than a retelling, however sophisticated, of the Kennedy legend. He was able to study three new collections in the Kennedy Library, which he believes, have given him an edge over other in-print biographies. Indeed, he feels able to contradict a much-publicized claim made by Dallek about Kennedy’s health.
When JFK’s medical records became available two years ago, O’Brien approached three Harvard doctors. “I didn’t know these physicians, but they willingly came [to the Kennedy Library],” he said. There, the four studied boxes of the president’s medical records and x-rays of his back, which showed serious scarring from failed operations. But there was no evidence of osteoporosis, from which Dallek said JFK suffered.
While not doubting that Kennedy had had very serious illnesses, O’Brien believes that he’d become a hypochondriac after a lifetime of contact with doctors and that minor problems were inflated. “Normal people would adjust,” he said.
In that regard, the diaries of JFK’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, another new source, show doctors squabbling over the president’s various ailments.

New archives
However the most important of the new collections, in O’Brien’s view, are the papers of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., which were only opened in 2002.
O’Brien doesn’t much like the Kennedy patriarch — he was an anti-Semitic, robber-baron businessman, whose philandering was quite flagrant.
“Despite those weaknesses, Joseph P. Kennedy was a dedicated father. Both of them together planned each of their children’s development,” O’Brien said. The Kennedy parents, he added, instilled perseverance, dedication, ambition and competitiveness.
“You can see it in Jack Kennedy later on, when he’s running for president,” he said.
As for Rose Kennedy’s withdrawn, detached approach to parenting, O’Brien said historians have not put this in the context of the fashionable child-rearing theories of the time.
In addition, the Kennedy children had the best possible education and numerous opportunities for travel.
“I suspect that Jack Kennedy was the only person in his high school class who read the New York Times,” O’Brien added.
The young Kennedy was worldly, and interested in foreign affairs. He was passionate early on about British history and literature; and he was the first of the Kennedys to show real attachment to Ireland, the land of his great-grandparents’ birth, which he visited four times before he became president.
O’Brien said the most important thing to remember about JFK’s presidency, the famous 1,000 days, is precisely its duration. “Bill Clinton was president for eight years; Ronald Reagan for eight; Franklin Roosevelt for 12; John F. Kennedy for 2 years and 10 months,” he said.
It complicates any assessment, for instance, of his approach to the domestic issue that was being influenced by the quickening pace of events – civil rights.
O’Brien said that Kennedy had seen a major initiative become the relatively minor Civil Rights Act of 1957, which on its torturous journey through Congress also held up other legislation.
So, in the White House, he pursued the issue through executive action, which included integration in government, for the first two years. O’Brien is among those historians — Princeton’s Sean Wilentz is another — who believes that Kennedy’s shift to the legislative front in 1963 was courageous and significant. It was a “real step forward,” he said, adding: “He was very effective in the last six months in pushing that.”
O’Brien doesn’t depart from the standard view that the Bay of Pigs invasion was a disaster, and that the subsequent efforts to kill Castro were wrong-headed.
On the Cold War, the president made advances. “He didn’t give much away, but he kept talking,” he said.
“I found sometimes the pro-Kennedy writers were right, sometimes they were wrong,” O’Brien said.
“The revisionists were sometimes too critical; sometimes they overlooked his strengths,” he said. The image wasn’t a purely manufactured one. It is certainly a fact, for example, that Kennedy was a devoted and affectionate father (and despite his prodigious philandering, his relationship with Jackie improved in the White House years), just as it’s true that he was very smart and absorbed written materials quickly.
“I was impressed with his intellect,” O’Brien said. “And he was one of our best ever presidential listeners.”
But Kennedy’s long days were what the author noticed as he pursued his research.
“I was most impressed with how attentive he was to his job,” O’Brien said.
“People tend to think he was just a playboy. But he worked very hard on Berlin [for example], he worked very hard on the economy,” the historian said, adding: “He gave great service to the United States.”
“John F. Kennedy: A Biography,” by Michael O’Brien, is published by Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, New York.

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