American -- A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy by Thomas C. Reeves

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A Question of Character: Life of John F. Kennedy. By Thomas C. Reeves. (New York: The Free Press. 1991. Pp. xvi, 510. $24.95.)

Thomas Reeves's biography of Kennedy should be read twice--first, as expose, and second, as a legitimate scholastic exercise--but retain a high degree of skepticism.

The foundation upon which Reeves grounds his work, and title, is the identity of character with "a strong moral sense of right and wrong ... derived from our Western heritage and deeply embedded in our culture" (p. 16). It is as well a reaction to the Camelot school of Kennedy studies exemplified by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who, moreover, defined character as a "... combination of toughness of fiber and courage" (p. 5). Since Schlesinger chose to present Kennedy in this guise, and since we as an electorate have made character a basis of selecting our leaders at other times and places, and finally, since most people, according to Reeves, can still tell the difference between right and wrong, a study of the character of Kennedy and its effect upon his policies and actions is valid.

The difficulty, however, is that Reeves is willing to accept the worst accounts of Kennedy's personal conduct when assessing his character. The sources used are extensive, relevant to the purpose and scholarly for the most part; there a also popular accounts and truly suspect ones and there is far too much reliance on such sources as Judith Exner's My Story and Anthony Summers' Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe. The Kennedy Library Oral History portions a cited although some were still closed at the time Reeves was writing. Rarely, however, does Reeves distinguish relative values for these sources.

Fundamentally, Kennedy is presented as a political animal, yet within that context, he is further portrayed as evolving, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The overall evaluation is that of a flawed character:

The standard presentation--family background, war service, Congressional career, and presidency--are the natural parameters. In the city chapters the treatment necessarily is the more highly personal.

Reeves maintains that Joseph Kennedy established the moral atmosphere--really amoral--in which John matured and that the son deviated little from the dictum of "win at all costs." Nevertheless, Reeves gives credit where due. The sinking of PT 109 is a case in point. Kennedy's handling of the vessel was incompetent, and yet his subsequent actions were heroic.

He acknowledges, clearly with approval, that Kennedy's Senatorial votes were Liberal (although Kennedy disavowed the term for himself), and quotes Kennedy to the effect that the national interest and his conscience directed his vote, only to conclude that "there was little indication of any abiding moral vision directing his conscience, much less his vote" (p. …