Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero

Article excerpt

Chris Matthews examines John F. Kennedy, one of the most enigmatic US presidents, in a book rich in insights.

Public opinion polls repeatedly find that John F. Kennedy is one of the most admired presidents in American history. But in important respects he remains an enigma. Was he an inspirational hero who avoided nuclear war or a reckless gambler who took us to the brink of Armageddon? Was he pragmatic or idealistic? A hard worker or a dilettante? Did he deserve the success he achieved or was it largely a product of his father's fortune?

Political commentator Chris Matthews admits that in the 1960 presidential election (when he was 11 years old) he was a solid Nixon supporter despite the fact that he and the Massachusetts senator were both Roman Catholic Irish-Americans. Over time, however, his political loyalties shifted to the Democrats, and his interest in Kennedy and what made him tick increased. He writes: "A half century of political life later, my fascination with the elusive spirit of John F. Kennedy has remained an abiding one. He is both avatar and puzzle, a beacon and a conundrum."

For many years, Matthews collected and analyzed the recollections of people who knew and worked with Kennedy. And as longtime chief of staff to the late House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neil (D) of Massachusetts, the successor to Kennedy's seat in the House, Matthews had ample opportunities. He was an avid, attentive listener who kept careful notes and records. His latest book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, is an effort to organize what he learned and, in doing so, to explain the hold that Kennedy has on America's national psyche.

Matthews does not claim to have all the answers. But he has identified a number of characteristics and traits that Kennedy developed in response to the challenges he faced. His illnesses as a child made him self-reliant and gave him the idle time to become a dedicated student of history. He learned in high school and college that he had a gift for making close friends and attracting followers. World War II taught him that, despite his precarious health, he had "stamina and courage," which served him well when he entered the "rough and tumble" of Massachusetts politics.

The most interesting parts of the book are the retelling of Kennedy's initial election to the House of Representatives in 1946; his close, upset victory over Republican Henry Cabot Lodge in the 1952 Massachusetts Senate race; and his even closer triumph when he won the presidency in 1960. As a seasoned political operative, Matthews assesses Kennedy's political career with an expert's eye and judgment. …