Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President

Article excerpt

JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President. Thurston Clarke. New York, NY: Penguin, 2013. 432 pages. $29.95 hardcover.

The problem of balancing public memory and written record poses an unceasing challenge to scholars of recent history. Thurston Clarke has made that most evident in his latest work on President John F. Kennedy, a study that adds to a seemingly saturated field a detailed portrait of the man and an implied endorsement of his political canonization. In JFK's Last Hundred Days, Clarke taps into an enduring fascination with one of Massachusetts' favorite sons with a day-by-day account of the presidency in the fateful fall of 1963.

An independent scholar, Clarke takes readers with President Kennedy to Washington, Boston, Cape Cod, and Palm Beach, on a tour of western states, and finally to Dallas. As he begins with artist Elaine de Kooning's attempt at a portrait of the president, Clarke similarly seeks to understand the man from every angle-an attempt at a comprehensive written portrait through discussions of policy, politics, and Kennedy's personal life. Kooning's idee fixe mirrors the author's endless fascination, seen in his Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech that Changed America (2004) and The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days That Inspired America (2008).

The first matter of concern, we find, was the death of Kennedy's second son, Patrick, two days after birth from a respiratory ailment. Clarke presents that tragedy as one which definitively altered the president's character and turned him away from what former lover Mimi Beardsley described as a "reckless desire for sex" (p. 31). Subsequent chapters that frankly discuss Jack and Jackie's marriage and Jack's appetites serve to humanize a portrait that would otherwise pass as uncritical (pp. 68-74, 78-87).

Clarke's work must be taken in the context of biographies that have perpetuated the myth of Camelot, efforts by the Kennedy clan and former aides like Theodore Sorensen and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. to aggrandize the president beyond his own wishes. Tellingly, Clarke quotes Kennedy, who once complained to Schlesinger, "[tjhat's the trouble, Arthur, with all you historians! That's what you did to [Franklin] Roosevelt and his crowd. You made all those New Dealers seven feet tall. They weren't that good. They were just a bunch of guys like us" (p. 132). Though not entirely unlike Schlesinger, Clarke acknowledges Kennedy's political and personal failures in a way that makes his ultimate successes all the more significant.

Inevitably, in assessing greatness, historians must set what might have been, had Kennedy lived, based on his vision, with what actually happened under Lyndon Johnson. Kennedy, Clarke argues, originated most measures now associated with Johnson's time in office, among them civil rights legislation, Medicare, immigration reform, and the War on Poverty. Johnson would benefit from better relations with Congress, a more forceful personality, the undisputed triumph of 1964, and the shadow of a slain president. Yet Clarke shows that contemporaries could agree that the assassination made no difference in the fate of Kennedy's agenda, which would be left to Johnson and Nixon to complete (pp. 354-355). It remains that to honor Kennedy with those achievements is to diminish Johnson, and that becomes most evident in Clarke's treatment of Vietnam. …

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