Saturday, 16 May 2015

Jack Kennedy

Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero. Chris Matthews, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2011. pp 479.

This review was written on November 8th 2012.

Maryann Valiulis presented me with this new biography of Kennedy on her return to Ireland in the summer of 2012. It was her gift to me on my 90th birthday. I have been slow to read it and slower still to comment about it. 

Lt. John F. Kennedy and the crew of PT109 in 1943
I was initially a little put off by the author’s obvious strong
 sympathy for his subject which I thought unusual for a serious historian. And this was accentuated by the quite extraordinary account in chapter three of Kennedy’s heroic exploits in successfully leading and rescuing his comrades when they were fighting the Japanese in the Solomon Islands.

A chronically bad back was one of many ailments
He returned to civil life during the War and was stricken by a chronic illness which was eventually diagnosed as Addison’s disease, a rare and debilitating condition caused by depletion of the secretions of the adrenal glands. At the time it had an adverse prognosis. His chronic health problems were to remain with him all  his life but this did not prevent him from advancing himself and  showing the strong ambitions which were to spur him during his subsequent years.  His periods of illness may have been advantageous to him in terms of isolation and may have   enhanced his innate and gathering political ambitions. He was restless by nature and it is extraordinary that his health problems did not appear to intrude on his subsequent rapid progress in the political world.

In the early years after his return from the War he emerges as an ambitious and somewhat selfish and unattractive figure that could be disloyal to some of his early colleagues when any difficulties occurred between them. He was to show a tremendous capacity to further his political ambitions and in later years gathered together a devoted and loyal band of supporters and workers. He was always careful to acknowledge his Irish and Catholic background although he was able to avoid the dominating influence of his wealthy and conservative father whom he managed to keep at arms length.

From an early date he disapproved of Roosevelt and Churchill in allowing Stalin too much rope in taking over much of Germany and Eastern Europe, and in creating the post-war Berlin difficulties. He was opposed to any form of appeasement but whether this view was retrospective may have been hard to say. He was vocal in his criticism of the West’s earlier appeasement towards Stalin and this might have sown the seeds of his response to Khrushchev during the Cuban crisis. In his first meetings with Khrushchev he was clearly bullied by the latter on the issue of Kennedy’s attempt to agree a policy of nuclear disarmament and on other post-war issues arising out of Russian ambitions. 

WEXFORD, the Virginia estate designed by Jack and Jackie
One’s opinion of Kennedy tended to improve as he acquired more political success and confidence and as he acquired a more gifted group of supporters. He then appeared to show greater loyalty to his friends. He was undoubtedly selfish and never lost his own ability to enjoy his privileges as is evident in the account of his behaviour with his wife Jackie Bouvier. His going on vacation to Italy with his pals at the time of the delivery of her first child and his apparently frequent affairs with other women during his marriage seemed more than unusual, particularly because of his Irish and Catholic background and the widespread  prejudice among Americans towards Catholicism. Jackie surely would have been less tolerant if she were married to a less prominent person.

I was glad I had read this biography. He emerged as a noble and yet human person who had shown great courage and single-minded judgement at a most critical moment for the United States and indeed for the Western World. His decision to confront Khrushchev was inspired by his own judgement and was contrary to the views of many of his advisers. Perhaps with the exception of Abraham Lincoln, never has anybody of his stature died at the height of his fame and reputation; his reputation was such that all of us who first heard of his unexpected death know where we were at that moment. I answered the ‘phone to be told of the tragedy as I came off the squash court in the old Fitzwilliam Club.

JFK Memorial park as depicted by John Hinde
This very short review touches too lightly on the importance of Kennedy’s career as one of the great leaders of the second half of the 20th century. His close connection with Ireland and particularly to Co. Wexford was to confirm and afterwards augment the pride enjoyed by the people of Ireland in his Irish roots and in his outstanding career, not to mention his tragic and premature death at the height of his fame. The extensive and impressive Kennedy Park which adorns the south westerly part of Co. Wexford is a fitting tribute to his memory and is a reminder of how well served we were by so many of our emigrants who brought fame to this small country.

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