A study of three intersecting political lives in the annus mirabilis of 1948, when Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson “committed themselves to a mature and focused political ruthlessness.”
That year, writes award-winning Time columnist Morrow (Evil, 2003, etc.), marked crises for each. Having been through WWII, each in his own way, the three were ready for more than the kind of qualified readmission to society promised in the emblematic film The Best Years of Their Lives, from which Morrow borrows his title. They sensed that destiny had come a-calling after their “formative ordeals”: As if reborn, they took on knightly errands. Nixon earned his first measure of fame in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of 1948–50, far and away the most intelligent of all those who served that dubious cause. Johnson was employing hitherto unknown dirty tricks, to say nothing of presciently media-savvy electoral techniques, to defeat a popular Texas governor in his run for the Senate. Kennedy fended off the onset of Addison’s disease while chasing bevies of beauties until his powerful father ordered him to make good and take public office. The three Washington newcomers were friends; astoundingly, Kennedy was also friendly with Joseph McCarthy and loyal to his fellow freshman to the last. They also had many failings in common, and Morrow attributes to each of the future presidents a personality disorder—paranoia in Nixon’s and Johnson’s cases, and something like a lack of moral sanity in Kennedy’s. As his story progresses, though he never loses sight of his immediate subject, Morrow turns more and more toward a meditation on an American golden age gone suddenly bad, arriving finally at a novel moral inventory of each politician: Nixon’s “defining deadly sin was surely anger,” for instance, whereas Johnson’s was greed; Johnson’s virtue was to turn that greed to social good, while Kennedy’s virtue was courage, and so on.
A trenchant philosophical essay reminiscent of the best of Garry Wills; smart moralizing in a time governed by its archly stupid variant.