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by Robert Dallek & Terry Golway

Pub Date: April 17th, 2006
ISBN: 1-4022-0647-X
Publisher: Sourcebooks

Excerpts of selected speeches, interviews and debates delivered by the last president (but one) not to speak from note cards or in sound bites; packaged with an audio CD.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, avow presidential historian Dallek (Flawed Giant, 1998) and New York Observer columnist Golway (Washington’s General, 2005), “spoke in literate paragraphs, and his speeches were filled with references to history and literature that have all but disappeared from American political discourse.” Indeed, Ronald Reagan borrowed the “city on a hill” trope, unacknowledged, from Kennedy, who took it from the early American Protestant religious dissenter John Winthrop; it always sounded a little foreign on Reagan’s lips, but Kennedy—though, famously, the first and only Catholic president—naturally took to the rhetoric of Boston’s Brahmins. Dallek and Golway, for their part, acknowledge that Kennedy had speechwriters aplenty, notably the brilliant Theodore Sorensen, who wrote much of Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage; regrettably, they do not go on to distinguish which of his aides concocted which New Frontier theme. The help notwithstanding, Kennedy did his homework, was smart and hardworking and gave a resounding speech. As Dallek and Golway remark on the best of his public utterances, they offer illuminations and remember little-known episodes. The third presidential debate with Richard Nixon featured Nixon tsk-tsking Harry Truman for using words like “hell” and “damn,” saying that he’d never allow such language in his White House. (The irony, the irony.) The debates were followed by the narrowest election in history, they note, but not so narrow as Nixon protested; even if Nixon had won the supposedly rigged Illinois vote, Kennedy would have carried the Electoral College. And Kennedy berated himself over the Bay of Pigs disaster, which only seemed to increase the esteem his compatriots felt: “It’s like Eisenhower,” he said. “The worse I do, the more popular I get.”

Useful for students of presidential history, and worthy of emulation: a selected Ford, anyone?