An engrossing “comparative biography” of two presidents who remain enduringly popular.
Veteran political journalist Farris (Almost President: The Men Who Lost the Race but Changed the Nation, 2011, etc.) recounts the striking, sometimes-surprising similarities between John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) and Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) and their presidencies. In a smooth, well-written chronological narrative, the author explores and compares each stage of their lives, seeking to explain the continuing appeal of these disparate men, both of whom are frequently ranked in polls as being among the great presidents. Although one was a Democrat and the other a Republican, both are remembered as handsome, charismatic, vigorous men of ideas who set the bar (the “Kennedy aura,” the “Reagan mantle”) for the qualities sought in a presidential candidate. Both were shot (and became beloved), shared Irish heritage, had rakish fathers and pious mothers, loved books, felt antipathy toward communism, exuded sex appeal that bolstered their political appeal, dealt serenely with crises, and shared a weakness for cloak-and-dagger behavior that ended badly (the Bay of Pigs, the Iran-Contra Affair). Kennedy was “America’s first ‘movie-star president,’ ” and Reagan, “the first movie star to become president.” Both did more than any other president to ally Washington, D.C., and Hollywood, and both used the actor’s trick of playing the persona they had developed for themselves. Starting out as reserved boys, they “engaged in lifelong reinventions of themselves, working to form themselves into the men they wished to be, the masculine, rugged, charming presidents they became.” Farris covers the major issues in both presidencies, and he speculates that neither man could win his party’s nomination for the presidency today. Having governed during years of Cold War clarity, they would fare poorly as presidents in a current climate marked by both political divisiveness and the murkiness of the war on terrorism.
A fresh, welcome view of two much-revered leaders.