Prolific popular historian Clarke (The Last Campaign: Robert F. Kennedy and 82 Days that Inspired America, 2008, etc.) argues that the charismatic president, whose achievements are generally low-rated by scholars, in his final months revealed himself as a great statesman.
The book opens on August 7, 1963, when Jackie delivered a premature son whose devastating death brought the couple together. The author spends much time on JFK’s personal life, not avoiding his well-known sexual appetite and often crippling medical problems. On the political front, this period saw the approval of the first nuclear test ban treaty. Kennedy was not so fortunate with his proposals to Congress for a strong civil rights bill and a tax cut to lower the very high rates Americans had been paying since World War II. Both bills stalled: Southern legislators opposed any law advancing civil rights, and Republicans, in those far-off days, considered the tax cut fiscally irresponsible. Their passage required the political skills of JFK’s successor and unhappy vice president, Lyndon Johnson, universally despised by Kennedy aides as “Uncle Cornpone." Clarke emphasizes that JFK yearned to withdraw American advisers from Vietnam, which seems true, but since most aides and ultimately Kennedy himself decided that a noncommunist South Vietnam was vital to American security, intervention was inevitable once it became clear that South Vietnam’s army couldn’t defeat the Vietcong. Clarke certainly demonstrates that three often painful years in office had taught Kennedy valuable lessons. No one can say what would have happened if he had lived, but no one will deny that he was a spectacularly appealing character, and Clarke delivers a thoroughly delightful portrait.
This detailed, mostly worshipful account will not convince everyone, but few will put it down.