Monday, 18 January 2010

Presidential Bibliography: John F. Kennedy

Here is the first in what should be a long line of posts (roughly 43 of them, actually) intended to help readers sift through the ocean of available presidential biographies and choose the ones that most suit your needs. Originally, was going to start with general books on the presidency, but as I’m currently reading a lot about JFK (for a series of upcoming seminars), I thought I’d start with him.

[There’s no particular ‘order’ here, so don’t assume that the first on the list is the definitive book on JFK, just the one I happened to start the post with.]

I’ve written a small comment of my own, then included some of the books’ blurb for extra info.

Kennedy-Sorensen Ted Sorensen, “Kennedy: The Classic Biography” (Harper, 1965/2009)

Re-released last year, this is a long, in-depth and very personal memoir of Kennedy, from one of his closest and longest advisors and confidantes. The prose are well constructed and the book is well-structured to help anyone looking to study a specific event from JFK’s time in office. It’s pretty dense, though, and some critics have complained that it’s too detailed.

Ted Sorensen knew Kennedy the man, the senator, the candidate, and the president as no other associate did. From his hiring as a legislative assistant to Kennedy's death in 1963, Sorensen was with him during the key crises and turning points…

In Kennedy, Sorensen recounts failures as well as successes with surprising candour and objectivity. He reveals Kennedy's errors on the Bay of Pigs, and his attitudes toward the press, Congress, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Sorensen saw firsthand Kennedy's actions in the Cuban missile crises, and the evolution of his beliefs on civil rights and arms control. First published in 1965… Kennedy is an intimate biography of an extraordinary man, and one of the most important historical accounts of the twentieth century.

Kennedy-Brothers (Talbot) David Talbot, “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years” (Simon & Schuster)

An interesting look at the relationship between JFK and Bobby, how they worked as brothers, colleagues and generally in office.

Journalist David Talbot tells in a riveting, superbly researched narrative why, even on 22 November 1963, RFK had reason to believe that dark forces were at work in Dallas and reveals, for the first time, that he planned to open an investigation into the assassination had he become president in 1968. BROTHERS also portrays a JFK administration more besieged by internal enemies than has previously been realised, from within the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI and the mafia. This frightening portrait of sinister elements within and without the government serves as the background for the emotionally charged journey of Robert Kennedy. Reading it, you can absolutely believe any number of people would have been happy for both brothers to meet a sticky end.

Bzdek-KennedyLegacy Vincent Bzdek“The Kennedy Legacy”

Another book about the Kennedy brothers, but including Teddy, and how the deaths of JFK and Bobby impacted his life and political career. I reviewed this last year, so my thoughts on it can be found here.

The closing of Ted Kennedy's chapter in America's political and cultural life means that, for the first time perhaps, the real measure of the Kennedy legacy can finally be taken. John, Robert and Ted's individual stories can be seen as essentially one now, each successive brother striving to fulfil the interrupted promise of the brother before. This is a story of a brotherhood in three acts: Act I is John F. Kennedy's presidency, as seen from Ted's front-row seat; Act II is Robert Kennedy's five brief years as the family standard bearer, including his tenure in the Senate with his brother Ted and the memorable 82-day campaign that redefined the Kennedy legacy. Act III is Ted's 40-plus years in the Senate as keeper of the flame.

How did the brothers pass the torch to each other? What have the three brothers left us collectively? And who carries the torch forward now? The Kennedy Legacy compellingly answers these questions and much more.

Kennedy-OneMinuteToMidnight (Dobbs) Michael Dobbs, “One Minute to Midnight” (Arrow)

I haven’t managed to read much of this, as I’ve only just picked it up, but Dobbs (author also of the House of Cards novels) has an impeccable writing style, and his narrative manages to convey the tense atmosphere of the time, reading almost like a thriller, rather than a history book. I’d say this is very highly recommended if you want to know more about the Cuban Missile Crisis, but want something a little less dry than many books on the subject. Impressive.

In this re-examination of the 1963 Bay of Pigs face-off between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., Dobbs combines visits to Cuba, discussions with Russian participants and fingertip command of archival and printed U.S. sources to describe a wild ride that—contrary to the myth of Kennedy's steel-nerved crisis management—was shaped by improvisation, guesswork and blind luck. Dobbs's protagonists act not out of malevolence, incompetence or machismo. Kennedy, Khrushchev and their advisers emerge as men desperately seeking a handle on a situation no one wanted and no one could resolve. In a densely packed, fast-paced, suspenseful narrative, Dobbs presents the crisis from its early stages through the decision to blockade Cuba and Kennedy's ordering of DEFCON 2, the last step before an attack, to the final resolution on October 27 and 28. The work's climax is a detailed reconstruction of the dry-mouthed, sweaty-armpits environment of those final hours before both sides backed down. From first to last, this sustains Dobbs's case that crisis management is a contradiction in terms.

Kennedy-UnfinishedLife (Dallek) Robert Dallek, “JFK: An Unfinished Life” (Penguin)

This is perhaps the book that many, if not all, would recommend you read if you want to get to know JFK. Robert Dallek has written an impressive, authoritative biography of the president. The portrait of the man is well-rounded and fair, revealing a great deal about the president’s life-long struggle with a multitude of health problems.

The first authoritative single-volume biography of John F. Kennedy to be written in nearly four decades. Drawing upon first-hand sources and never-before-opened archives, prize-winning historian Robert Dallek reveals more than we ever knew about Jack Kennedy, forever changing the way we think about his life, his presidency and his legacy. Dallek also discloses that, while labouring to present an image of robust good health, Kennedy was secretly in and out of hospitals throughout his life, so ill that he was administered last rites on several occasions. He never shies away from Kennedy's weaknesses, but also brilliantly explores his strengths. The result is a full portrait of a bold, brave and truly human John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy-DarkSideOfCamelot (Hersch) Seymour Hersh, “The Dark Side of Camelot” (Harper Collins)

For something a little less praise-worthy of the Kennedy family, I’ve been told this is a good book, if sensationalist. Here’s some of the blurb:

Sex, the Kennedys, Monroe and the Mafia; the controversial American bestseller… Jack Kennedy had it all. And he used it all – his father's fortune, and his own beauty, wit and power – with a heedless, reckless daring. There was no tomorrow, and there was no secret that money and charm could not hide. In this groundbreaking book, award-winning investigative journalist Seymour Hersh shows us a John F Kennedy we have never seen before, a man insulated from the normal consequences of behaviour long before he entered the White House…

Kennedys trusted only Kennedys. Jack appointed his brother Bobby keeper of the secrets – the family debt to organized crime, the real state of Jack's health, the sources of his election victories, the plots to murder foreign leaders, and the President's intentions in Vietnam. As Jack's closest confident and chief enforcer, Bobby attacked any potential family enemy with a savagery he was supposed to reserve for the criminals he was sworn to prosecute… The brothers prided themselves on another trait inherited from their father – a voracious appetite for women – and indulged it with a daily abandon deeply disturbing to the Secret Service agents who witnessed it…

Hersh tells us the real story… of a crisis-driven president who maintained a facade of cool toughness while negotiating private compromises unknown to even his closest advisers.

Kennedy-ProfilesInCourage One final book that might be of interest is JFK’s own classic, Profiles in Courage (HarperCollins, most recently re-issued in 2006 with extra material). It’s worth a look.

So, that’s the first bibliography. It’s a little rough-and-ready, but hopefully each successive post in this series will improve. I hope, also, that they prove useful to anyone interested in reading about the US Presidents, their lives, their impact and legacies.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Coming in 2010: The US Presidents

Over the course of 2010, I shall be posting the occasional “Presidential Bibliography”, in which I shall list a couple of key books to read on single presidents. On occasion, these will include a sentence or two about the books in question. I’m not sure if I’ll be doing it in chronological order, reverse chronological order, or just in a random order that happens to suit me at the time of writing (this latter is the most likely). I think the first post will actually focus on general books about the presidents, for those who want to get an overview of the Executive Office and those who shaped it. (This will be extrapolating from a review that will be posted soon: Stephen Graubard’s The Presidents, and the fact that my next PhD chapter is about the Executive Office and US Foreign Policy).

Keep an eye on the site (and our twitter feed) for the posts. The first should come sometime near the end of January.