American history, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., biographies, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Geoffrey Perret, Herbert Parmet, John F Kennedy, Michael O'Brien, Nigel Hamilton, presidential biographies, Presidents, Richard Reeves, Robert Dallek, Thomas Reeves, Thurston Clarke
Rightly or wrongly, John F. Kennedy is the president who I’ve long suspected of being most undeservedly well-ranked by presidential popularity polls.
Of the 34 presidents I’ve completed so far Woodrow Wilson seems the most generously-rated…but I’m looking forward to learning whether there is real substance behind Kennedy’s charming smile and confident swagger.
My trip through JFK’s best biographies is poised to consume twenty weeks: twelve books and about 8,000 pages including four more-or-less conventional biographies, a two-volume series, a biography of his early life and five relatively narrowly-focused books (on his presidency, his character, or his famous family lineage).
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I’m beginning with Robert Dallek’s “An Unfinished Life: JFK 1917-1963” published in 2003. This is not only the most popular comprehensive biography of Kennedy, but also promises new revelations (at least as of its publication date) about his health, his family and his personal life.
Next I’m reading “John F. Kennedy: A Biography” by Michael O’Brien. Published in 2005, this is the most recent of the “conventional” biographies of JFK on my list. A full decade in the making, it seems well-liked but not particularly well-read. Does 905 pages look that scary?
My third biography will be Geoffrey Perret’s 2001 “Jack: A Life Like No Other.” Perret is the author of a terrific Grant biography I read in 2014…and a satisfactory biography of Eisenhower I finished about two months ago. This book’s claim-to-fame seems to be that it was the first Kennedy biography based on unsealed government documents, interviews and taped conversations.
I wrap up the “conventional” single-volume biographies of JFK with Ted Sorensen’s “Kennedy: The Classic Biography.” Published in 1965, this book was authored by JFK’s speechwriter/adviser/special counsel – a man near the center of Kennedy’s presidency but also someone who, by most accounts, absolutely loved his boss. Soresnsen has even been described as JFK’s “intellectual and political soul mate”…so don’t say you weren’t warned!
Distinguished historian Herbert Parmet’s two-volume series (published between 1980 and 1983) includes “Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy” and “JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy.” Perhaps due to its age, this series is not frequently read and I don’t know what to expect. But consider me intrigued.
Nigel Hamilton’s 1992 “JFK: Reckless Youth” was apparently intended to be the first in a multi-volume series by this well-known British biographer (Field Marshal Montgomery and FDR seem to have diverted his interest and attention). But this popular biography of the young JFK is the book for which the author is probablybest-known and was the basis for an ABC mini-series.
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The first of my “narrowly-focused” books on JFK will be Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Thousand Days: JFK in the White House” which was published in 1965. Considered by many to be an excellent review of the Kennedy presidency, this fifty-year-old book was written by a liberal-minded historian with a front-row seat during the era (and, apparently, an unbounded fondness for Kennedy).
Next is Thomas Reeves’s 1991 “A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy.” I’m not entirely sure whether this was intended to be a traditional cradle-to-grave biography or more an unabashed character study. Based on what I know it will be a mix of both but with a distinct tendency toward the latter.
Richard Reeves’s “President Kennedy: Profile of Power” was published in 1993. (I’ve not yet ascertained whether Thomas and Richard are related – but they were both born in 1936). It seems this book is almost a day-to-day account of the Kennedy presidency and is both well-liked and relatively well-read. I can’t help but wonder whether, in a parallel universe, this might be the missing second volume behind Nigel Hamilton’s “Reckless Youth”?
Next-to-last I will read Thurston Clarke’s 2013 “JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President.” Published fifty years after Kennedy’s death, this book promises a gripping reexamination of his last weeks in office and wonders what “might have been.” Based solely on the book’s title I would guess the author is somewhat an admirer of his subject.
I finish my biographical tour of John F. Kennedy’s life with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys.” This 1987 classic traces the vibrant and engaging history of JFK’s family tree from his maternal grandfather’s 1863 baptism to JFK’s inauguration. Given the number of “colorful” characters in JFK’s family, this could be fascinating…!
Off we go-