When it was published in 2003, Robert Dallek’s “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963” was the first full-scale, single-volume biography of JFK in over three decades. Dallek is a presidential historian and former professor of history at Boston University, Columbia University and UCLA. He is the author of nearly two-dozen books including a two-volume series on LBJ and “Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power.”
Dallek was granted almost unprecedented access to Kennedy family documents including newly-revealed information relating to JFK’s seemingly endless array of medical ailments. Dallek also convinced a former Kennedy administration press aide to release new information concerning an affair between JFK and a White House intern.
Some of this fresh primary source material underpins the book’s earliest chapters which describe Kennedy’s youth: his fascinating family lineage, his privileged childhood, his persistent medical issues and his unwavering penchant for “womanizing.” But readers seeking a sensational JFK exposé are likely to be disappointed.
While the early narrative provides a devastating indictment of Kennedy’s ill-formed moral core, Dallek is predisposed to focusing on politics over prurient predilections. This biography is long on hard history and avoids allowing Kennedy’s indiscretions to hijack the narrative. The author’s skillful dissection of JFK’s complex medical situation, however, does pervade the text.
Once Kennedy begins his political career in 1946, the spotlight shines brightest on his “public” rather than “private” life; his family recedes into the background and there is surprisingly little coverage even of Jackie. More than half the book is reserved for Kennedy’s 1,036-day presidency and Dallek’s style is consistently serious, sober-minded and impressively objective.
Not surprisingly, discussion of Kennedy’s presidency is dominated by US-Soviet relations, Cuba and Southeast Asia. With the exception of civil rights (where the author is often critical of Kennedy’s leadership failures), domestic issues receive significantly less focus. But this is reflective of Kennedy’s own interests and emphasis.
The most interesting chapters are those dealing with Kennedy’s relationship with Nikita Khrushchev (their meeting at the Vienna Summit, in particular) and the Bay of Pigs debacle. The book ends with an interesting “Epilogue” considering Kennedy’s reputation, assessing his legacy and briefly pondering what “might have been.”
While the biography is almost always engaging there are occasions during Kennedy’s presidency when the narrative bogs down and becomes tedious. But this is generally the fault of cumbersome foreign policy issues facing Kennedy at the time rather than with the author’s writing style.
In addition, JFK’s assassination is described in just a single paragraph with no lens on the transition of power to LBJ. The ensuing pages consider the impact of Kennedy’s death on his family and on the country but, for many readers, history will seem to stop too abruptly at the moment of Kennedy’s death.
Overall, Robert Dallek’s “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963” proves an excellent introduction to the life and death of the thirty-fifth president. Some readers will find discussion of Kennedy’s medical afflictions strangely pervasive; others will be surprised not to read more of his lewd behavior. But, in general, Dallek’s biography covers John F. Kennedy’s life thoroughly, thoughtfully and with extraordinary balance and objectivity.
Overall rating: 4¼ stars