American history, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., book reviews, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Geoffrey Perret, Herbert Parmet, JFK, John F Kennedy, Michael O'Brien, Nigel Hamilton, Pulitzer Prize, Richard Reeves, Robert Dallek, Ted Sorensen, Thomas Reeves, Thurston Clarke
I spent the past 24 weeks reading a dozen biographies of John F. Kennedy totaling just under 8,000 pages: six “conventional” biographies, a two-volume series and four narrowly-focused studies of Kennedy’s presidency.
In the end, JFK proved to be everything I hoped for – and more! Like several of the presidents who preceded him, Kennedy’s life is a biographer’s dream.
His forebears were dynamic, endlessly fascinating, occasionally unscrupulous and, from time to time, oddly dysfunctional. Kennedy himself proved to be no less interesting: he was medically infirm, an ardent bookworm, a serial philanderer, often ruthlessly pragmatic and extremely charismatic.
But after spending five-and-a-half months with JFK and experiencing his presidency nine times (three of the books did not cover his time in the Oval Office) I still find Kennedy undeservedly well-ranked by historians. But that’s a subject for another day.
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* “An Unfinished Life: JFK 1917-1963” by Robert Dallek (published 2003) – This comprehensive biography was the first book on JFK that I read. It also proved to be my favorite. Dallek provides a devastating early indictment of JFK’s personal behavior, but more than half of the book is reserved for Kennedy’s presidency where his personal affairs take a back seat to the nation’s issues. Overall, Dallek’s biography provides the best combination of insight, balance and color of any of the JFK biographies I encountered — 4¼ stars (Full review here)
* “JFK: Reckless Youth” by Nigel Hamilton (1992) – This was intended to be the first book in a three-volume series but as a result of his “unflattering” portrayal of the Kennedy family Hamilton lost access to important research documents and, regrettably, abandoned the series. This lively 800-page narrative is riveting and provides unparalleled insight into JFK’s relationships with his older brother and his parents (who are painted in an extremely unflattering light). No other biography I read covers Kennedy’s early life better than this volume — 3¾ stars (Full review here)
* “Kennedy: The Classic Biography” by Ted Sorensen (1965) – Written by Kennedy’s long-time adviser and speechwriter, the author’s proximity to JFK proves both a blessing and a curse. Sorensen’s allegiance to Kennedy is quickly obvious – and occasionally distracting – but the narrative covers events from a unique perspective. But in the end it does not provide balanced, comprehensive coverage of JFK and can only serve as the eloquent observations of a staunchly loyal aide — 3½ stars (Full review here)
* “John F. Kennedy: A Biography” by Michael O’Brien (2005) – This 905-page biography is encyclopedic and provides more detail (and more perspectives) on most events than any other JFK biography. But while it is 200 pages longer than Dallek’s biography (its most comparable counterpart) it is no more potent…and its numerous nuggets of wisdom are buried beneath an avalanche of unnecessary verbosity — 3½ stars (Full review here)
* “Jack: A Life Like No Other” by Geoffrey Perret (2001) – This full-scale (but lightweight, at just 400 pages) biography is easy to read and decidedly informal. Unfortunately, it also provides less insight or analysis of Kennedy than most other biographies. And while readers new to JFK may appreciate its lack of “complexity” almost everyone else will finish this biography still feeling hungry — 3 stars (Full review here)
* “A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy” by Thomas Reeves (1991) – This study quickly proves to be a captivating, but flawed, critique of its subject. Devoted to exposing the hypocrisy hidden beneath Camelot’s polished veneer, it feels more bluntly partisan, and less scholarly, than Nigel Hamilton’s somewhat similar “JFK: Reckless Youth.” But where Hamilton covers three decades in about 900 pages, Reeves covers JFK’s entire life in just half of that — 3 stars (Full review here)
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* “Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy” and “JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy” by Herbert Parmet – This two-volume series was published between 1980 and 1983 and totals nearly 900 pages (excluding notes and bibliography). Offering a thoughtful and balanced perspective on Kennedy, this series is serious, scholarly and solid. But where it was the “go to” reference on Kennedy for years, documents which have become available since its publication have left it somewhat stale. Parmet’s writing style also leaves JFK and his family feeling a bit flat and lifeless. Imagine that! — 3½ star (Full reviews here and here)
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* “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys” by Doris Kearns Goodwin (1987) – This non-traditional biography of JFK is actually a family history which ends with a focus on John F. Kennedy – but only up to his presidential inauguration. Despite its heft (943 pages) it is engrossing, clever and insightful. Unfortunately it also left Goodwin embroiled in a plagiarism scandal. But for readers unconcerned with the author’s failure to adequately cite sources – or her awkward effort to conceal her sins – it is a wickedly entertaining and perceptive (if too friendly) treatment of Honey Fitz, Rose Kennedy and Joseph P. Kennedy. The book does not end as strongly as it starts and the weakest player (ironically) is JFK himself who receives less focus than he deserves — 4½ stars (Full review here)
* “A Thousand Days: JFK in the White House” by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (1965) – This Pulitzer Prize-winning tome (with 1,031 pages) is part memoir, part biography and part interpretive history with a nearly exclusive focus on the Kennedy presidency. The author served as Special Assistant to President Kennedy, providing him an advantageous perch from which to view JFK’s presidency. Schlesinger’s reputation as a historian is unquestioned, but his book proves dense, dry and often tedious – as well as uneven in emphasis and highly sympathetic to Kennedy. A classic, perhaps, but not a balanced account of the Kennedy presidency — 3 stars (Full review here)
* “President Kennedy: Profile of Power” by Richard Reeves (1993) – This unique (and extraordinarily revealing) book follows JFK almost moment-by-moment through his presidency. But where most biographies are written from the point of view of the biographer, Reeves’s audience often views the world through Kennedy’s own eyes. Unfortunately missing from the book is much insight on Kennedy’s family and friends, and there is little analysis to be found. But for a unique point of view, and as a supplemental book on JFK, “Profile of Power” is hard to beat — 3¾ stars (Full review here)
* “JFK’s Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President” by Thurston Clarke (2013) – Ostensibly focused on the last weeks of Kennedy’s life, this book is more comprehensive than its title suggests. Almost continuously throughout its 362 pages it reaches back in time to Kennedy’s past in order to provide unfamiliar readers with adequate context. The resulting lack of continuity, however, is perhaps the book’s greatest weakness. Most confounding, however, is the book’s failure (despite its sub-title) to demonstrate that Kennedy was on the verge of greatness when he was assassinated. Otherwise, a stimulating and enjoyable read — 3½ stars (Full review here)
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Best Biography of John F. Kennedy: “An Unfinished Life: JFK 1917-1963” by Robert Dallek
Honorable Mention: “JFK: Reckless Youth” by Nigel Hamilton (though “incomplete”)
I find it interesting with all that’s been written about him, only one book was rated at 4 stars+. Looking forward to LBJ!
Yes, that was slightly disappointing. Other than Dallek’s biography, each book I read was either too narrowly focused for a 4+ rating or was disappointing in some meaningful way. The benefit to reading several biographies (particularly in the case of JFK) is that they tended to complement each other – one making up for another’s weakness, etc.
Enjoy your LBJ reads! Robert Caro’s series is fanastic! LBJ is fascinating! Much better books on him than on JFK in my opinion. I agree with you on JFK- his high ranking by many not deserved. Middle of the pack.
As a native Texan with no direct memory of LBJ I can’t wait to get through his life. I’m saving Caro for a few weeks so I’ll savor the moment(s) a bit more…but when I started with Washington I was really hoping Volume 5 would be out by the time I got to this point(!)
I am eagerly awaiting for Volume 5- the final volume– too. You have Johnson and Nixon coming up- a lot of good stuff on both of them. Great project!
He’s overrated as president, but seems to be an interesting biography subject!
Indeed – an absolutely fascinating biographical subject! So I was a little surprised the biographies of him weren’t more consistently excellent.
But it seems that in the decades since his death many biographers have dedicated themselves either to tearing apart the Camelot “myth” or excessively praising/eulogizing him.
Can’t wait to see how LBJ turns out!
I’m amazed one if the top-5 biographers didn’t write on him considering his fame. I don’t care for LBJ as a president at all, but I look forward to your analysis of his biographies!
Would the biographies on Kennedy By Michael O’Brien or Robert Dallek be what you would call a good starter birth to death biography on Kennedy if you haven’t read on him before?
Yes – though I think Dallek’s book is by far the better (more interesting and efficient) choice. Good luck and enjoy!
Would like to do a critical comparison of two biographies on JFK – what two would you recommend?
Depending on what, exactly, you mean by “critical comparison” I would heartily recommend reading Dallek’s relatively traditional “An Unfinished Life” and comparing it to Goodwins’s “The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys” which is somewhat less focused on JFK himself and more on his family – but he obviously plays a critical part in the narrative and is the emotional center of the book.
Thanks – by “critical comparison” I mean one that looks at JFK in a positive view and another in a negative view.
In that case I might suggest Ted Sorensen’s “Kennedy” as a favorable account of JFK and compare that portrait to the one provided by Nigel Hamilton’s “Reckless Youth.” I think you will find the contrast incredible.
Unfortunately the two books don’t cover the same periods of time with the same intensity (Sorensen spends much more time in JFK’s later life while Hamilton’s book focuses on his earlier years) but from what I recall, the image presented by these two books could almost be of a different person.
GP Cox said:
I agree with your statement, “I still find Kennedy undeservedly well-ranked by historians. But that’s a subject for another day.”
His legacy made him an outstanding president only after his death. There is very little of consequence that came from his term in office.
(1) The U.S. was in recession when Kennedy took office. He carried out various measures to boost the economy under his own executive anti-recessionary acceleration program. Among other things, the most significant tax reforms since the New Deal were carried out including a new investment tax credit. GDP which had grown by an average of only 2.2% per annum during his predecessor Eisenhower’s presidency, expanded by an average of 5.5% from early 1961 to late 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated. Also inflation remained steady at around 1%, industrial production rose by 15% and unemployment decreased. This rate of growth continued till 1969 and hasn’t been repeated for such a sustained period yet.
(2) JFK established the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961 by Executive Order 10924.
(3) He stood up to the Soviet Union, forcing/negotiating the dismantling and removal of its nuclear weapons in Cuba.
(4) To slow down the nuclear arms race and to protect the environment from radioactive contamination, JFK began negotiations with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev for a treaty to address these concerns. This resulted in the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty which was signed by the governments of U.S.S.R., U.K. and the U.S. in Moscow on August 5, 1963. The provisions of the treaty prohibited nuclear testing on the ground, in the atmosphere, or underwater. All testing was to be driven underground. 125 UN member states have ratified or acceded to the treaty since then.
(5) His domestic program the “New Frontier” provided aid to cities to improve housing and transportation; a water pollution control act was passed to protect rivers and streams; social security benefits and minimum wage increased; and the most comprehensive legislation to assist farmers was carried out since 1938 which included expansion in rural electrification, soil conservation, crop insurance and farm credit.
(6) On March 6, 1961, he signed Executive Order 10925 which required government contractors to take affirmative action to ensure all employees are treated equally irrespective of their race, creed, color, or national origin. His Executive Order 11063 of November 1962 banned segregation in federally funded housing. On June 11, 1963, JFK gave his famous civil rights address calling Americans to recognize civil rights as a moral cause. His proposal to provide equal access to public schools and other facilities, and greater protection of voting rights became part of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.
(7) On 10th June 1963, John F. Kennedy signed into law the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to abolish wage disparity based on sex. It amended the existing Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. EPA was a major step towards closing the wage gap in women’s pay. Although EPA’s equal pay for equal work goals have not been completely achieved, women’s salaries via-à-vis men’s have risen dramatically since its enactment. JFK also proposed an overhaul of American immigration policy that would later lead to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that abolished the quota system based on national origins with a preference system that focused on the immigrant’s skills and family relationships with US citizens.
(8) On June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy federalized National Guard troops and deployed them to the University of Alabama to force its desegregation. The next day, Governor Wallace yielded to the federal pressure, and two African American students—Vivian Malone and James A. Hood—successfully enrolled. In September of the same year, Wallace again attempted to block the desegregation of an Alabama public school—this time Tuskegee High School—but President Kennedy once again employed his executive authority and federalized National Guard troops. Wallace had little choice but to yield.
(9) Kennedy was an unparalleled advocate of the US Army Special Forces (i.e. the Green Berets). During JFK’s tenure as president, the Special Forces regiment grew by seven Special Forces groups. Not long after a visit to Fort Bragg in 1961 with then-Special Forces commander, Brig. Gen. William P. Yarborough, Kennedy authorized the Green Beret as the official headgear of the U.S. Army Special Forces. Today, Special Forces Soldiers still train at the school which bears his name: the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School.
Was he perfect? Hell, no. He made plenty of mistakes, both large and small. But he had a better aim than most of the lesser ‘men’ that succeeded him.
— a former US Army parachute infantryman (three tours of the sandbox) raised on a West Texas ranch, a former federal law enforcement national security special investigator with a BA in American Political Thought, a current CPA with an MS in Accountancy, and the grandson of Continental, Union and Allied Army soldiers
If you know the whole story about # 3, you would not include it. #’s 6 & 7 still are not totally used today, but have to be sued for. # 9, special forces had been trained since WWII, he merely gave them a name.
Al C said:
I have to admit I haven’t been as fascinated by JFK as many others. So, in my own journey through the presidents, I chose Alan Brinkley’s biography for the American Presidents series. This series has been my go to for presidents lacking great bios or those I just wanted to “get through.” They’re all around 160 pages, often providing factual discussions that let you know what happened to the guy in his life—and little more. They are, in other words … OK.
I felt Brinkley’s book, however, was quite good. It’s portrait of JFK goes beyond factual recitation and was exceedingly well balanced. I now see JFK as admirable in some ways, far from admirable in others, and even have some understanding of how _others_ are partly responsible for the mixed views in which we hold him.
A cut above other entries in the Amer. Presidents series.
Early reviews are encouraging:
Indeed, everything I’ve read and heard has been positive. Can’t wait to read this one and see for myself. Trying to figure out when exactly to squeeze it in since I’m hoping my next presidential biography will be the “coming soon” biography of Jimmy Carter.
I am also looking forward to Alter’s Carter biography. It should be the best available to date given his access to Carter. I am hoping Douglas Brinkley is willing and able to revisit Carter in the future.
It is quite good, and the author is in the process of working on Part 2 – 1957-1963.
If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend this biography of Bobby Kennedy by Evan Thomas.
Thanks for the suggestion. I’m exploring a couple of titles on Robert Kennedy and this is one of them! Glad to hear you liked it so much.
The independent publisher I work for is about to release a book written by one of JFK’s long-time friends about his relationship with JFK over the years. Of course it will be available on Amazon but we’re happy to send you a promo copy if you are interested?
As a standard practice I don’t ask for or review books I haven’t purchased…but can you confirm this book is on my Upcoming Releases page? If not it sounds like it should appear there-
Can you please let me know what you need from me to list it on your upcoming releases page? It will likely be a late June or early July release. Thanks!
Title, author’s name, and publication date would be great. A link to publisher’s page on the book (or Amazon’s pre-publication page for the book, if there is one) would be a bonus.
Thanks, Steve. I just now sent you an email with the details.
I am truly surprised there is no mention of Red Faye’s “The Pleasure of His Company” a book loved by those who knew the individuals involved.
Are you surprised it isn’t mentioned because you think it’s a really good biography or because it was written by one of JFK’s friends who doesn’t work too hard to cover him fully, warts and all? (The whole thing is something like 150 pages?) Just curious
Here is the review of another one, released in 2022. You may want to reconsider his rank, I’m biased because I have him #1 out of 45. Why? Because I am still here to write this comment and you are still here to post your blog. https://www.kennedysandking.com/john-f-kennedy-articles/last-president
I find it interesting you say Kennedy is “undeservedly well-ranked among historians” I find it quite the opposite, he’s extremely popular amongst the general public, but most historians rip into him far too much. I’ve recently been reading about Canadian-American bilateral relations and the general narrative of most historians of the 70s to 90s was that negative tensions amongst the two nations was largely Kennedy’s fault. It’s only recently that the love-to-hate-JFK tide has curbed amongst historians that, in the 2000s, there is more discussion regarding Canadian nationalism, anti-american sentiments, and more importantly the fact that Deifenbaker attempted to blackmail Kennedy, and then blamed JFK and American intervention after he lost his election in 63.
Reading the older historical accounts is such a whirlwind. Multiple historians accused Kennedy of being “arrogant” and one even said “who’s posture towards deifenbaker’s canada was that of a president stretching his legs across the border demanding a shoe shine” which is beyond ridiculous considering he actually showed a great deal of patience towards a highly nationalist prime minister that attempted to blame and blackmail him. Historians made the cat the mouse and made the mouse the cat. Madness