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.
* * *
* “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)
* * *
* “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)
* * *
* “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)
* * *
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”)