Chronic pain, Logevall suggests, made him a wry humorist. “I only had two enemas today,” he reported when hospitalised at school, “and feel kind of full.” Mailer admired JFK’s existential fatalism, although this creed betrayed him into risky follies such as the invasion of Cuba or his final ride through the hostile city of Dallas in an un-armoured car. Logevall prefers to diagnose an ironic detachment or dreamy introspection, which gives his version of the man an endearingly distracted air. Cavalier about material possessions, he regularly mislaid golf clubs, tennis rackets, expensive wristwatches and driving licences; his untucked shirts and ill-matched socks gave him, Logevall says, a “slacker mien”.
What makes JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 such a superior biography is this sense of the larger stakes. Logevall has the biographer’s ability to pick out the details that shaped the man, but also the historian’s drive to explain why Kennedy so captured and shaped the American postwar moment. Kennedy continues to live large in the national imagination: a recent poll by YouGov had him as the third greatest president, behind only George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. This is not due to his achievements in the White House, where his domestic and foreign policy met with mixed success, but because of what he represented: a youthful, confident America that, while often self-regarding, was fundamentally outward facing and optimistic.
Kennedy’s behaviour is difficult to condone today, while what Logevall calls his “general disregard for women’s feelings” shows a recklessness and sense of entitlement not uncommon among the very rich. It remains unclear what light, if any, this disregard sheds on his presidency. For that, and the ways the political issues detailed in this book – civil rights, the Cold War, Vietnam – played out during Kennedy’s time in the White House, we must await the second volume of this insightful biography.
The Kennedys are now seen as almost a royal family in the US and certainly romance and glamour attach themselves to the family name. Yet in reality it took all Jack’s amazing charm, sex appeal and intellect and all of Joe Kennedy’s resources and fame to overcome the prejudice against a family from an Irish migrant background.
Logevall has taken a familiar story and retold it in a way that is captivating and persuasive, as the tale of triumphant emergence from war and the tragedy of an immigrant family.
After the war, Kennedy increasingly looked the part of a Hollywood star, despite his chronically poor health (a subject Logevall treats especially well). The stage — the rising power and prosperity of ‘the American century’ — was now set for a remarkable political career. By this point in Logevall’s biography, JFK is less mythical and more familiar and personable, the phenomenon he’d become more easily understood.
This first volume ends in 1956, with Kennedy a rising star in the Democratic party and priming himself for a run at the presidency in 1960. Such are Logevall’s storytelling powers that, even though we all know the outcome, it still feels like a cliffhanger.
As a result, he emerges from this biography as a less clearly defined figure than many of those around him. Logevall has written a superb book but its central character remains elusive. JFK’s great courage went along with less attractive qualities. He cared little about other people’s feelings. He lived for the moment, often oblivious to what this did to those around him. Early in his marriage to Jackie, his new wife had to get used to being left alone at parties, after Jack had gone off with another woman who had caught his eye. His political convictions sometimes seemed equally fickle. He had shrewd political judgement and an eye for the main chance. But it is often hard to say what he really believed.
There has been a host of JFK biographies, but this one excels for its narrative drive, fine judgments and meticulous research, especially about money, women and the subject’s early writings. Among Logevall’s most important observations, he notes that during the decade before Dallas, Kennedy lived with a tension between his own intelligently nuanced view of the nationalist and ideological forces at play in the world — especially in Indochina, which he had visited — and the crude anti-communism of an instinctively conservative US electorate: “Many voters liked simple explanations and quick fixes.” His caution about telling the American people unwelcome truths persisted.
Still, thanks to a brilliant showing at the Democratic National Convention of 1956, JFK was well placed to make a run for the presidency four years later. This is where the first volume of Logevall’s biography ends. Its particular distinction is to set Kennedy’s life in the context of major developments of his time – the eclipse of American isolationism, the Second World War, the emergence of the transatlantic alliance, the Cold War, the Red Scare and the arrival of television as a crucial political force. All this Logevall covers admirably, though his prose is workaday and he makes a few slips about the British scene. Certainly, nothing is better calculated to inspire nostalgia for Camelot than his hideous account of McCarthy’s rabble-rousing techniques, sedulously aped by the present incumbent of the White House.