Book review – Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews

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Books and films about the last second of President John F Kennedy’s life have been plentiful. “Jack Kennedy – Elusive hero” by Chris Matthews is a very engaging book which focusses on the great politician’s life before that last second.

Chris Matthews is a very well-known US TV broadcaster. He prefaces this book in a personal context – explaining his great admiration for JFK. The book does an excellent job in answering the key question which John F Kennedy himself described as the pivotal one for biographies: “What was he like?”

I really enjoyed the tale of Jack Kennedy’s life. I learnt that JFK was certainly not a “yes man” for his fantastically rich father, as has often been assumed. JFK was his own man, as his anti-appeasement (ref. Hitler) stance showed, for example (Joe Kennedy was very pro-appeasement). The book relates that JFK was very, very ill for most of his life. He was given the last rites three times. It transpires that the “ask not” sentence of his inaugural speech was based on what his old school headmaster used to say at school assemblies. Before the second world war, JFK wrote a book called “Why England slept”. This was a best seller and he donated the royalties from the British edition to the reconstruction of Plymouth, Devon after its extensive bombing (a good pub quiz question, is that).

It is noticeable how JFK ensured he had old friends with him whenever he was in danger of being bored or getting lonely. There was a coterie of Boston and old school pals who he kept close to right through to his early death.

I also learnt from Matthews’ book that JFK was not a liberal – he was a moderate. Indeed he was a great supporter of Senator Joe McCarthy and his anti-communist “witch-hunt”. He was also very tough – and could initiate very bullish actions when necessary. Certainly, the book gives a very affectionate account of JFK’s war heroism, which was quite amazing. He was a superb campaigner – I particularly enjoyed the book’s story of JFK winning the Wisconsin primary against Hubert Humprhey.

Often with JFK, one wonders whether he is respected with great awe because he was assassinated at 46 years old. This book describes very convincingly that, in fact, what JFK did in his few short years as President actually well justifies the awed respect in which he is held. The book centrally focusses on his achievement of avoiding nuclear war over the Cuban missile crisis. All his military advisers were strongly telling him to strike back at the Cubans/Russians. It was as if Kennedy’s whole life had been a preparation for that moment. Chris Matthews elegantly summarises why JFK was so good in that crisis:

It was his detachment that saved us. Another man would have reacted with force to the Soviet treachery. He would have shared in the righteousness of the cause, been stirred to attack by the saber rattling. Jack resisted. He was not moved by the emotion of others around him. He knew his course and stayed to it. Thank God. The boy who had read alone of history’s heroes was now safely one of them. He had done it not by winning a war, but averting one far more horrible than any leader in the past could have imagined.

One wonders how President Trump will measure up to such a standard.


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