Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956
By Fredrik Logevall
He ensorcells us still. They all do, the whole impossibly glamorous, snakebit Kennedy tribe, from the Irish Catholic famine refugees scrambling for footing in forbiddingly Protestant 19th-century Boston to the imperious patriarch building a fabulous fortune while pushing his children to the summits of power and fame in 20th-century America, until second son John Fitzgerald Kennedy briefly bestrode the world as president of the United States — before becoming the third of the patriarch’s four ill-starred offspring to suffer a violent, premature death.
Other authors, conspicuously Robert Dallek in his 2003 biography of Kennedy, have ably chronicled this epic saga, but none has told the tale of the 35th president’s formative years better or more thoroughly than the Harvard history professor Fredrik Logevall in “JFK,” the first of two projected volumes. Here he brings the story up through Kennedy’s failed bid for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1956, setting the stage for his elevation to the presidency four years later.
Inevitably, the patriarch dominates the first half of the book. Colossally wealthy by his mid-30s, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. reared the nine Kennedy siblings in a cocoon of sybaritic luxury, flagrant privilege and frequently libertine license. But he was also solicitous, supportive and, it must be acknowledged, seriously and high-mindedly patriotic. With his sons in particular he encouraged — indeed demanded — their vaulting political ambitions. “Say what one will about Joseph P. Kennedy,” Logevall concludes, “it’s not every multimillionaire father who takes such broad interest in his children, who believes in them so fervently and who, together with his wife, instills in them, from a young age, a firm commitment to public service.”
[ Read an excerpt from “JFK.” ]
Among the several myths that Logevall debunks is the notion that Jack Kennedy turned to a political career only after the favored first son, Joe Jr., supposedly the principal vessel for the family’s political aspirations, was killed in action over southern England in 1944. All to the contrary, Logevall meticulously documents Jack’s steadily deepening interest in politics — especially geopolitics — beginning in early childhood. He “gobbled books,” his mother recollected; his sister Eunice remembered him as the only family member “who looked things up.” (His reading while bivouacked in the Solomon Islands during World War II was Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.”) From an early age, and increasingly over time, Logevall repeatedly insists, Kennedy read widely and well, thought for himself, decided for himself, laid out his own life course and in countless ways was his own man and no one else’s, assuredly not his father’s.