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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

“A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy”, by Thomas C. Reeves

500 pages, Free Press, ISBN-13: 978-0029259658

Thomas C. Reeves’ A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy is a fine book that lays bare the many myths of “Camelot” that the Kennedy clan and its sycophants have tried to perpetuate since the day he was shot. The title of the book says it all: a question of character. This is one author’s attempt to look at the political life of President John F. Kennedy before and during his time in the White House. It details the differences in what the spin is and the private life that is described as being close to Hugh Hefner’s. We also get a very detailed (and somewhat troubling) view of the constant controls his father, Joe Kennedy, had over JFK throughout his career (not that comforting given the dubious reputation of Joe). Today, few young Americans even know who John F. Kennedy was because less than a handful of his positive accomplishments had any lasting significance. Like William McKinley, the fact that an assassin cut short Kennedy’s life and presidency might be all that Americans recall about him 50 years from now. More than 50 years after Kennedy’s death, the full extent of his life-long medical problems is still being withheld from the American people and conservative scholars, and Reeves recounts many of those problems.

Kennedy essentially launched the Vietnam War, despite what his many sycophants would have us believe, and his secretary of defense, Robert McNamara, was the architect of that lost conflict and the enormous suffering that it produced. More than 50,000 brave Americans died and it impaled this nation’s honor on the horns of a tragedy that still haunts policy makers and citizens alike. Even before Vietnam, Kennedy was responsible for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, where Fidel Castro humiliated him completely; this led going on 6 decades worth of enslavement for the Cuban people. The Cuban Missile Crisis, or Kennedy’s confrontation with the Soviet Union, might have given rise to a global nuclear war. His reckless affairs with women were only outdone by his irresponsible and dangerous relationships with mobsters such as Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana. These two character flaws merged when both Kennedy and Giancana had sexual liaisons with Judith Exner, who was used as their go-between. Indeed, it is doubtful whether Kennedy would have become president in 1960 if the Mob had not helped him in Illinois and West Virginia (something that Giancana claimed credit for). Kennedy was the son of a bootlegger, and the apple did not fall far from the tree, with respect to the three Kennedy brothers who entered national politics.

John F. Kennedy was not someone to look up to, much less deify. Many of us came to that conclusion reluctantly, years ago, with a sense of sadness rather than anger. Like the potentate in Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, “The Emperor's New Clothes”, the myth about Kennedy and his feet of clay have become clear for all to see with the passage of time. Greatness is often achieved in times of war, and Kennedy never won the war with Cuba, much less the Vietnam War that he started, nor did he win the Cold War – which Reagan won. Reeves does observe that JFK was beginning to grow into the office by the time of his death, but stops short of predicting a glorious Kennedy legacy had the man lived. It was far from a given that JFK could have won re-election in 1964, and Reeves knows this. Kennedy was a tragic Shakespearean figure who may be forgotten and consigned to the dust heap of history, in no small part because of the question of character that Reeves described brilliantly in his terrific book.

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