The cover story in the October 27, 2013, New York Times Sunday Book Review is an essay by Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson which claims that John F. Kennedy remains an “elusive “ figure.
Since in my own book, Kennedy and Reagan: Why Their Legacies Endure, I agree that Kennedy is “enigmatic,” I should not take too much issue with Abramson’s essay on the literature surrounding Kennedy, but the essay does raise an interesting point: Can we ever truly understand any fellow human being, famous or not?
Perhaps it’s Orson Welles’s fault that in his landmark film Citizen Kane he introduced the notion that there is a “Rosebud,” some one event that can explain a great man’s life (though given that the reporter in Kane concludes that no person’s life can be summed up easily suggests Welles was misdirecting us all along).
To those who want to know what made Kennedy tick, there is an avalanche of information to sift through. As I noted in my book, Kennedy offers a “Freudian buffet” for scholars.
His dysfunctional family of origin, his competition with his older brother, his numerous illnesses and accompanying belief that he would die young, his philandering, and the crushing burden of family expectations all help explain Kennedy’s personality and motivations.
And this, of course, is only what we know of his personal life. Because of his famous family, he was born in the public eye and remained in it his entire life, creating a voluminous public record. He wrote books and numerous letters, and his friends and associates have all either written their own memoirs (it is a veritable cottage industry maintaining Camelot) or submitted to hours of interviews for oral histories.
What more could we possibly know about Kennedy that we don’t already know? Is there one more thing that would tell us why he did what he did or was what he was? Can such a thing be true of anyone? Is there any one event in your or my life that explains everything about us? I don’t think so.
Abramson suggests that Kennedy has been the subject of some 40,000 books, though I believe this is inaccurate. It is generally conceded more books have been written about Lincoln than any other president, and the number ascribed to Lincoln is 16,000.
Vincent Bugliosi, who has written the definitive analysis of Kennedy’s assassination, Reclaiming History, has estimated there have been about 1,000 books written about Kennedy’s assassination, which is the most studied event of Kennedy’s life. Even if we include every book written not only about JFK but about every member of his family, it is likely the total number of books written, even including privately published monographs, does not exceed 3,000. Even if that is off by a factor of three, we are still well below 40,000 books.
But whether it is 3,000 or 40,000 books, Abramson’s laments are the same: She is still struck by “what’s missing” from all these accounts, and that there is not “one really outstanding book” about Kennedy.
Abramson insists these views are shared by “some of the nation’s leading historians,” though her essay cites only Robert Caro, who agrees there is “no great book about Kennedy.”
Now, I love Caro’s work, both his first biography of Robert Moses and his multi-volume epic on Lyndon Johnson, but it is generally conceded that Caro is obsessive about LBJ. In the more than thirty years Caro has devoted to his study of LBJ, he has now written three volumes encompassing almost 2,000 pages—and we are only about forty days into LBJ’s five-year presidency!
If Abramson is suggesting that a “great book” on Kennedy should be on the scale of Caro’s opus on LBJ, that raises two questions: Is Kennedy’s life worthy of such a lengthy study, and would such an epic study tell us any more than we already know?
Kennedy is an endlessly fascinating man, but he was president for only two years and ten months, following an undistinguished fourteen-year career in Congress. Johnson was president for more than five years, was responsible (as Abramson notes) for most of what we think of as the Kennedy legacy, and was a major figure in Congress.
But while Caro’s books are fascinating with a wonderful driving narrative, I am not sure even now that I yet know exactly what made LBJ tick, nor, if I have heard him correctly in interviews, has Caro claimed he knows what made LBJ who he was. That is what has held his interest for three decades—the search for that elusive “Rosebud.”
My own book will certainly not be considered the great book on Kennedy; that was not my goal. But I thought comparing and contrasting Kennedy with another supposedly enigmatic president, Reagan, would help illuminate both men’s lives and careers and I believe it does.
I would not claim that my approach now lays bare all we need to know to understand Kennedy or that we might project how his presidency would have developed had he lived, which seems to be our main preoccupation with the man.
In a lesser way, my book adds to the several outstanding books Abramson cites, which I agree deserve praise, such as Robert Dallek’s biography An Unfinished Life and Richard Reeves insightful study, President Kennedy: Profile of Power, not to mention William Manchester’s breathless Death of a President.
Like my own, none of these books are definitive and none will ever be – because there is no “Rosebud” for Kennedy or anyone else. And that is a good thing. It is why human beings, famous or familiar, are so interesting.