A Dream Unfulfilled

A Review of An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy
by Robert Dallek

Author Biography

Robert Dallek was born on May 16, 1934. He obtained his Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1964. He is a Professor of History at Boston University and has previously taught at Columbia University, UCLA and Oxford. He has won the Bankcroft Prize and numerous other awards for scholarship and teaching. He is renowned for writing many presidential biographies.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy epitomized the American dream. His family, rising from the mass of commoners, achieved mass wealth and prestige. His heritage proved to be the undisputable evidence of civilians that showed that anyone can accomplish their aspirations. Robert Dallek revisited JFK’s life in his recent biography of the beloved president, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy. Although excessively venerated by the country after his assassination, JFK is presented in this book with all his splendor and flaws. Theodore C. Sorensen—a close acquaintance of JFK—observed that “the assassination of President Kennedy represented an incalculable loss of the future.”1 Kennedy embodied the new age. The youthful president surrounded himself with young bright minds as his advisers who proposed new methods and innovative approaches to the country’s woes at home and abroad. Although his life was cut short, it stowed many recollections: his adolescence, his service in both houses of Congress, his road to becoming president, and his presidency.

Chapters one to three dealt with JFK’s childhood. Because he was the second son of Rose and Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s birth into the world was welcomed with little ebullience and publicity although Joe was a prominent businessman. From the beginning of his existence, JFK was overshadowed by his big brother, Joe Jr. Continuously exhibiting his superiority, Joe Jr. would fake a football handoff, “slam the ball into Jack’s stomach,” and walk away smirking while his younger brother laid on the ground, throbbing with pain.2 In addition to his elder brother’s bullying, he suffered from mysterious ailments in his “eyes, ears, teeth, knees, arches, from the top of his head to the tip of his toes;” his back problems would prove to be the most severe.3 These maladies would plague him for the rest of his life and recur sporadically throughout his presidency. Another detriment to his widely revered reputation as the ideal gentleman was his promiscuity. Bestowed with boyish looks, Kennedy became the object that “every woman want[ed] to mother or marry.”4 Because of the competitiveness between the two brothers, JFK found something he excelled at: charming the ladies. With the death of his older brother due to a hazardous flying mission, JFK centralized his attentions on prospective occupations. Previously, politics was reserved for Joe Jr., but with no one impeding his progress, JFK embarked on his journey into politics.

The second part of the biography, chapters four to six, discussed his journey as a politician. Albeit doubtful of his son’s suitability as a Congressman, Joe exerted all his influence to get him elected and most importantly sponsored his campaign. He supposedly pronounced, “With what I’m spending [on the election] I could elect my chauffeur.”5 At the age of twenty-nine, JFK defeated his opponent by a landslide and became a House Representative at a time when Republicans dominated Congress. JFK viewed his position as only a means to advance his civic status to Senator. Commencing on the statewide campaign, Joe fired the campaign manager and appointed the station to his younger son Robert. The collaboration between JFK and his younger brother would forge an indestructible bond throughout his career as a politician. Contending against the incumbent Henry Cabot Lodge—who had remained victorious in every election since 1932, JFK mustered all his audacity to beat the Senator. Even though winning by a narrow margin, JFK accomplished a tremendous feat considering that only five other Congressmen in the nation were elevated to Senators in 1952. Although he remained a Senator for six years, JFK initiated no major legislation or reform in Congress. With no other prospects in the Senate, he set his sights on another superior title—the vice presidency. To get on the 1956 ticket as vice president, he had to win the Democratic nomination. Running against Estes Kefauver, JFK lost due to his inexperience, diverging religion, and public opposition from distinguished individuals, like Eleanor Roosevelt. Even though his loss was perceived as a major blow to his political career, it enabled him to return on the 1960 election as a presidential candidate.

Chapters seven and eight recounted his struggle to become president. JFK’s greatest hindrance proved to be his religion—Catholicism. Many believed that the Pope would take over the United States. JFK responded to this prevalent worry by stating that he “[was] not the Catholic candidate for President [but] the Democratic Party’s candidate for President, who happen[ed] also to be a Catholic.”6 Furthermore, his inexperience and youth led many Americans to question his leadership skills, for he was only forty-two years old. Another disadvantage—albeit unknown to the public at the time—was his debilitating health. His recurring back problems flared up once again. If his adversaries had unearthed his medical files, JFK’s political career would have been cut short since many would have inquired about his ability to lead the nation with such medical dilemmas hindering him. His opponents for the Democratic nomination were Adlai Stevenson—the Democrats’ past presidential candidate—Hubert Humphrey, and Lyndon B. Johnson. JFK crisscrossed the nation numerous times to address the public and deliver speeches, in hopes of garnering more votes. Because vice presidents play an insignificant role in U.S. history, JFK was concerned only with his potential vice president’s immediate contribution to the 1960 election. He had many likely candidates in mind, including his opponents for the Democratic presidential nomination, but ultimately chose Lyndon B. Johnson because he could win Southern votes. Even though LBJ’s conservatism alienated many liberals, his Southern appeal and experience as a majority leader in the Senate was an invaluable asset. Challenging the Republicans Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge, JFK and LBJ were fighting a close race as Gallup polls—surveys determining popular opinions—revealed. Many historians speculate that the televised debates helped JFK win the elections. Juxtaposed on the television screen, JFK appeared robust and strong next to the pale Nixon, recuperating from a recent illness. Civilians who saw the televised debate concluded that JFK won, while others who listened to the debates on the radio surmised that Nixon had won. The final results revealed that JFK won with a minority, a mere 49.72 percent of the popular vote. Many wonder, not why he won, but why he won by such a narrow margin. Running against Nixon, people expected him to win by a landslide.

The last segment of the book—chapters nine to nineteen—followed JFK’s short presidency. He began his presidency with one of the most memorable inauguration speeches in United States’ history. Alluding to his favorite President Jefferson, he banished bipartisanship and inspired unity instead by saying that “We are all Federalists. We are all Republicans.”7 JFK ended his inauguration address with one of the most memorable quotes in the world history: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”8 Concerned more with international affairs rather than domestic, JFK aimed his attentions towards communist Cuba. The Central Intelligence Agency endorsed training Cuban refugees to return back to Cuba and rouse a rebellion, which would consequently overthrow Fidel Castro. With no backup sent in, the team was squashed. His first one hundred days of presidency were marred by the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Next, JFK focused his concentration on the U.S.S.R. To ensure the United States’ prestige over the Soviets, the president commenced the space race, contriving to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Once again, his attentions were back on Cuba, when photographs came back with clear evidence that the Cubans possessed missiles. Although unaware at that time, if JFK had decided to bomb the missile sites instead of blockading incoming ships, he could have triggered a nuclear war. His sage guidance while the U.S. was on the brink of war elevated his reputation. With the public’s support he began campaigning for his reelection. On November 22, 1963, while riding through Dallas, Texas, he was assassinated. His death was a dreadful shock for many who became disillusioned with politics. His death marked the end to a promising era—an era of hope and prospects.

Robert Dallek decided to write a biography on John F. Kennedy because of the “availability of new materials: written contemporary documents, telephone and Oval Office tapes, and entire oral histories or parts thereof,” shedding new light on this idolized president.9 Dallek’s thesis is to add a whole new dimension to JFK’s already complex character. With these constant new resources, older biographies of JFK become outdated and the lack of information make these biographies inaccurate about JFK’s life. Other biographers have omitted JFK’s digressions or vindicated his faults. Dallek’s point of view portrays JFK’s life as it is, without sugar to sweeten the picture. In his novel, Dallek includes the charismatic statesman and the licentious playboy. Dallek solely provides the truth and leaves it up to the readers to decide for themselves “who really was JFK?” Due to his expertise in history and occupation as a professor at prestigious universities such as Oxford, Columbia, and UCLA, he is a creditable author. Being written subsequent to 9/11, the historiography of the biography was mainly influenced by that dark day in American history. Due to the circumstances in which he wrote the book, Dallek approves of JFK’s accomplishment at defeating the religious barrier to gain the position of president. After 9/11, many people realized the necessity of having more religious tolerance and acceptance. Publishers Weekly reviewed Dallek’s latest book chronicling JFK’s life. Because of Dallek’s unlimited access to the Kennedy family papers, he got more insight than any other biographer. The new key information consisted of records from the late president’s colleagues, doctors, and relatives. Dallek has gained more information pertaining to JFK’s health, politics, irresponsibility, and extramarital liaisons. Additionally, Dallek reveals the lengths that JFK’s family went through to suppress and to conceal his medical records, even resorting to destroying key records subsequent to his death. Moreover, the extent to which Joseph Kennedy guaranteed his son’s success in the 1960 election, regarding the use of money to buy the West Virginia Primary. Often believed to have furthered the war in Vietnam if he had lived, new information show that he was against American expansion and involvement in Vietnam. The magazine observes that “Dallek stops short of worshipping his subject; he is a Kennedy admirer, but he never allows this admiration to cloud either his focus or the truth.”10 Another book review reveals the new information that Dallek has dug up to reveal a different side of the president “with his many flaws, such as inept handling of Congress and the Senate, lackadaisical progress on civil rights, and some uncertainty in foreign policy.”11 Even with these many setbacks, Dallek agrees with many other historians when they describe JFK as an above average president. If he had lived to fulfill, his second term might have immortalized his name as the greatest of the American presidents or he would have fallen from grace like so many presidents have before him.

Dallek provides a startling accurate depiction of JFK’s life. His biography reads like a movie with suspense, and readers connect with the story and the life of JFK. The author provides many different views on many key events in JFK’s life. With numerous testimonies from firsthand witnesses, Dallek recreates the time, place, and situation. Many students are deceived by history books’ portrayal of JFK as the ideal president, one that was leading the U.S. into a new future, a future better than the present. Dallek’s only weakness was his partiality. Although Dallek strived to make his bias—his admiration of JFK—undetected, it was reflected in his novel. His constant justifications and explanations of JFK’s blunders are apparent throughout the novel. Dallek raises key ideas such as “had Kennedy lived to see a second term, the realities of his lechery and dealings” would have become apparent, devastating his reputation and world image forever.12

Kennedy has set a new precedent for forthcoming candidates—religious toleration. JFK paved the way for future presidents. His triumph with the 1960 elections broke down the religious barrier. Many voters based their presidential choice on JFK’s religion. For the first time, a politician won the presidency with a minority Protestant vote. Forty-five years after JFK’s death, no one even contemplates a presidential candidate’s religion when determining who is going be the future president. JFK made a significant gain even before stepping foot into the White House. Dallek summarizes JFK’s achievement: “Whatever gains and losses John Kennedy’s presidency might have brought to the country and the world, and his election in 1960 marked a great leap forward in religious tolerance that has served the nation well ever since.”13 His ability to deal with international affairs proves to the country that a man, although of a different religion from the majority’s faith, could indeed lead the nation effectively without involving his religion. In addition, many believed that his youth and inexperience would hinder his leadership. His sage dealing in the Cuban Missile Crisis, shows that he can overcome his youth and inexperience to guide the nation through a time of troubles.

Although, at first, indifferent to civil rights legislation, JFK eventually became an active proponent to the end of segregation. Like all other prior presidents, JFK feared alienation and anger of legislation would halt segregation. In addition to beginning—to a greater extent—religious toleration, he started racial integration. JFK and his brother Robert revoked their membership to an elite club because it excluded African Americans. Before his death, JFK was involved in getting the government to become actively involved in registering African Americans to vote. Furthermore, his improving relationship with Khrushchev helped alleviate future USSR-US tensions and led ultimately to the end of the Cold War in 1992. His wise international policies with the Soviets prevented the mass destruction of cities and civilians—the repercussions of nuclear war. If JFK had instigated a full out nuclear war with the Soviets instead of trying to repair their relationship, the world would be embroiled in a constant catastrophic destruction. Like Khrushchev conjectured “every idiot can start a war, but it is impossible to win this war.”14 Even if a nation won, no one would consider millions of deaths and the devastation of many cities a victory. In war, there is no triumph.

Many people admire JFK for his wit, charm, and attractiveness. Since his death, the public has fossilized his image, preserving it forever. Even with new revealing information on JFK’s recklessness and corruptness, individuals choose to ignore the facts and believe what they want to believe. Although his character was far from perfect, JFK’s imperfections render him more realistic and human, attracting even more admirers. Dallek concluded the biography by summing up JFK with three words—an “idealist without illusions.”15

review by Khanh Nguyen

  1. Dallek, Robert. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2003. 631.
  2. Dallek, Robert 28.
  3. Dallek, Robert 35.
  4. Dallek, Robert 5.
  5. Dallek, Robert 130.
  6. Dallek, Robert 227.
  7. Dallek, Robert 325.
  8. Dallek, Robert 326.
  9. Dallek, Robert ix.
  10. Publishers Weekly 2003.
  11. “A New Biography” Almami Taal 2005.
  12. Dallek, Robert 700.
  13. Dallek, Robert 296.
  14. Dallek, Robert 536.
  15. Dallek, Robert 702.

© 2006 Irvine High School

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