Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero


“What was he like?”Jack Kennedy said the reason people read biography is to answer that basic question. With the verve of a novelist, Chris Matthews gives us just that. We see this most beloved president in the company of friends.

We see and feel him close-up, having fun and giving off that restlessness of his. We watch him navigate his life from privileged, rebellious youth to gutsy American president. We witness his bravery in war and selfless rescue of his PT boat crew. We watch JFK as a young politician learning to play hardball and watch him grow into the leader who averts a nuclear war.

What was he like, this person whose own wife called him “that elusive, unforgettable man”? The Jack Kennedy you discover here wanted never to be alone, never to be bored. He loved courage, hated war, lived each day as if it were his last.Chris Matthews’s extraordinary biography is based on personal interviews with those closest to JFK, oral histories by top political aide Kenneth O’Donnell and others, documents from his years as a student at Choate, and notes from Jacqueline Kennedy’s first interview after Dallas. You’ll learn the origins of his inaugural call to “Ask what you can do for your country.”

You’ll discover his role in the genesis of the Peace Corps, his stand on civil rights, his push to put a man on the moon, his ban on nuclear arms testing. You’ll get, more than ever before, to the root of the man, including the unsettling aspects of his personal life. As Matthews writes, “I found a fighting prince never free of pain, never far from trouble, never accepting the world he found, never wanting to be his father’s son. He was a far greater hero than he ever wished us to know.”

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History made him, this lonely, sick boy. His mother never loved him. History made Jack, this little boy reading history.

—Jacqueline Kennedy, November 29, 1963,
from notes scribbled by Theodore H. White

Certain things come with the territory. Jack Kennedy, born in 1917 in the spring of the next-to-last year of World War I, was the second son of nine children. That’s important to know. The first son is expected to be what the parents are looking for. Realizing that notion early, he becomes their ally. They want him to be like them—or, more accurately and better yet, what they long to be.

Joseph Kennedy, a titan of finance, whose murky early connections helped bring him riches and power but never the fullest respect, had married in 1914, after a seven-year courtship, Rose Fitzgerald. The pious daughter of the colorful Boston mayor John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, she launched their substantial family when, nine months later, she presented her husband with his son and heir, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. For the proud couple, he would be their bridge to both joining and mastering the WASP society from which they, as Roman Catholics in early twentieth-century America, were barred.

Such stand-in status meant, for the young Joe, that he had to accept all the terms and rules put forth by those whose ranks he was expected to enter. The idea was to succeed in exactly the well-rounded manner of the New England Brahmin. Above all, that meant grades good enough to keep up at the right Protestant schools, and an ability to shine at sports as well. In this last instance, there was no doubt about the most desirable benchmark of achievement. The football field was not just where reputations were made and popularity earned, it was where campus legends were born.

Joseph Kennedy’s handsome eldest boy would prove himself equal to the task. Entering Choate, the boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut, where he was a student from the age of fourteen to eighteen, he quickly made his mark. A golden youth, he became the headmaster George St. John’s ideal exemplar. Transcending his origins—which meant getting past the prejudices St. John was said to hold for his kind, the social-climbing Irish—Joe Jr., with his perfect body and unquestioning, other-directed mind, seemed to embody the Choate ethos without breaking a sweat.

A second son such as Jack Kennedy, arriving as he did two years later, finds himself faced with that old familiar tough act to follow. And, of course, embedded in the soul of any second male child is this Hobson’s choice: to fail to match what’s gone before guarantees disappointment; to match it guarantees nothing.

You have to be original; it’s the only way to get any attention at all—any good attention, that is.

Jack Kennedy, almost as soon as he got to Choate, quite obviously put himself on notice not to be a carbon copy. He was neither a “junior,” nor would he be a junior edition. He would be nothing like the much-admired Joe, nothing like the Choate ideal. What he brought, instead, was a grace his brother—and Choate itself—lacked. Even as a child of the outrageously wealthy Joseph Kennedy and his lace-curtain wife, Jack soon showed himself well able to see the humor in life. The wit he displayed cut to the heart of situations and added to life an extra dimension. He was fun.

Here, then, is where we begin to catch a glimpse of the young man who would stride decisively up to that convention stage a quarter century later, leaving behind the indelible image. Even though he’s very much still a boy, he’s preternaturally aware of the way life demands roles and resistant to stepping into one preselected for him.

There’s the wonderful irony that comes with those surprises that second sons—Jack Kennedy included—are driven, and also inspired, to produce. Unlike his older brother, bound to a more conventional blueprint, Jack wasn’t under the same pressure. There was a lightness to him, a wry Irishness that blended with the WASP manner rather than aspiring to it. With that combination, he could enter where his father, mother, and brother could not.

What happened to Jack when he got to Choate in the fall of 1931, by then already a victim of persistent ill health, was that, first of all, he had to find himself, and, to a daunting degree, simply survive. His brother Robert—the seventh Kennedy child, younger than JFK by eight years—later said of that period that any mosquito unlucky enough to bite Jack would surely have paid the ultimate price. Jean, his youngest sister, told me it was his bedridden youth that made all the difference. “I remember him being sick. I remember that he read a great deal, and why he was so smart was because during those formative years he was reading when everyone else was playing baseball or football or something like that.”

So it was in the sickbed, it turns out, that he became a passionate reader, thrilling to the bold heroes of Sir Walter Scott and the tales of King Arthur. At Choate, he may have wound up the holder of a title he never trumpeted: the record for most days spent in the school’s Archbold Infirmary.

The appalling reality is that no one—no doctor, nor any of the top-drawer specialists to which his father sent Jack—could tell the Kennedy family or the young patient why he suffered so. He’d had scarlet fever, and his appendix removed, but what continued to plague him was a knot in his stomach that never went away. Frighteningly, too, his blood count was always being tested. Leukemia was one of the grim possibilities that concerned his doctors, and Jack couldn’t avoid hearing the whispers.

What seems clear to me is that, both at home and away, this fourteen-year-old—a big-eared, skinny kid nicknamed “Ratface”—wasn’t marked for anything in particular, as far as his father was concerned. The succession was taken care of. There was only one dukedom.

For Joseph Kennedy, his determination that his kids not be losers counted as a one-rule-fits-all. Nor did Jack seem to be of any particular emotional interest to his mother. Rose Kennedy kept her distance geographically as well as emotionally. Hard as it is to believe, she never once visited Jack at Choate, not even when he was ill and confined to the infirmary. “Gee, you’re a great mother to go away and leave your children alone,” he once told her at age six, as she was preparing for a long trip to California.

Sent away to school, Jack Kennedy was a spirit marooned. Choate, from the first, caused him to feel trapped. Chilly and restrictive, overly organized and tiresomely gung-ho, it was a typical Protestant boarding school based on the classic British model, and as such, more suited to his brother’s nature than his own. Perhaps because he suddenly was more aware of his Catholic identity in that setting, he faithfully went into Wallingford to church on Sunday mornings. At night, he knelt next to his bed to say his Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

However serious were Jack’s fears about his ultimate medical prognosis, he kept them to himself. There was no one yet in whom to confide his secrets. What he really needed to figure out for himself was a way to be happy there. He understood, too, the necessity of putting forth his best effort to prove himself at the sports at which he stood a chance of excelling—swimming and golf were his choices—while doing his best in the rougher ones, football and basketball. With that covered, he was free to make his name in more inventive ways.

His great success was to find ways to have fun. Jack Kennedy knew how to have—and share—good times. Watching The Sound of Music decades later, a classmate was reminded of him. Like the trouble-prone Maria, he “made people laugh.”

But even before he’d gotten to Choate, Jack was forming and nurturing an interior self. He had survived, even thrived in his way, as a bookish boy who soon would tolerate no interruptions when reading. While at the Catholic school where he’d boarded before coming to Choate, Jack had devoured Churchill’s account of the Great War, The World Crisis 1911–1918.Soon he was getting the New York Times each day. After finishing an article, it was his habit, as he once told a friend, to close his eyes in an attempt to recall each of its main points.

There would come over his face an expression of almost childlike pleasure when he’d worked through something difficult and figured it out. We all remember those kids who knew things, and cared about them, that weren’t taught at school. Jack was one of them. And it wasn’t the knowledge for its own sake, it was the grander world he glimpsed through it. Such habits of mind as thinking about Churchillian views of history were the glimmerings of the man he was shaping himself to become.

Yet, early on—and this habit, too, sprang from the many solitary hospital stays, lying in bed waiting for visitors—Jack had developed a craving for company. Left to himself so often for periods of his young life, as he grew older he never wanted to be alone. Even the companionship of any single person for too long never suited him. New people, and new people’s attentions, energized him, bringing out the seductive best in him—all his quickness, wit, and charm.

It was close to the end of his sophomore year at Choate that he met the first person he felt he could truly trust, and this allowed the first real crack to appear in his wall of solitude.

Boys in closed-off environments such as boarding schools are caught by the dilemma of needing one another while recognizing they must stay wary. The easily popular types and their followers don’t suffer; the quirkier, harder-to-classify ones are left to feel their way more carefull…


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