As­sess­ing the sub­stance of Kennedy’s pres­i­dency

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Lily Geis­mer is a pro­fes­sor of U.S. his­tory at Clare­mont McKenna Col­lege and the au­thor of “Don’t Blame Us: Sub­ur­ban Lib­er­als and the Trans­for­ma­tion of the Demo­cratic Party.” RE­VIEW BY LILY GEIS­MER

Writ­ing on the 20th an­niver­sary of John F. Kennedy’s death, his­to­rian Wil­liam Leucht­en­burg in 1983 pre­dicted, “Like the fair youth on Keats’s Gre­cian urn, Kennedy will be . . . ‘for ever young,’ beyond the power of time and the words of his­to­ri­ans.” “JFK: A Vi­sion for Amer­ica” com­mem­o­rates the cen­ten­nial of Kennedy’s birth, and it is jar­ring to imag­ine that he might have been that old. The com­pi­la­tion of speeches, es­says and re­mem­brances, how­ever, shows that Leucht­en­burg’s ob­ser­va­tion has not been en­tirely borne out. The book suc­cess­fully opens Kennedy up to the as­sess­ment of present-day com­men­ta­tors and re­veals both his his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance and the rel­e­vance of his mes­sages for our time.

Co-edited by Kennedy’s nephew Stephen Kennedy Smith and his­to­rian Dou­glas Brink­ley, “JFK” brings to­gether truly im­pres­sive con­trib­u­tors from a wide range of back­grounds, per­spec­tives and par­ti­san af­fil­i­a­tions. From El­iz­a­beth War­ren, Sa­man­tha Power, John McCain, Henry Kissinger and Paul Krug­man to Glo­ria Steinem, Co­nan O’Brien, Dave Eg­gers and Robert Red­ford, the con­trib­u­tors of­fer com­pelling com­men­tary on Kennedy’s speeches.

It is clear that sub­stan­tial time and thought went into the assem­bly and or­ga­ni­za­tion of this vol­ume. In ad­di­tion to the speeches and es­says, the col­lec­tion in­cludes hun­dreds of for­mal and in­for­mal pho­to­graphs of Kennedy, re­pro­duc­tions of per­sonal ephemera such as re­port cards and an­no­tated drafts of speeches, as well as time­lines of key events in the his­tory of the United States and the Kennedy fam­ily. The de­sign at times makes “JFK” more closely re­sem­ble a scrap­book than an aca­demic mono­graph. Still, the speeches and es­says are filled with se­ri­ous in­sights. Top­ics range from in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment, glob­al­iza­tion and fis­cal pol­icy to civil rights, art, reli­gion and the en­vi­ron­ment, which to­gether show the breadth of Kennedy’s ideas and the ex­tent of their im­pact.

De­spite the ar­ray of pic­tures cap­tur­ing Kennedy and his fam­ily’s sig­na­ture glam­our and charisma, the struc­ture of the book draws more at­ten­tion to Kennedy’s sub­stance than to his style. By em­pha­siz­ing his speeches, ed­i­tors es­pe­cially un­der­score Kennedy’s love of lan­guage and ideas. The book’s ap­proach shines light on some of JFK’s lesser-known re­marks, such as his Se­nate speeches de­nounc­ing Western im­pe­ri­al­ism and as president call­ing for a more lib­eral im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy.

The book also in­vites new con­sid­er­a­tion of some of Kennedy’s bet­ter-known speeches, such as his 1960 cam­paign ad­dress on reli­gion. This plea for re­li­gious tol­er­ance en­com­passed Kennedy’s per­sonal nar­ra­tive, his ground­ing and knowl­edge of Amer­i­can his­tory, and his ut­most faith in the na­tion’s fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples. Cor­re­spond­ing es­says by Tariq Ra­madan, Rick War­ren and the Dalai Llama il­lus­trate the range of groups for which this speech con­tin­ues to have res­o­nance. Its warn­ing that “to­day I may be the vic­tim — but to­mor­row it may be you” is par­tic­u­larly timely.

The col­lec­tion em­pha­sizes that Kennedy’s “vi­sion for Amer­ica” was un­de­ni­ably in­ter­na­tion­al­ist. The speeches and com­men­tary re­veal the ways in which his view of the United States’ place in the world took shape against the back­drop of the Cold War. It com­bined the seem­ingly con­tra­dic­tory im­pulses of ide­al­ism and re­al­ism, hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism and staunch an­ti­com­mu­nism, in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion and tough-minded mil­i­tarism.

The book only gin­gerly ad­dresses Kennedy’s role in the Viet­nam War and the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis, per­haps the two most con­tro­ver­sial events and lega­cies sur­round­ing his pres­i­dency. Read­ers will ul­ti­mately have to look else­where for more crit­i­cal ac­counts of th­ese top­ics (as well as Kennedy’s some­what check­ered record on civil rights). “JFK” nar­rates the events of the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis through McCain’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in mil­i­tary block­ades. It does not dwell on the in­ter­nal dy­nam­ics of the Kennedy ad­min­is­tra­tion and which of its de­ci­sions con­trib­uted to bring­ing the na­tion to the brink of nu­clear war. In­stead, the book fo­cuses on the les­sons Kennedy learned from the cri­sis and how he turned to­ward ad­vo­cat­ing peace in the last year of his pres­i­dency. The pow­er­ful con­tri­bu­tion by for­mer sec­re­tary of state John Kerry shows how the cri­sis and its af­ter­math demon­strated Kennedy’s keen un­der­stand­ing of the power and im­por­tance of diplo­macy. Kerry con­tends that Kennedy’s recog­ni­tion that diplo­macy is an “art, not a sci­ence,” “hard work” and an act of “courage” ul­ti­mately makes his un­timely death es­pe­cially tragic.

Sev­eral of the con­trib­u­tors sim­i­larly fo­cus on the sense of prom­ise Kennedy em­bod­ied and his abil­ity to kin­dle that prom­ise in others, es­pe­cially young peo­ple. A range of con­tri­bu­tions show how his calls for ac­tion had a per­sonal im­pact and shaped the ca­reer tra­jec­to­ries of not just pub­lic ser­vants but au­thors, in­clud­ing David McCul­lough, Don DeLillo and Paul Th­er­oux, who of­fers a par­tic­u­larly elo­quent ac­count of his ex­pe­ri­ence as an early Peace Corps vol­un­teer.

While the ed­i­tors and con­trib­u­tors are care­ful to avoid wad­ing into nos­tal­gic cel­e­bra­tion, a wist­ful tone per­vades al­most ev­ery es­say, demon­strat­ing how the vol­ume it­self is a prod­uct of the cur­rent mo­ment in his­tory. The ma­jor­ity of con­trib­u­tors re­mark on how Kennedy’s ideas con­tinue to res­onate. At the same time, many stress how his po­si­tions on sev­eral is­sues — from re­spect for the media and academia to his un­der­stand­ing of the re­spon­si­bil­ity de­manded by pub­lic ser­vice — con­trast with those of our con­tem­po­rary politi­cians. War­ren force­fully sug­gests that we should con­tinue to judge our pub­lic ser­vants and their ad­min­is­tra­tions by the yard­stick Kennedy laid out in 1961, just be­fore tak­ing the oath of of­fice, which stressed courage, judg­ment, in­tegrity and ded­i­ca­tion.

Ul­ti­mately, the col­lec­tion il­lus­trates Kennedy’s wide-rang­ing knowl­edge and cu­rios­ity, sense of the im­por­tance of pub­lic ser­vice and in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tion, be­lief in re­li­gious di­ver­sity, com­mit­ment to de­lib­er­ate ac­tion and ne­go­ti­a­tion, re­spect for the po­si­tion of the pres­i­dency, love of the coun­try, and rich un­der­stand­ing and ap­pre­ci­a­tion of its his­tory. The book in­evitably con­jures up a stark con­trast to the president who cur­rently sits at the desk un­der which John F. Kennedy Jr. fa­mously played. Thus, if any­thing, “JFK” re­minds us to heed Kennedy’s warn­ing that “if we don’t know any­thing about our past, then we don’t really have any base from which to move in the days ahead.”

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