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Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero

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Matthews does not claim to have all the answers. But he has identified a number of characteristics and traits that Kennedy developed in response to the challenges he faced. His illnesses as a child made him self-reliant and gave him the idle time to become a dedicated student of history. He learned in high school and college that he had a gift for making close friends and attracting followers. World War II taught him that, despite his precarious health, he had “stamina and courage,” which served him well when he entered the “rough and tumble” of Massachusetts politics.

The most interesting parts of the book are the retelling of Kennedy’s initial election to the House of Representatives in 1946; his close, upset victory over Republican Henry Cabot Lodge in the 1952 Massachusetts Senate race; and his even closer triumph when he won the presidency in 1960. As a seasoned political operative, Matthews assesses Kennedy’s political career with an expert’s eye and judgment.

He describes in detail the hard-nosed politics practiced by the Kennedy family, the willingness to bend the rules (in 1946, Kennedy broke into the Massachusetts State House after hours to file his nominating petitions because he’d failed to file them when the office was open), and the effort to build a comprehensive network of volunteers to advance his political career. Matthews suggests that such actions were critical to Kennedy’s success.

But despite the overwhelmingly positive picture, this is not hagiography. Matthews makes explicit the notorious womanizing, Kennedy’s abandonment of friends when he no longer needed them, and his willingness to hide serious health problems from the public despite the knowledge that they probably impaired his judgment.

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