Kennedy went from a bumbling young president overwhelmed by the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba and an extremely cautious approach in the White House to a decisive advocate for Civil Rights and a commander-in-chief privately bent on removing all military advisers from Vietnam and never allowing ground troops into Southeast Asia.
Equally impressive, he hit his stride with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, signing a nuclear test-ban treaty and building a rapport both leaders believed could reverse the Cold War.
Still, Clarke manages to avoid getting bogged down in too much diplomatic chatter, cables, and correspondence. In 400 pages, he packs a lot of information into a digestible form, combining the personal and the political to great effect.
Nodding to the work of fellow historian Robert Dallek, who Clarke praises in the acknowledgments, the book illustrates the day-to-day life of the president. Kennedy “was not a hypochondriac,” Clarke writes, but “merely someone who after a lifetime of illnesses and pains had become accustomed to seeking treatments for minor complaints.”
The president suffered from Addison’s disease, chronic diarrhea, poor vision, back pain, and allergies to dust and animals. Still, an exercise and rehab regimen undertaken in 1962 and 1963 left JFK feeling better than he ever had at the time of his death. (Kennedy was ill throughout his childhood, too.)
He came from a wealthy family, but retained his father’s disdain for showy affluence. Clarke notes Kennedy never allowed pictures to be taken of his Air Force One cabin because it looked “like a rich man’s plane.”
The president frowned on snobbery, even if Jackie did bring style and lavish spending into his orbit.
Of his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, JFK said, “He is a terribly cold man. All his golfing pals are rich men he has met since 1945 (when World War II ended with Ike as a national hero).”