Monday, February 20, 2006
Book learning # 4.
Grace and Power. The private world of the Kennedy White House.
Sally Bedell Smith.
Where to start?
It's no secret that when it comes to the Presidency I have certain ideas. It's also well known that the President I have most admired was the number one beneficary of the events in Dallas in Novemeber 1963.
Does this mean I dislike JFK? No, but my close relationship with his successor means that I am less easily intimidated by the Kennedy legend.
This book certainly adds to the overall Kennedy myth yet it fails to hit the more sycophantic notes. It's a conversational read and would fall somewhere between scholarly texts and some of the quite startling tabloid style paperbacks one can read on the subject.
I guess the key sensation I came away with was a slight sense of being underwhelmed.
What did JFK actually achieve? There are many good arguments for his style of leadership and his brainy 'New Frontiersman' cabinet but what else exactly?
I tend to think that he was a key force in preventing nuclear war in October 1962 and, well, that's probably it. He was also ridden with horrible back pain, He screwed everything in sight and he was terribly wealthy.
I'll give him the Cuban Missile Crisis but the other stuff just became repetitive.
Don't even get me started on Jackie. The pages in this book that deal with her role as First lady had me skipping faster than a boxer in the gym. I'm just not interested in French clothing designers of the early 1960s or White House restoration projects. Oh, she loved horses. Great.
Yet I read on, There were many good accounts of backroom deals to try and shift situations such as Cuba, relations with the Soviet Union, South East Asia as well as domestic issues such as civil rights.
I was also fascinated by JFK's dealings with people such as LBJ and the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan.
Then there would be another half dozen pages about his sexual exploits. It just got a bit tired. I can't really blame the author, I mean, this stuff clearly took place and it has it's place in the bigger picture. It was dealt with in a non sensationalist style which actually made it all sound rather mechanical, sex scandals really have to written in a slightly naughty style in order to have impact.
I did get the sense (one that I'd never really bothered to think about before) that the Kennedys were easily the most ridiculously glamourous family to occupy the White House. It's easy to glance at the other residents since FDR and see a bunch of very humble folk by comparison.
What else was amazing was the way the press allowed JFK to get away with so much. From Addisons' disease to the philandering. On each and every issue the journalists kept schtum. Incredible.
That's the trouble, maybe I know too much, maybe I should read more novels but I knew all this stuff already. I learned almost nothing that I hadn't picked up from the last 20 years of reading and watching telly.
Still, I already have a couple of friends who would like to read this now I'm done and I'll happily pass it on, not the worst read of the year, certainly if you don't happen to be a President snob like myself.