Of all the things that repeatedly have been written about the 35th president of the United States, the one that rings most false is the most lyrical: “Johnny, we hardly knew ye,” a phrase derived from an 1867 song, popularized by the folk group the Clancy Brothers in 1961 and reinjected into the political lexicon by a memoir of that title by John F. Kennedy aides Kenneth P. O’Donnell and Dave Powers in 1972.
But in truth we know more about President Kennedy — how he lived, how he loved, how he governed, how he died, even how he put his hand in his suit-coat pocket and how he pronounced the word “vigor” — than perhaps any other figure in modern history. The American fixation with Kennedy, an avocation only less pervasive than the Boston fixation with Kennedy, has left few questions about the man unanswered.
Why do we need “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956,” yet another biography of John F. Kennedy, even by a respected Harvard professor, one with a ceaseless curiosity about the man, a indefatigable instinct for research, a smooth writing style, and an intuitive sense of the arc of history matched only by, well, Kennedy himself?
The short answer: Because this book is very good.
Fredrik Logevall breaks little new ground; there are, to be sure, fresh details about his youthful romance with Inga Arvad, a perceptive portrait of Kennedy’s complicated but in some ways disrespectful relationship with Jackie, an intriguing insight about the sinews of character of brother Bobby.
But the virtue of this volume, which stretches all the way to the failed Kennedy campaign for the Democratic vice presidential nomination in 1956, and presumably the value of the volume that follows, which will take readers to his Dallas assassination and American legacy, is that it plows much of the Kennedy ground with such dexterity and such wisdom. Misty-eyed Kennedy acolytes of a certain age will read it and weep. Modern, less romantic readers will read it and reap the benefit of Logevall’s acuity.
“The JFK legend has obscured the real-life Kennedy, the workaday Kennedy, rendering him opaque and inscrutable,” he writes as he begins his journey into the life and times of a man who has shaped many of our lives and times, even those of the 70 percent of Americans who were born after he died. “To recapture him, one must examine him when he was young and untried, still finding his way in his large and competitive Irish Catholic family and in the world, still learning what he was about.”
Logevall’s Kennedy stood “somewhat apart from his large and close-knit family — he was of the unit but also outside of it.” He was shaped more simply by being in the Navy than by becoming a Navy hero, for it was in that period that, “thrown together with individuals from vastly different backgrounds and economic circumstances, he developed a greater appreciation for the diversity of the American national experience.” Brother Bobby wasn’t so much an extension of Jack as “an extension of his father, for in short order he took on all the attributes ever given to the old man, which is to say he was deemed ruthless, caustic, relentless, defiant, and ferocious.”
The discerning reader might say: None of this is really new. But this volume reflects not so much the vaunted Kennedy wit but Alexander Pope’s definition of wit: “What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d.”
But that same discerning reader will find a great truth in JFK’s 1952 race, against the incumbent Senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. — a classic of Massachusetts’s many tribal range wars, this one pitting an Irish Catholic against the quintessential Yankee patrician. For here Logevall discerns that in that battle, and later in the 1960 presidential campaign, JFK created an organization, and ran his campaign, as a separate entity from the Democratic Party. In that he was a pathfinder — and anticipated, or inspired, such future presidents as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan ... and Donald J. Trump.
This is, in some senses, a heroic biography; the account of Kennedy’s early years is punctuated by remarks such as “Jack has it in him to be a great leader of men” (the assessment of assistant Choate headmaster Wardell St. John). It has multiple reflections such as the notion that the youthful, bent-for-greatness Kennedy had “the kind of exposure and training that no future president since John Quincy Adams had enjoyed at so young an age. And the experience left its mark, cultivating in him an intensified passion for foreign policy and world affairs that he never abandoned, and completing his transition to adulthood.”
But while Kennedy comes off in this volume as more responsible for “Profiles in Courage” than the popular narrative, he is even more prone to sexual adventures than the already prodigious popular notion. Truly he was as dedicated to affairs of the bedroom as to affairs of state. And he is no hero, nor profile in courage, when it came to Joe McCarthy, a family friend and sometime Kennedy benefactor. In that episode as in others, Eleanor Roosevelt had it right when she said that Kennedy had more profile than courage.
Otherwise, Logevall returns us in this half-a-biography to a totally different world — indeed a different political universe, one where campaign aides would hover over milkshakes at Schrafft’s in Charlestown to shape their strategy. Logevall — though born, in Stockholm, the very year Kennedy died — gets this vanished world precisely right, an achievement in itself.
JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956
By Fredrik Logevall
Random House, 816 pp., $40
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.