Book review: JFK's Last Hundred Days

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 August, 2013, 4:20pm

JFK's Last Hundred Days
by Thurston Clarke
3 stars

Michiko Kakutani

As the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy looms on the horizon in November, the debates over his legacy and presidency continue: a procession of "what ifs" and "might have beens", accompanied by contradictory arguments, and informed and not-so-informed speculation.

Historian Thurston Clarke's patchy and often reductive new book, JFK's Last Hundred Days, contends that during that period Kennedy was "finally beginning to realise his potential as a man and a president"; just as "ambition and realpolitik had characterised his congressional career and early White House years, morality and emotion tempered his ambitions during his last hundred days".

Clarke also contends that during those days, Kennedy began to show his wife, Jacqueline, "the marriage they might have had", arguing that the death of their premature infant, Patrick, in August 1963 had brought them closer together.

In Clarke's view, two speeches the president gave in June 1963 - one proposing negotiations with the Soviet Union to draft a nuclear test ban treaty, the other declaring that "race has no place in American life or law" - represented a turning point in his life.

The idea of transformation is deeply appealing: we live in a culture that prizes reinvention and second acts. With Kennedy, however, it's difficult to make a case for dramatic change - partly because, as Clarke writes, Kennedy was "one of the most complicated and enigmatic men ever to occupy the White House": a man who frequently said and did contradictory things.

Much of the debate over what Kennedy would have eventually done about the Vietnam war - find a way to extricate the United States or listen to the same hard-liners who would help persuade president Lyndon Johnson to escalate US involvement - stems from wildly divergent remarks he made on the subject, remarks subject to a variety of interpretations.

Too often, Clarke seems to be picking details and anecdotes that support his overarching thesis - that Kennedy began to hit his stride in his last 100 days, starting to emerge as "a great president" - rather than assessing the historical record.

Clarke focuses, speculatively, on what Kennedy planned to do, writing that, among other things, the president "intended to travel to Moscow for a summit meeting with Khrushchev; launch a secret dialogue with Castro; explore the possibility of establishing a relationship with China; withdraw a thousand advisers from Vietnam by the end of 1963 and remove more during 1964; settle the cold war; end the threat of a nuclear war; launch an attack on poverty; preside over the most robust, full-employment economy in US history; and continue marrying poetry to power and inspiring the young."

Such efforts to inflate Kennedy's achievements distract from his actual accomplishments and influence; they also make this intermittently interesting volume feel like a sentimental work of hagiography.

The New York Times