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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Another Page in the History of JFK

JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the PresidencyJFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency by John T. Shaw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was a first reads giveaway. Back in my freshman year of college, 1959-1960, a flurry of activity and tittering took place among us young women in the main gathering place of the Administration Building called Crossroads. It seems that the young Democratic candidate for the presidency and his pregnant young wife had stopped briefly outside the gates of the Mt St Vincent campus to say a few words to all us young Catholic girls, mostly too young to vote but also mostly giggly in the presence of this handsome, movie star-like creature and his " beautiful" wife. Many of the girls in Crossroads ran up the hill in their Pendleton skirts, twin sets, pearls and saddle shoes to bask in the glow of his charm. I did not. I found the whole spectacle shallow and phony and did not find myself at all under the spell of the new Camelot.

I was 16 then and, other than feeling a terrible sense of disbelief at his assassination when I was in physics class during graduate school several years later, JFK didn't enthrall, interest or impress me throughout his presidency. Having been rather young during his Senate years and knowing very little about them I entered the giveaway thinking that, perhaps, his greatness lay in his Congressional career and not only in the unfortunate method of his death. Well, no. But I discovered that what my initial impressions of his fame were true. He was smart, there is no doubt. I don't think dumb men become President, no matter the comments about some of his successors. But, more importantly to his success, in my opinion ( and this book does little to change it ) was his father's money and connections. Both these things enabled him to make all his little trips throughout Europe--getting through Nazi Germany in 1939, for example--and Asia with meetings with prominent people everywhere he went. What was his claim to fame? That he was an undergrad at Harvard or that he was the American ambassador- to- England's eldest son?

How is it possible that his senior thesis was published and became a best seller AND, interestingly, won the Pulitzer Prize when it wasn't even suggested to the selection committee by anyone. Oh, those Kennedy dollars and may it be added the assistance of heavy editing by others than JFK. The book goes on the show that his greatest strength on his own was his ability to choose a good speech writer and surround himself with excellent staff to do research for him and flesh out historical anecdotes and pithy jokes so that he was able to give speeches so filled with quotes, jokes and stories that they overwhelmed the listeners with words that basically entertained but offered no real meaning. History lessons given by an appealing looking charming Irishman with a Boston accent. He got himself elected to Congress at a time that a whole generation was reaching voting age. They looked upon the sitting President and the next, Truman and Eisenhower, as old men from a different generation and they were. They were tired having led the country through a harrowing War successfully and they were serious men and grave. Not young joking men with a cute wife and sparkling eyes,who seemed just like them, ready for a brand new world.

Having once reached Congress the real business could begin--get his name in the papers, on radio, on TV. Use charm and wit, utilize the machine surrounding him, Daddy's money and influence and get this show to the White House on the road. The most interesting part of the book, which deals with these years of Senate service, otherwise known as subtle presidential campaigning, was the story of the Kennedy Committee. This was a LBJ brain-child that fell into Kennedy's lap when LBJ had a heart attack, a long recovery and the desire to get back to heavy Senatorial duties. Essentially, the committee had as its goal the identification and subsequent honoration of the five greatest Senators ever to serve our Country. This took the better part of two years from start to finish and Kennedy was the chairman, overseeing the discussions and selection. It is most likely the hardest work he did in the nearly eight years he served there.

By all indications, Kennedy never saw the Senate as a place where important work was to be done, nor did he see it as the place where he would spend his career. He used it as a stepping stone to the White House. In his last years, he barely set foot in it or attended meetings or cast votes. He traveled the country glad-handing, charming, enlisting and plotting his final run to the Democratic convention and his nomination as Presidential candidate. I do remember his Presidential years--he did not impress. His biggest claims to fame for me was the fact he got elected young, was able to get elected as a Catholic and that he was unfortunately assassinated. Considering the inordinate adoration he and his family has garnered through the years, I'm amazed the Catholic church didn't canonize him. Though we don't have royalty in this country, by virtue of his father's money and connections and his position as the eldest son, since Joe was killed in the War, JFK came as close to it as possible. And like so many second sons and monied Princes, he was lazy but crafty in his pursuit of his goals. He achieved them but unlike the author who wonders what he would have done had he not been assassinated, I wonder what he would have done had he not been elected President and whether he may have lived longer and accomplished more.

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