Sunday, 20 October 2013

JFK's Last Hundred Days: An Intimate Portrait of a Great President by Thurston Clarke - Book Review

JFK's Last Hundred Days tracks Kennedy's diary commitments for the last three months in the the run up to the tragic events of 22nd November, and in so doing it provides a snap-shot into what it is to life the life a US President. On one level the picture given is one familiar to any executive or leader: a man moving from meeting to meeting, giving speeches and making decisions on half a dozen key projects. It just happened that the 'key projects' on which JFK was having to make decisions were some of the greatest domestic and political issues in the post-war era, namely Black civil rights, the Cold War, Vietnam and Cuba. One day he was attempting to navigate the passage of a civil rights bill that would give blacks a more equal place in US society; the next he was negotiating a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets. Vietnam posed challenges on a daily basis, as Kennedy had to decide whether or not to support a coup against Minh.
What comes through is a man who gave great leadership to his Administration. According to Clarke, Kennedy's drive and higher purpose came from a deep sense of wanting to be judged one of the greatest, if not the greatest, US President by "the high court of history". His last hundred days was a period where Kennedy played the cards he had at his disposal to work towards winning the Cold War to secure a safer world for the nation's children. His approach was informed by his experiences as a in the Navy in World War II; and, more recently, by the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis where he knew better than most how close the world came to nuclear holocaust.  This was most clearly seen in his dealings with the Soviets, where he was prepared to face criticism for signing the Test Ban Treaty and because of the agreement to sell (surplus) grain to the USSR. In so doing he made the first steps towards mutual trust and peace. Likewise, in the last weeks before his assassination he came to the realisation that the time was fast approaching to withdraw the US 'advisers' from Vietnam. At the same time, he was pursuing a two-track strategy on Cuba, supporting rebel groups whilst trying to open up channels of communication with Castro. Both Khrushchev and Castro recognised that these were to some extent personal initiatives that, to a greater or lesser extent, died with him. 
Kennedy certainly did not have everything his own way. He was forced to temper his moral instincts with realpolitik in order to have any hope of carrying rival political factions and thus pass bills through Congress. He also had to keep one eye on the upcoming 1964 Presidential election. An example of this was his approach to the Civil Rights bill where he need to balance the demands of Martin Luther king and others campaigning for black rights, without alienating too many voters in the South on whom he would be relying.
Much has been written of JFK's colourful personal life and his infidelities have been well documented. However Thurston Clark presents us with a different picture during this period. The recent death of their son, Patrick, cast a signficant shadow over JFK and Jackie's last hundred days together and there were signs that their relationship was on a much firmer footing. Ironically this was a key factor in Jackie making the trip to Dallas.
Reading this book is rather like watching the film Titanic - we all know the ending and the reader inevitably latches onto every clue that points to the inevitable outcome along the way: the repeated warnings from friends and advisers about the inadvisability of going to the "hornet's nest" that was Dallas, concerns from his secret service minders about JFK's unthinking desire to make himself available to the people, and even the proleptic dinner party conversations about how he would like to die. 
Thurston Clarke is to be congratulated on his "intimate portrait of a great President".

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