Author Takes the High Road in JFK Bio

review by Joe Rosenberg

An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963
by Robert Dallek
Little, Brown and Company, 2003

We are fortunate to have at least three major biographers producing popular life histories of past presidents—reporter Robert Dallek, the author of this new book; David McCullough, a marvelous storyteller; and Robert Caro, the muckraker. Dallek, the Joe Friday of the three, speculates little and gives us 711 pages of “just the facts” about Jack Kennedy.

The Kennedy that Dallek offers is a man of contradictions and vices and of great achievement. JFK’s health issues are explored in detail as the author shows Kennedy a slave to various medicines and treatment. This drove JFK to run for President in 1960, knowing his body might betray him at any time. Dallek takes the high road on Kennedy’s womanizing, keeping it in context and making a function of his awareness of early death and fragility. Both his behavior and cover-up about his health had Kennedy functioning in pain and risking danger every day.

This book clearly shows that Kennedy’s approach to government, foreign and domestic, was vastly different than other men who were President. This approach led to an emphasis on civil rights and nuclear disarmament. The tragedy of JFK’s assassination left undone the outcome of his efforts to disengage in Vietnam and to reform the way the US handles international issues.

Dallek clearly doesn’t believe in any grand conspiracy theory regarding JFK’s death, leaving it to Robert Caro to explore a possible coup in his next volume on Lyndon Johnson. Dallek does synthesize all recent revelations about Kennedy to show him as a man of uncommon wisdom, courage and insight. Although LBJ brilliantly helped enact Kennedy’s domestic program, he reverted to the staunch anti-communist rhetoric and action on foreign policy.

The genius of this book is that we see probably the most original thinker to occupy the White House—after Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR—and the tragedy of his death. Too bad for us the Kennedy dream ended on the streets of Dallas—and later on a Memphis motel porch and in Los Angeles hotel kitchen.

We all should regret this very unfinished life.

Joe Rosenberg, of Baltimore, frequently contributes book reviews for the Chronicle. He is retired from the Social Security Administration.

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This story was published on July 12, 2003.