- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

AN UNFINISHED LIFE: JOHN F. KENNEDY 1917-1963

Robert Dallek

Little Brown

$30, 838 pages, ilus.

When Lee Harvey Oswald decided to take fate into his own hands and assassinatePresidentJohnF. Kennedy, little did he know that he would be starting America’s fascination with what could have been. In “An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy,” historian Robert Dallek attempts to fill in the gaps by painting a more noble portrait of the man and president than his record shows.

Many biographers have tried to take stock of Kennedy’s brief time in office and his short-livedlife.However,Mr. Dallek’s biography includes some fresh and startling new information.Although Kennedy’s flagrant womanizing is well-documented, a brief affair with a 19-year-old White House intern has never before been reported. More surprising still, Mr. Dallek reveals how Kennedy’s chronic and precariousillnessesconstantly plagued him throughout his life and presidency. Yet, Mr. Dallek concludes that Kennedy’s poor health and dependence upon numerous medications did not affect his performance as president.

In the first half of the book, Mr. Dallek covers Kennedy’s childhood and adolescence and his rise to manhood, giving the reader a glimpse of the family life that formed the brash, bold young man determined to make his mark in the world. In the second half of the book, Mr.Dallekdelvesinto Kennedy’s time in public office and all the challenges he faced as president, from Cuba to Vietnam, and from civil rights to an obstructionist Congress.

Mr.Dallekshowsthat Kennedy was a pragmatic New Deal-Fair Deal liberal, a champion of Keynesian economics, a muscular anti-communist, and he had concern for civil rights. Although initially reluctant to throw the full weight of the presidency behind the cause of blacks in the segregated South, Kennedy eventually decided to push for historic civil rights legislation in Congress.

Mr. Dallek does not hide the fact that he is sympathetic to many of Kennedy’s policies. Yet, if the book has one major flaw, it is that it minimizes Kennedy’s affair with the intern, Mimi Beardsley, a shocking revelation that has received considerable media attention. Mr. Dallek fails to surmise what would have happened had Kennedy’s affair been discovered during the more conservative era of the time and whether it would have ended his political career before those tragic shots rang out in Dallas in 1963.

Mr.Dallekpraises Kennedy’s handling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. He argues that Kennedy demonstrated cool and grace under intense pressure when the United States came as close as it ever has to nuclear war. He was helped by the fact that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was a reckless adventurer, who underestimated Kennedy’s determination to prevent the expansion of Russian power in the Western Hemisphere and Cuba’s desire to possess nuclear weapons that threatened America’s national security. In the end, Kennedy forced Khrushchev to back down.

As for Vietnam, Mr. Dallek firmlybelievesthat,if Kennedy had lived, he would not have embarked upon the massive U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia that later occurred under President Lyndon B. Johnson. During his last months in office, after having been burned at the Bay of Pigs and increasingly skeptical of the United States’ ability to fight the war on behalf of the South Vietnamese, Kennedy was beginning to have second thoughts about the size and scope of America’s commitment in Vietnam. Yet, Mr. Dallek’s assertions about what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam are highly speculative.

It was Kennedy who had introduced nearly 20,000 U.S. special forces in Vietnam — a major escalation from the Eisenhower administration’s control of American involvement in the conflict. Also, Kennedy remained a staunch anti-communist, who would most likely have seen the loss of South Vietnam as a significant victory for Soviet and Chinese power in Southeast Asia.

Although Kennedy is rightly portrayed as a liberal in the book, some of his economic policies were conservative. He championed free trade. More importantly, Kennedy’s tax cuts helped to spur the economic boom of the 1960s. By today’s standards, Kennedy would be considered a neoconservative. He supported economic globalization, tax reform, civil rights and an interventionist foreign policy.

In his biography, Mr. Dallek ultimately shows not just the life of Kennedy — warts and all — but also how liberalism has changed since the early 1960s. Kennedy would hardly recognize today’s liberal icons such as his younger brother, Sen. Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton and Jesse Jackson. Oswald’s bullet on that fateful November day did not just end the life of Kennedy; it altered the course of liberalism in America.

Loredana Vuoto is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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