Tag Archives: JFK

He Was A Friend Of Mine

TV Review – ‘The American Experience’ – ‘JFK’

The American Experience examines the life and times of the 35th President of the United States.

JFK

The WGBH/PBS two-part four-hour production, JFK, premieres on November 11 and 12. This is a unique and intriguing profile of the life of the 35th president of the United States. It begins with the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Why? Because as a college student and best-selling author of Why England Slept Kennedy had argued that, “Democracies have to be ready to fight at all times.” But in late 1962, it was estimated that a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union – and involving China – would result in somewhere between 175 and 300 million deaths “in one hour” (to use Kennedy’s own terms). So John Kennedy stepped back, remained calm and avoided war in his finest hour as the leader of the Free World.

After this opening, JFK takes a traditional biographical, chronological look at the life of the man who, when he took the oath of office, was the youngest president in our country’s history. In this documentary, narrated by Oliver Platt, we hear from multiple historians, writers and former members of the Kennedy administration. Most importantly, we hear from Kennedy himself, on Dictaphone recordings that he made while in the White House.

The Kennedys were raised to be ambitious and to be agents of change. As Platt states, “The past was not the point in the Kennedy family.” It was all about the future – a future that was to rest, in large part, on the shoulders of Joe Kennedy, Jr. As is well detailed in JFK, John Kennedy battled significant health problems his entire life, beginning with a near-death experience at the age of three.

After the death of Joe Jr. in World War II, no one expected that Jack Kennedy would have the strength and stamina to pursue a political campaign. But he successfully did so, campaigning each day from sunrise to midnight in order to become a Congressman at the age of 29. He subsequently became a U.S. Senator at the age of 34, defeating Henry Cabot Lodge in 1952.

Kennedy stated that, “The presidency is the ultimate source of action.” Despite being saddled with constant physical pain he would settle for nothing less than becoming the person who would occupy the oval office.

JFK provides some fascinating photographs and video footage of Kennedy in his youth, some taken while he was in college at Princeton and Harvard. It’s a bit frightening to see how much of John Kennedy, Jr. could be seen in a young, thin John Kennedy.

One of the fascinating pieces of information we learn from JFK is that the prized golden tan he possessed was actually a discoloration of his skin caused by the medications taken to control his Addison’s disease.

This PBS program takes us from the initial difficult two years of the Kennedy administration, when relatively little was accomplished legislatively, to the activist final months of the Kennedy White House. John Kennedy, according to a niece, “loved being president.” Kennedy believed in the Great Man theory of governance, and he was growing in stature and confidence during the last months of his life.

This look at the Kennedy presidency provides a clear explanation of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. In this it is exemplary. Where the documentary trips up a bit is in including a brief (fortunately brief) segment on Kennedy’s womanizing. The section feels like something that was added as an after-thought; it would have best been left on the cutting room floor.

The first two hours of JFK and even part of the third hour will be a bit dry for many viewers. But the fourth and final hour justifies the time spent in revisiting history. In that hour we observe the John Kennedy who was accepted by the Free World as its fearless leader – the Kennedy who was as much loved in France and Germany as in his ancestral home of Ireland. We also glimpse a man who enjoyed being a father, and who grew closer to his wife before the journey to Dallas. (This was the first and only time that Jackie Kennedy traveled with her husband on a domestic political trip.)

JFK DC

JFK takes us to the final hours and minutes of Kennedy’s life. Out of respect for the man, no footage of the assassination is displayed. What we do see and share in is the enormous sense of grief and anguish that people around the world experienced after his untimely death. Even Nikita Khrushchev was visibly shaken as he signed a guest book in sorrow.

To this day, John F. Kennedy is a man missed by many – both by those who met him and by those who never did. JFK succeeds in examining and detailing his life, a life which ended in horrific tragedy.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This article originally appeared on the Blogcritics site:

TV Review: ‘American Experience’ – ‘JFK’

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The Roundup

The Roundup – Some Quick Looks at Books

Wife 22: A Novel by Melanie Gideon (Ballantine Books)  –  Gideon’s creative novel is an all-too-much-fun story of a mid-life crisis wife who elects to take part in a marriage survey, and then decides that she might have fallen in love with the researcher assigned to work with her.   “Soon I’ll have to make a decision – one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life.”   Will Wife 22 sacrifice everything for a man she’s never seen or spoken to (and only exchanged e-mail messages with)?   This is a story with an ending that the reader will never see coming – unless that reader just happens to remember a certain quite clever hit song from the year 1980.

“…when did the real world become so empty?   When everybody abandoned it for the Internet?”   Wife 22 is a novel about current times, in which human beings communicate by each and every means except true personal, face-to-face communication.

Highly recommended.

Jack 1939: A Novel by Francine Mathews (Riverhead Books)  –  Mathews came up with a great premise in this fictional account of a young John F. Kennedy.   President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly recruits JFK to be his spy in Europe during the period preceding the outbreak of World War II.   The engaging, charismatic personality of JFK is here, but the intelligence of the future world leader is missing in action.

Fairy Tale Interrupted: A Memoir of Life, Love and Loss by Rosemarie Terenzo (Gallery Books)  –  John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s former executive assistant tells us about what it was like to have the “dream job” of working for America’s Prince.   It’s a fascinating account told by Terenzo, a young blue-collar Italian-American girl from the Bronx who became John’s scheduler and gatekeeper.   The problem is that it feels like half a memoir; the deaths of John and his wife Carolyn Bessette in July of 1999 tragically interrupted the charged personal lives chronicled here.   (Terenzo recalls that her final conversation with John was sadly  banal.)

Discretion: A Novel by Allison Leotta (Touchstone)  –  Some readers will no doubt find this to be an exciting political-thriller about a young woman killed while visiting a U.S. Congressman’s hideaway office in the U.S. Capitol Building.   But I was never able to suspend my disbelief in the main characters, especially the female protagonist, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis.   Curtis’s criminal investigation extends into the most sordid sexual aspects of the District of Columbia.   It just seemed unnecessarily overblown.

The Distance Between Us: A Memoir by Reyna Grande (Atria Books)  –  This is a sad, yet moving and life affirming true story of three impoverished children in Mexico whose parents abandon them in order to escape to “El Otro Lado” (The Other Side, the United States).   Overcoming many obstacles, the two sisters and their brother eventually find their way to Los Angeles, where they discover that their parents are living apart from each other.   Despite such a horrendous upbringing, the siblings survive and Reyna goes on to both forgive her dying father and to graduate from the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC).

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers.

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A Book I Want to Read

Jack 1939: A Novel by Francine Mathews is a book that will be released in just a few weeks by Riverhead Hardcover Books.   Here are a couple of blurbs about this tale of a young John Kennedy, and a synopsis.

“Jack 1939 is a marvel – a brilliantly conceived, riveting tightrope race across Europe in the predawn war of World War II.”   Stephen White

“Jack 1939 is a triumph: an exciting thriller, an intriguing exploration of a troubled time, and an absorbing take on the early history of one of America’s most iconic figures.   Highly recommended.”   Iain Pears

Charming.   Reckless.   Brilliant.   Deadly.

It’s the spring of 1939, and the prospect of war in Europe looms large.   The United States has no intelligence service.   In Washington, D.C., President Franklin Delano Roosevelt may run for an unprecedented third term and needs someone he can trust to find out what the Nazis are up to.   His choice:  John F. Kennedy.

It’s a surprising selection.   At twenty-two, Jack Kennedy is the attractive but somewhat unpromising second son of Joseph P. Kennedy, FDR’s ambassador to Britain (and occasional political adversary).   But when Jack decides to travel through Europe to gather research for his Harvard senior thesis, Roosevelt takes the opportunity to use him as his personal spy.   The president’s goal: to stop the flow of German money that’s been flooding the U.S.; money directed by Adolf Hitler for the purpose of preventing FDR’s re-election.

In a deft mosaic of fact and fiction, Francine Mathews has written a gripping espionage story that explores what might have happened when a young JFK is let loose in Europe as the world spins rapidly toward war.   Jack 1939 is both a potent combination of history and storytelling, and a unique, entertaining read.

Jack 1939: A Novel will be released on July 5, 2012.   It will also be available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download.   (Information provided by The Penguin Group, USA.)

Joseph Arellano

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Lucky Man

JFK in Ireland: Four Days That Changed a President by Ryan Tubridy (Lyons Press, $27.50, 302 pages)

“This is not the land of my birth, but it is the land for which I hold the greatest affection.”   President John F. Kennedy, Limerick, Ireland – June 29, 1963

“During his visit here we came to regard the President as one of ourselves…  We were proud of him.”   Eamon de Valera, President of Ireland – November 22, 1963

I’ve read most of the books written about the Kennedys and can vouch for the fact that this one is unique.   JFK in Ireland is not about John Kennedy, the politician, president or historical figure.   It is also not about JFK the intellectual.   This book lets us get to know the JFK who was an emotional person, with real thoughts and feelings – who just five months before his death fell in love with the country of his ancestors.

Ryan Tubridy concisely and beautifully covers the details of the “four days that changed a president.”   Kennedy’s visit to Ireland allowed him to discover a part of his being that had previously remained hidden.   During the last day of his visit, JFK was to state, “I wish I could stay here for another week, or another month.”   He also said, “This is where we all say goodbye.”

“…his sense of his own Irishness was growing stronger by the year.”

Tubridy, a major TV personality in Ireland, summarizes here the history and character of the Irish people; people who were once “on the lower rungs of society.”   They were to produce a president who learned in his near-final days why he was proud to have come from their stock.   Very, very well done.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Here was a fellow who came from (impoverishment) on both paternal and maternal sides who had reached the very top in the United States.   That was felt throughout the country.”   Thomas Kiernan, former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland

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The Mighty Quinn

Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan by Del Quentin Wilber (Henry Holt and Company; $27.00; 296 pages)

On March 30, 1981, I was at the Orange County (California) airport – waiting for my return flight to Sacramento – when it became clear that something had happened back east.   The new president of the U.S., and former governor of California, Ronald Reagan had been shot in an apparent assassination attempt.   Three other persons were shot and it was not known whether Reagan, at his advanced age, would survive.   It appeared that a hundred or so persons jammed into the airport’s pub to watch the 19-inch RCA televisions broadcasting the dramatic events.

On that day, I assumed that a book about the near assassination of an American president would appear within 6 to 18 months, clarifying exactly what happened that day.   Years and decades passed by and it did not appear…  This, finally, is that book.

Del Quentin Wilber takes a micro-level look at the events of 03/30/81 in a style that recalls books like The Day Lincoln Was Shot, The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Death of a President. It is an immediately engaging narrative which begins by looking at the schedules of Reagan (whose secret service code name was Rawhide), his secret service detail members and of the highly disturbed and bizarre individual who sought to impress a Hollywood actress.   The language and mood become more intense as the hour of the assassination attempt draws near.  

Wilber properly sets the stage by reminding us that this shooting came just three months after the killing of John Lennon, and followed the history-altering assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.   Wilber’s sadness in relating these events is palpable, and informs the reader that this is a non-partisan account – one need not have been a political supporter of Reagan’s to fear for his safety (and for the country’s future) while revisiting that period.

“If Jerry Parr hadn’t decided to redirect the limousine from the White House to the hospital, Reagan would likely have died…”

“(The) doctors had been keeping pace with Reagan’s bleeding by pumping donated blood and fluids into his system.   So far, the tactic was working…  But this compensatory approach couldn’t continue forever.   They would have to stop the bleeding surgically.”

In these pages, Ronald Reagan is a likeable and courageous man who was able to joke with his emergency room physicians.   (He wondered what the gunman had against the Irish as all those shot on this day happened to be of Irish heritage.)   But he was also a man who wondered if he was about to meet his maker.   It was an open question because, as we now know, Reagan lost fully half of his blood volume as surgeons sought to remove the bullet that lodged just one inch from his heart.   Those of us glued to the TVs in early 1981 had no idea that the president came this close to dying.

Once the danger period passed, the president was advised to convalesce for several months.   But he was a uniquely physically fit and strong elderly man.   Twelve days later he was back at the White House, and a mere month later a visibly thinner president addressed a joint session of the Congress.

There’s more, much more, in this telling that disappoints only in that it seems to conclude too soon.   The courage of the secret service agents who saved the president’s life on this day is close to being incomprehensible.   “(Agent) Parr’s training had taught him one thing above all:  when faced with an actual threat, he could never freeze.   Not for three seconds, not for one second.   Without fail, he had to respond instantly.”

This is a fascinating and unique account, and constitutes a worthwhile addition to the historical record.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Spinning Wheel

Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Elliot Spitzer by Peter Elkind (Portfolio)

“(Elliot was) a muscular populist who wasn’t afraid to confront business institutions by punching them in the nose.   The MO was to keep things under wraps, announce them in a big way, then work with the press.   You lay out all the appalling facts, and they’re dead, because they’re in the market.  …When he really had the facts on somebody, it was like something out of Wild Kingdom.”

This is the story of the brisk rise and brutal fall of the Sheriff of Wall Street; the man who might have been the first Jewish President of the United States.   It is also a true morality play and what Spitzer himself called a Greek Tragedy.   In the end, it is a story about human strengths and weaknesses.

Elkind’s account (he was the co-author of The Smartest Guys in the Room) starts off promisingly, but he attempts to set up an odd comparison between Spitzer and John Kennedy.   It seems that Spitzer grew up under a demanding wealthy father who made his sons discuss major issues around the dinner table.   The elder Spitzer is made to sound like the second coming of Joe Kennedy.   But there are no signs that Spitzer was an intellectual like JFK (Spitzer made the law review at Harvard through a writing competition rather than on his grades).   If Elkind had called it correctly – and he never does in this account – he would have seen that Spitzer was the 2.0 version of Robert Kennedy.

RFK was the original liberal populist sheriff out to smash organized crime and tough in a manner that remains unusual for Democrat politicians.   Bobby Kennedy was always convinced of the moral rightness of his causes, something that appeared to be true also for Spitzer:  “We did not investigate Wall Street because we were troubled by large institutions making a lot of money.   We took action to stop a blatant fraud that was ripping off small investors.”

But one cannot write a quasi-biography of a subject’s life without giving the reader a sense of the subject’s flesh and blood.   Except for his sexual proclivities, Elkind fails to deliver here in presenting a portrait of Spitzer the man – for better or worse.   Instead, we have a newspaper reporter’s-style telling of Spitzer’s youth, education, unlikely political rise and early exit from the world of politics.   It is a shame and a major missed opportunity, as Elkind was perhaps the first person to get Spitzer to sit down for an interview after his short period of enforced exile.   But Spitzer made it clear that he is not a contemplative person, and saw little use in attempting to explain his actions to the author.

At the conclusion of Rough Justice, the reader is left with the same question posed by Lloyd Constantine, an aide and friend who had been with Spitzer from the start of his professional life, “I kept on feeling: what is wrong with this guy?   Who is he?”   Asked but not answered.

Take Away:   Elliot Spitzer comes off as a cardboard figure in this flawed account of a flawed man.

A review copy was received from the publisher.

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