Tag Archives: John Kennedy

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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A review of JFK in Ireland: Four Days That Changed a President by Ryan Tubridy.

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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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That Was the Year That Was

The year 1960 was a monumental one during which this country elected John Kennedy as its president.   But the book 1960 – LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidencies illustrates once again that more is less.   Instead of writing a book about President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson or the losing presidential candidate Nixon, David Pietrusza attempts to cover them all at once; as a result more is lost than gained.

One basic problem is that the backgrounds and life events of these three separate large characters in U.S. history (and modern politics) are covered rapidly.   For the reader who has already read full biographies of JFK, LBJ and Richard Nixon, far too much is missed or condensed down to Reader’s Digest style summaries.   On the flip side, the reader who has never read in depth about these figures will likely be unable to comprehend some of what he/she is reading due to the very facts and circumstances that are left out.

I’ll provide an example of the latter problem.   One of the events that made Nixon a major, but young, political figure in the late 1950’s was his involvement in investigating Alger Hiss.   That is mentioned on just two pages in 1960 and what’s missing is an explanation of the key evidence found against Hiss that Nixon relied upon in alleging that Hiss was a Communist and/or a spy (notwithstanding that Hiss worked in the U.S. State Department for Franklin D. Roosevelt and was once the Secretary-General of the United Nations).   There’s no explanation here of the microfilm found in a pumpkin or the typewriter that was supposedly found to have been used by Hiss to commit a forgery.   For the person who is not familiar with Nixon, it will seem that he is credited for “breaking” Hiss but it will be unclear as to exactly why.   Nixon’s role as a prosecutor is hazy without a sufficient review of the evidence he presented against Hiss.

There’s another issue.   The book jacket states:  “Like The Making of the President, 1960 by Theodore White – yet far more revealing than Kennedy camp insider White could ever be…  (it) has the narrative energy and suspenseful turns and twists of a headlong thriller.   Yet it’s all true.”   Well, we actually don’t know today what is and is not true about what is reported as fact in 1960.   For example, there’s an entire chapter – a somewhat odd and silly one – about Kennedy’s relationships with women (“They were a dime a dozen”); and statements about his father and brother Robert.   But these events happened so long ago that we do not, in truth, know what happened and what was alleged or was the product of someone’s imagination.

It’s also not clear what the impact of this information is supposed to be…  Enough said.   But, for me, the biggest fault with 1960 is that I never felt I was getting to know any of the three figures as human beings.   By contrast, Pietrusza shows some surprising skills by including some write-ups of peripheral figures that come off as much more real and human – individuals with true strengths and flaws.   Hubert Humphrey and Nelson Rockefeller are two of the figures who come to life in 1960 in a way that the three lead subjects do not.

Finally, this is just not the suspenseful thriller touted on the book jacket.   For an excellent example of a non-fiction political/modern history book that does read like a Capitol thriller, the interested reader can turn to By His Own Rules: The Ambitions, Successes and Ultimate Failures of Donald Rumsfeld by Bradley Graham.   Rules is an 832-page roller coaster ride that is never dull.   By comparison, 1960 is a 417-page survey that tries to cover the lives of three very large figures at one selected point in U.S. history.   It comes off as simultaneously both too big (focusing on three pivotal lives rather than one) and too small (leaving out too many key details while including a bit too much gossip).   As a result, it simply feels flat in the reading…   But maybe Pietrusza will produce a comprehensive biography of Hubert Horatio Humphrey or Nelson Aldrich Rockefeller; either would – no doubt – be quite interesting.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer.

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A review of 1960 – LBJ vs. JFK vs. Nixon: The Epic Campaign That Forged Three Presidents by David Pietrusza.

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