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Forty Ways to Look at JFK

Gretchen Rubin

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jan 01, 2005
Category: Biography

Who does this sound like?

He was an indifferent student.

When he had to write a senior thesis in college, he hired a secretary and five stenographers.

His father got him a job as a journalist; he wrote perhaps 5,000 words before he quit.

He was no war hero.

Colleagues found him astonishingly lazy.

When he came to power, he deep-sixed the White House reporting structure in favor of a small group noted more for loyalty than expertise.

He believed that no President could be great who didn’t preside over a war in which America emerged victorious.

His dominant personality trait: arrogance.

His most lasting achievement: very possibly, the manipulation of the press.

George W. Bush?

How about John F. Kennedy?

How can this be? Wasn’t Kennedy the Pulitzer Prize-winner who read everything, loved culture, spoke brilliantly on any topic? Had he only lived, wasn’t Kennedy destined to become a President worthy of having his face carved on Mt. Rushmore?

Oh, there is so much about JFK we don’t seem to know.

For example: He proposed to his wife by telegram and hired one of his lovers to be her secretary. His book was not named as a Pulitzer Prize finalist, so his father ‘bought’ the prize for him. He spent 15 minutes with a prostitute a few hours before the first televised Presidential debate. He lied to his aides, who then went out and lied for him. He avoided his wife as much as possible. (Jackie, for her part, smoked three packs of cigarettes a day and, in 1961, spent the equivalent of $250,000 in 2005 dollars on clothes.) The last weekend of his life? He was with two female assistants in Palm Beach.

But here is the even more stunning news: The writer who delivers these appalling factoids about Kennedy’s dark side is not a right-wing hit man seeking only to destroy the reputation of a Democratic god. The author is Gretchen Rubin, who was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Review and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor; for many years, she taught at both Yale Law and the Yale School of Management.  What do those credentials tell you? That she has a superior capacity to absorb and judge factual material. (This book has 37 pages of footnotes.)  Her opinions? She’s not shy. Her conclusion: ‘Yes, yes, John F. Kennedy was truly great. How do I know? I can see it with my own eyes.’

What’s going on here?

Very simply, a new way of writing history. As she did with her last book — ‘Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill’ — Rubin tells her story from multiple angles, the better to frame key questions for her readers. Thus, a chapter that gives the reasons JFK would have pulled out of Vietnam is immediately followed by one that argues he would have stayed and insisted on victory. In the same way, Kennedy as a husband gets two chapters.

It’s a way of looking at a historical figure that keeps a reader wide-awake. JFK as a great President, JFK as a President who is revered only because of his assassination — how do you decide? Ultimately, I’m not sure you can. Ultimately, I suspect the aim of this approach is to force the reader away from black-and-white views of human character and deep into the gray zone. JFK, certainly, was not either/or; he was very much both/and.

There are some difficulties in this approach to history. Parallel chapters mean you sometimes get the same information twice; the second time is always less compelling. And the forty ways of looking at JFK seem somewhat arbitrary; some readers will think of other ways, or just want fewer.

One certain achievement of JFK is the way we now are obsessed with Presidential character and Presidential personality — we want to know everything about our leaders, including boxers-vs.-briefs. On that score, no book delivers more dish on JFK than this. Did you know he changed his shirt as many as six times a day? That he and Jackie slept in separate bedrooms? That his PT boat — a super-speedy craft — was the only one run down by a Japanese destroyer in all of World War II?

Read this book with a pen in hand. You’ll want to mark the great stuff. And then, at the right moment, astonish your friends.

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