Larger than life, larger still in death, JFK eludes biographers Presidential Review

November 15, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

You can buy many new books about John F. Kennedy as the 30th anniversary of his assassination approaches: books about the assassination itself, his children and his presidency.

But like the numerous other Kennedy books that have come out since his assassination Nov. 22, 1963, taken singly they offer only a fragmented look at the 35th president. A reader still can't find a good, thorough biography -- the kind that not only looks at Kennedy's life but also places his presidency in context, much as David McCullough did last year with his "Truman: a Biography."

And biographers and historians say a comprehensive biography may not be published for some years to come. They offer several reasons: the complexity of the subject; the determination of the Kennedy family and friends to uphold the "Camelot" myth and not cooperate with writers they consider unfriendly; the possibility that such an undertaking would take many years; and the unwillingness of some biographers to get into the murky realm of Kennedy's assassination or delve into his private life.

"Kennedy's a very great challenge," says Roger Morris, a respected presidential biographer who is nearing completion of a second volume of a projected four-part biography of Richard M. Nixon. "That's because of the political power and wealth and influence of the family. I don't think there's any more intriguing politician in the modern era. It would be a wonderful job but a very daunting task."

English author Nigel Hamilton found writing about Kennedy so daunting that he may not complete a projected three-part biography. The first volume, "JFK: Reckless Youth," was a best seller when it was published late last year, but Mr. Hamilton was harshly criticized by the Kennedys for portraying the family as deeply dysfunctional. The Kennedy family took the unusual step of writing a piece for the op-ed page of the New York Times, contending that Mr. Hamilton "has grossly distorted the essence of our family relationships."

Another book unlikely

"I may not even do another book," Mr. Hamilton says wearily in a telephone conversation from London. "When the Kennedys put their piece in the New York Times, it was a signal for the party faithful to come inside the corralled wagons -- and they did."

After the piece appeared, says Mr. Hamilton, Kennedy intimates such as McGeorge Bundy, Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith refused to cooperate with him any more. "Now they'd rather be poisoned than to give me any more help."

Mr. Hamilton concludes, "The true story of Jack Kennedy, which is in very many ways a heroic story but always a bleak one, cannot currently be told."

Books about Kennedy written in the first few years after his assassination tended to be laudatory almost to the point of deification; they portrayed him as a man of extraordinary vision and ability. Most prominent among these books were those by Mr. Schlesinger, a special assistant to the president, and Theodore Sorensen, one of his speechwriters.

The critical time

In the mid-'70s, much more critical books began to appear: These books chipped away at the Camelot myth and portrayed Kennedy as an underachieving and manipulative politician. Recent books are more balanced but still narrow in scope.

"I think any biographer of Kennedy has to understand that his subject could easily sustain three volumes," Mr. Morris says. "It should probably take a decade of your life. I suspect some people don't find that appealing."

Robert Ferrell, a retired history professor at Indiana University who has edited the diaries of Harry S. Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, sees another reason biographers avoid Kennedy. He says most of them are liberals, like JFK, and might not be able to reconcile their respect for his politics with their concerns about his personal life.

"We hate to admit that a man who was so attractive publicly and involved our attention so much was almost a traitor to our ideals," Dr. Ferrell says.

But C. Vann Woodward, a former Johns Hopkins and Yale professor who is one of America's leading historians, says that biographers must overcome any reluctance to write about Kennedy's private life or his assassination.

As for writing about the assassination, "It's quite a task but we have several presidents who had the same end, and some of them were among our greatest," Dr. Woodward says from his home in Connecticut.

"Regarding Kennedy's personal life, that depends on what he is seeking. If he is trying to explain a life, as a biographer should, he has to dig into that life, especially early on, when the most important and determining things happen. After that, it's a matter of taste and sensitivity. You can dig up all the fornications; it may be fun but not all that relevant."

Other dilemmas confront biographers of recent presidents. They include wading through staggering amounts of research material every president from Hoover on has his own library -- and interviewing sources who are beholden to the subject and his memory.

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