JFK’s Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke

“…an incalculable loss of the future…” Ted Sorensen

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

jfk's last hundred daysWith the 50th anniversary coming up of John F Kennedy’s assassination, a plethora of books will no doubt be appearing over the next few months, tackling his history from a variety of angles. In this one, Thurston Clarke, journalist and historian, looks in detail at the last 100 days of JFK’s life, using this period as a jumping off point to examine both the politics and personality of the man.

I found the format of the book quite off-putting at first. Clarke will take a day and mention, for example, that JFK attended a meeting about Vietnam – Clarke will then divert to the past to explain the background to the situation as it was on that day. Next JFK might have a meeting on, say, civil rights – and off we go on another trip to the past. Then JFK might go off to do a bit of sailing, and we’ll get a chunk of information about his personal life. It’s all a bit loose and unstructured; and sometimes Clarke will mention something that he simply assumes the reader will know – for example, at one point he says ‘They discussed Massachusetts politics, race, and whether Alger Hiss was guilty (Kennedy thought he was).’ Since this is the only mention of Hiss in the whole book, this Brit was left with no idea who he was or what he was apparently guilty of. However once I got used to the style, I found the book both informative and interesting.

jfk yacht

The personal side of the book gave a picture of a rather odd man: a hypochondriacal, lying, sexually obsessed elitist. And yet Clarke reminds us regularly that JFK thought of himself as a man of the people and was happier amongst the workers – I can’t say that he gave any examples that convinced me of this. In fact I came away with the impression of him as a Gatsby-ish figure – constantly changing his clothes, obsessed with appearances, living a lavish lifestyle, needing constant company (even to the extent of having an aide in the room with him until he fell asleep) and in thrall to his own place in history. And yet I didn’t feel it was Clarke’s intention at all to do a hatchet job on him – quite the reverse, in fact. Some of the passages are so sycophantic as to make quite uncomfortable reading. The endless list of times JFK cried (there to show us what a caring person he was) was simply odd – who wouldn’t cry at the death of a brother or a child? It was as if Clarke felt he had to remind us that JFK was human after all. And I have to say that Jackie came over as a difficult, spoilt child – not unlike Daisy, to continue the Gatsby comparison.

jfk and jackie

The politics was much more interesting to me and handled better, I felt. Despite the non-linear style, Clarke gave pretty clear pictures of the background to the things that mattered most to JFK – civil rights, avoiding nuclear war, trying to find a way out of Vietnam, trying to get Cuba to break its links with the USSR, some attempt to redress the extreme poverty in parts of the USA and, of course, beating the Russians to the moon. To have achieved as much as he did in his short time as President was indeed remarkable, and Clarke suggests at the end that he would have gone further with many of these projects had he had a second term, and quotes many sources to back up his conviction that JFK would not have allowed the USA to get sucked in to a ground war in Vietnam. I found the book convincing on all these aspects and, given that the public at the time didn’t know about the private side of his life, it seemed to me very understandable that so many people, particularly amongst the young, were so devastated at his early death.

jfk runnymede

Clarke writes very movingly of the assassination itself. He tells of the warnings that JFK chose to ignore, the security measures he refused to take, believing that he had to allow the people to see and speak to him.

“Once their tears had dried, or before, they began naming roads and bridges, tunnels, highways and buildings for him, creating a grief-stricken empire of asphalt, mortar, brick, and bronze so extensive that if you extinguished every light on earth except those illuminating something named for him, astronauts launched from the Kennedy Space Center would have seen a web of lights stretching across Europe and North America, and others scattered through Africa and Asia…”

Clarke concludes that the outpouring of grief at Kennedy’s death was ‘for his promise as well as for his accomplishments, a promise that had become increasingly evident during his last hundred days’, and by the end of the book he had convinced this reader at least of the truth of that. An unusual structure for a biography, but thoroughly researched, well written and ultimately an easy and enjoyable read that succeeded in revealing something of the personal flaws without detracting from the political achievements of this remarkable man.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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