During John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960, Norman Mailer imagined him on the exalted heights, in the company of Nietzsche’s superman: he had, Mailer said, the deep tan of a ski instructor and the piercing eyes of a mountaineer. In 1963, after Kennedy’s assassination, John Steinbeck described him as a latterday King Arthur, “a man… who put on the shining armour” and for a while enabled “everyone living to reflect a little of that light”.
A caped crusader or a chivalric hero? Perhaps America’s high priest, which is how the historian Theodore H White described Kennedy? Actually, none of the above. In this first volume of Fredrik Logevall’s definitive biography, JFK is all too engagingly and amiably human.
Despite his inherited wealth and his effortless charm, in his pre-presidential years he seems troubled, intellectually uncertain, torn between loyalty to his Irish Catholic tribe and more secular liberal principles. Nor was he initially singled out for greatness. His father, Joseph, a Wall Street tycoon who disgraced himself by noisily favouring appeasement of Hitler during his time as US ambassador in London, calculated that the family’s best hope of attaining the presidency was his stolid and conservative first-born son, John’s elder brother; he only transferred his dynastic ambition to the next in line when Joe Jr, a naval pilot, was killed during a wartime bombing mission.
JFK often said that he didn’t expect to live beyond the age of 45 and though he managed an extra 18 months his prediction was pretty accurate. In his youth, he was emaciated, too flimsy for the rambunctious contact sports his eight siblings enjoyed. Logevall’s book is punctuated by his medical crises, with priests speeding to administer the last rites on at least two occasions. After scarlet fever and persistent bouts of malaria, he suffered from hypoadrenalism and ulcerative colitis, with suspected leukaemia and hepatitis along the way. His twisted back required gruesome spinal-fusion surgery; a more unmentionable trial was his “urinary distress”, a souvenir of gonorrhoea. Chronic pain, Logevall suggests, made him a wry humorist. “I only had two enemas today,” he reported when hospitalised at school, “and feel kind of full.”
Mailer admired JFK’s existential fatalism, although this creed betrayed him into risky follies such as the invasion of Cuba or his final ride through the hostile city of Dallas in an un-armoured car. Logevall prefers to diagnose an ironic detachment or dreamy introspection, which gives his version of the man an endearingly distracted air. Cavalier about material possessions, he regularly mislaid golf clubs, tennis rackets, expensive wristwatches and driving licences; his untucked shirts and ill-matched socks gave him, Logevall says, a “slacker mien”.
These slovenly habits vexed the family’s piss-elegant, power-dressed matriarch Rose, who, despite her strict piety, ducked out of a papal mass at the Vatican to go for a fitting with her Paris couturier and was mortified at a Buckingham Palace lunch when she noticed that she was the only guest attired in tweeds. Later, as she criss-crossed Boston to get out the vote during her son’s candidacy for the Senate, Rose campaigned sartorially. Patrician afternoon teas and plebeian rallies had different dress codes and when commuting between them she changed her clothes on the back seat of the car. Squeamish about her Celtic origins, Rose revered the English for their condescending manners and their “exact enunciation”; JFK’s abiding anglophilia had more to do with his fondness for medieval romances and for the oratory of Churchill, his “beau ideal”.
As a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy school of government, Logevall is naturally partisan: he ignores critics such as Garry Wills, who denounces the Kennedys as a clan of power-hungry nihilists and disparages their cant about public service. Logevall’s judgments often seem lenient. When the torpedo boat JFK commanded during the Pacific war was sunk by a Japanese destroyer, killing two members of his crew, he told Gore Vidal that he expected to be court-martialled; instead, he found himself acclaimed a hero, thanks to an ennobling account of his gallantry that his father coaxed journalist John Hershey to write. Dismissing inconvenient facts, Logevall chooses to print the legend. He also defends JFK’s acceptance of the Pulitzer prize for Profiles in Courage, a bestselling set of morality tales about high-minded senators: shouldn’t he have demurred, since the book was actually written by one of his aides?
Logevall goes on to pardon “our hero”, as he chummily refers to JFK, for some shocking marital truancy. During his wife’s first pregnancy, he left her in Boston to go sailing on the French Riviera, where he disported himself with a flotilla of bikini-clad nymphets; when Jackie delivered a stillborn child he remained on holiday, only scuttling home after an adviser warned him: “If you want to run for president you’d better get your ass back to your wife’s bedside.” Jackie, to her credit, had already paid JFK back for his tom-catting. After hurriedly sacrificing her virginity to the novelist John P Marquand in a lift that had stalled between floors, she flitted off for a refresher fling with him just before her marriage.
At his shiftiest, JFK hesitated about openly attacking the commie-baiting charlatan Joe McCarthy, who was one of his father’s cronies. But his evasive dodges only sharpen the contrast between his nimble ingenuity and the crude belligerence of McCarthy, whose foul-mouthed enforcer Roy Cohn became Trump’s tutor in villainy and vengeance. As it happens, Logevall’s scornful characterisation of McCarthy and Cohn reads like a glance ahead to America’s present moral morass: Trump has inherited their thuggish bigotry, while JFK serves as a reminder that politics is not necessarily the preserve of cynical self-publicists and can be, as he said, a “most honourable adventure”, fit calling for a modern Lancelot or Ivanhoe.
Logevall’s narrative stops at a cliff edge, after breathlessly tracking JFK’s frantic manoeuvres to snatch the nomination as Adlai Stevenson’s vice-president in 1956; passed over, he immediately aimed at the presidency in 1960 and in the book’s last paragraph he sounds out his father about subsidising the quest. I hope Logevall’s second volume will follow soon and that it will be as massive as this one. We know how it will end, as the convertible with the recklessly open top passes the Dallas Book Depository, turns beside the hump of a grassy knoll and approaches a doomy-looking traffic tunnel – not quite the Arthurian cavalcade evoked by Steinbeck’s elegy, but the story of exactly how JFK reached what he called his “rendezvous with death”. When told in unprecedented detail by Logevall, it is bound to be enthralling.
• JFK: Volume One by Fredrik Logevall is published by Viking (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15