John F Kennedy and Donald J Trump have a surprising amount in common. Both are the second sons of wealthy, self-made fathers from up-by-their-bootstraps immigrant families. Both fathers were domineering, callous, money-obsessed and racist. In both families paternal hopes were pinned on the first-born boy to follow in his father’s footsteps, before tragedy struck. Each older brother died relatively young (Kennedy’s in combat during the second world war, Trump’s of alcoholism). It was then up to the second son to fulfil his father’s ambitions.
The difference between them, though, is that Trump took on this mantle by trying to be like his father. Kennedy never did. Trump’s older brother Fred Jr was always a bit of a disappointment – Fred Sr thought him weak and lacking in ambition – whereas Donald was a chip off the old block. Kennedy’s boorish and confident older brother Joe Jr was everything his father could have hoped for. It was Jack who seemed to be the weakling – a sickly child, bookish and with too many ideas of his own. It was a surprise to the family when he turned out to be the one destined for greatness.
Jack never fully embraced his father’s politics, which is what saved him. Joe Sr was an isolationist, an antisemite and an appeaser, and his adoring oldest son aped him in all these attitudes. Jack knew the world was far more complicated than that. He had another quality that distinguished him from his father – he was extraordinarily physically brave. Jack was in pain for much of his life (from what was later diagnosed as Addison’s disease, along with the various botched attempts to treat it). He rarely complained and never let it slow him down. He had a seemingly limitless store of what Hemingway defined as guts: grace under pressure. Unlike his father. Unlike Trump.
It was JFK’s courage, along with his father’s lack of it, that contributed to Joe Jr’s untimely death. The two brothers, always competitive, both signed up to serve in the second world war, despite their father’s opposition to the conflict. Jack’s motorised torpedo boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer killing two of his crew. He managed to swim with the remaining 10 men to an uninhabited island, then set out on his own in shark-infested waters to find rescue. Seven days later he brought them all back alive. It was a tale of remarkable heroism, much burnished in the retelling, and it drove his older brother to undertake a near suicidal mission as a bomber pilot, from which he never returned. Joe Jr was also determined to remove the stain on his family’s honour from his father’s time as US ambassador in London, when along with being an advocate of making peace with Hitler he had also ducked out of London to his country estate during the blitz. “Yellow” Joe, as he became known, couldn’t simply be redeemed by sickly Jack. His oldest son died trying to make amends.
These remarkable rivalries within the Kennedy family – propelled by valour, vanity and greed – form the backbone of volume one of Frederik Logevall’s riveting life of JFK, which takes the story up to 1956. They serve as a vignette of American history in the middle years of the 20th century, where valour, vanity and greed were also the driving forces. We are used to thinking of the Kennedy legend through the fate of three siblings – Jack, Bobby and Teddy – two of whom suffered violent early deaths, and any one of whom could have been president (also, in the background, is another untimely death, of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick, which probably cost Teddy the White House). But this book is about a different threesome of ill-fated Kennedy siblings – Joe Jr, Jack, and Kathleen (or “Kick”), who was also killed in a plane crash – and it too is haunted by another near-death experience, the disastrous lobotomy administered to their sister Rosemary, which turned her from a learning disabled young woman into an institutionalised psychiatric patient who wasn’t spoken of within the family for 20 years.
Dominating it all is the frightful and formidable paterfamilias Joe Sr. Logevall paints a richly sympathetic portrait of the old monster, paying tribute to his many gifts as well as sparing us none of the grim details of the dark side of his personality. He was a skilled businessman, who secured his fortune by selling out of Wall Street in the summer of 1929, sensing as almost no one else did that the market was about to crash. He had extraordinary energy and drive. But he was also a cold and heartless womaniser, a paranoid and remorseless self-publicist, and a man who reduced almost everything to transactional questions of hard cash. Jack neither disowned nor disdained his father and he greatly valued his support (especially when it came to the hard cash). He followed him in one respect, being if anything an even more compulsive and careless womaniser. But he knew when to avoid his politics.
Briefly, in 1939, when Joe Sr was US ambassador to London, there was talk that he would be the Kennedy to make it to the White House. Critics of FDR hoped he might challenge him for the Democratic nomination on an “America first” ticket. In Robert Harris’s Fatherland, which imagines a world in which the US sues for peace with Hitler, the Kennedy who is inaugurated in 1961 is Jack’s father. Ambassador Kennedy was an ally of Charles Lindbergh, the closest America had to a fascist cheerleader and the man who becomes president in 1940 in Philip Roth’s dystopian counterfactual novel The Plot Against America. In reality, Joe Sr’s reputation was ruined in 1940, when Churchill, a man he despised, decided to fight on and FDR decided to back him. The Ambassador, as he liked to be known, had terrible political judgment. He invariably followed his prejudices rather than the facts. ‘Mr Churchill’s sun has been called to set very rapidly by the situation in Norway,’ he cabled FDR in April 1940. Within a month Churchill was prime minister.
It is hard not to be struck by the line that runs from Joseph Kennedy’s foreign policy to Donald Trump’s. Kennedy Sr believed in letting dictators alone. He thought the US shouldn’t pay for anyone else’s defence. He viewed international relations almost exclusively in terms of what it meant for business, particularly his own. He worried that fighting fascism would be too expensive, which meant it would never be worth it. His son Jack, who had travelled widely and read many history books, believed almost the opposite. He understood that America would soon be called on to play a global leadership role. In that capacity, creating the right impression mattered more than obsessing about the bottom line. Unlike his father, JFK was extraordinarily skilled at creating the right impression.
As a result, he emerges from this biography as a less clearly defined figure than many of those around him. Logevall has written a superb book but its central character remains elusive. JFK’s great courage went along with less attractive qualities. He cared little about other people’s feelings. He lived for the moment, often oblivious to what this did to those around him. Early in his marriage to Jackie, his new wife had to get used to being left alone at parties, after Jack had gone off with another woman who had caught his eye. His political convictions sometimes seemed equally fickle. He had shrewd political judgement and an eye for the main chance. But it is often hard to say what he really believed.
JFK understood that his own political gifts weren’t enough. He was an excellent and indefatigable campaigner, yet he needed his father’s money and contacts to win his seat in Congress in 1946 and in the Senate in 1952. He also needed his little brother Bobby, who came in to manage that Senate race at the tender age of 26. Robert Kennedy took his political outlook from Jack, but he followed his father in his ruthless approach to the hard business of getting other people to do what you want. All the Kennedys were close to Joseph McCarthy at the height of his red-baiting antics in the early 1950s. Jack recognised when the time was right to distance himself from McCarthyism: he saw the value in Commie-bashing but also knew the risks of being associated with an unscrupulous blowhard. Joseph Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy never made that leap. They stuck with McCarthy to the bitter end.
Jack had the charm and the grace but his little brother had the steel. JFK came to rely on Bobby to do his dirty work. How that helped him reach the White House is for volume two. But already from this book it is clear that the ultimate fulfilment of the Kennedy clan’s political ambitions required that the glamorous, nimble Jack distance himself from his father and move closer to his younger brother. Which means he never really distanced himself at all.
• JFK: Volume One by Fredrik Logevall is published by Viking (£30). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.