JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century


I'm struck by the depth of research and prose with which it is written, and it doesn't even cover the presidential years! I'm anxiously waiting for volume two. Some things I learned:

• Jack was incredibly wealthy, yet he never used his name to gain prestige for himself; his father often did on his behalf. The son usually accepted these favors.

• He had a harrowing experience in the war. At first, he was excited to fight. But after a week-long stretch on an island, after his PT boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, he had enough.

• His back pain and other ailments were his biggest problems. He had a priest read him his last rites on two separate occasions because of how close he was to dying.

• He had a unique education in foreign affairs, which is what he focused on in Congress and the Senate. His dad was the Ambassador to Great Britain at the start of WW2 and spent time in Europe and Germany just before the War broke out.

• He was quite the player. He used his charm to gain votes from women when he was young and could flash his smile but never gave up his womanizing ways even after being married.

• He lost his older brother and younger sister while they were not very old, both, in fact, in different plane accidents. Of the 9 kids his parents had, only 5 would live until old age. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated five years after his older brother.


From an early age, Jack demonstrated his individuality. “There was always the sense that Jack stood somewhat apart from his large and close-knit family–he was of the unit but also outside of it. He was the family reader, the daydreamer, the introspective son, the one who relished words and their meaning, who liked poetry. Alone among the older kids, he had a romantic imagination, a feel of the things of the spirit, for the intangibles in human affairs. (It’s what drew him to Churchill, a man whose appeal Joe Senior could never grasp.)”

Young Jack had a serious rivalry with his older brother, Joe Jr; much to Joe Sr.’s delight. “Remember that Jack is practicing at the piano each day an hour and studying from one-half to three-quarters of an hour on his books so that he is really spending more time than you are,” he wrote Joe Jr. in July 1926. Aiding Jack’s superior intellectual prowess were his frequent illnesses and maladies. He used his time trapped in bed to read, learn, and study. “Words and their meaning interested Jack. He was the only one in the family, his sister Eunice said, who ‘looked things up,’ the one who ‘did the best on all intellectual things and sort of monopolized them.’”

”More than any of his siblings, he internalized his mother’s mantra that reading constituted “the most important instrument of knowledge. Biography, history, tales of adventure and chivalry–these were his genres, as he devoured Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott and read and reread Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. The cadences of historical prose appealed to him, and he had a first-rate memory of what he read, often able to recall scenes and quotations with astonishing accuracy, even decades later.

As Rose put it, Jack “thought his own thoughts, did things his own way, and somehow just didn’t fit any pattern. Now and then, fairly often in fact, that distressed me, since I thought I knew what was best. But at the same time that I was taken aback, I was enchanted and amused. He was a funny little boy, and he said things in such an original, vivid way.”

Rose, however, ensured her kids had proper grammar: “To my distress most of them seemed to be afflicted with deafness about the proper uses of ‘who’ and ‘whom,’ ‘I’ and ‘me,’ ‘shall and ‘will,’ ‘may’ and ‘can.’ They split infinitives with abandon, and put in commas or left them out as the spirit (an evil spirit) moved them, and they ended sentences with prepositions.”

Joe Sr. was mistakenly thought to only care about winning. He loathed seeing his boys fail at something, or so they thought. A friend, Paul Chase, who crewed for Jack as a replacement, caught a half hour lecture from “the old man on our return to shore. He said he watched the race and that he was disgusted with both of us. There was no sense, he claimed, in going to a race unless you did your damnedest to win…” The author makes a good distinction here though. “Chase’s anecdote hints at the possibility of a more benign assessment of Joe Kennedy’s relentlessness: that it was less about winning than about expending maximum effort in the attempt. It doesn’t matter if you win or not, but you better be damn sure you at least try to win, else what’s the point of doing anything?

The environment around the Kennedys was…intense. One weekend visitor wrote:

Anticipate that each Kennedy will ask what you think of another Kennedy’s (a) dress, (b) hairdo, (c), backhand, (d) latest public achievement. Be sure to answer “terrific.” This should get you through diner. Now for the football field. It’s “touch,” but it’s murder. If you don’t want to play, don’t come. If you do come, play, or you’ll be fed in the kitchen and no one will speak to you. Don’t let the girls fool you. Even pregnant, they can make you look silly. Above all, don’t suggest any plays, even if you played quarterback at school. The Kennedys have the signal-calling department sewed-up, and all of them have A-pluses in leadership…Run madly on every play, and make a lot of noise. Don’t appear to be having too much fun, though. They’ll accuse you of not taking the game seriously enough.

A friend of Jack’s, Ralph “Rip” Horton noticed that, the author writes, “whenever a group of boys got together to listen to the popular radio quiz show Information Please, most of them could answer only a few questions, but Jack whizzed through more than half. ‘How do you know all this stuff?’ They’d ask. ‘I guess I read a lot,’ came Jack’s reply, neither boastful nor falsely modest.

‘Jack read a great deal but not to the point he was burdensome about it,’ Horton remembered. ‘I think he could read quite fast, and, yes, he read a great deal but not ostentatiously…He seemed to absorb what he read much better than the rest of us. He also, which I think is rather indicative of his future, always read The New York Times. He read that every single day from cover to cover, and I think that gave him a great insight into the political scene and international activities which he was so interested in.”

“History teacher Russell Ayers remarked in the fall of 1933 that Jack possessed ‘one of the few great minds’ he had in history class.”

Jack was…humorous in his letters relating the events that took place in his hospital rooms. From joking about a nurse who asked to give him a “workout,” to describing an incident when a “‘doctor came in just after I had woken up and was reclining with a semi [erection] on due to the cold weather. His plan was to stick his finger under my pickle and have me cough. His plan quickly change however when he drew back the covers and there was ‘JJ Maher’ quivering with life.’ (Jack had named his penis after his detested Choate housemaster.) The ‘very unsexy’ night nurse, meanwhile, ‘is continually trying to goose me so I always have to be on my guard.’”

After Jack’s visit to Europe, and seeing the Old-World up-close, a trait that had been visible from his childhood started to emerge more strongly. Notably, his ability to form independent judgements, often which contradicted those of his own father’s. “Most portentously, once sees in the young Kennedy that summer an emerging capacity an willingness to view world affairs in contextual, dispassionate terms–a contrast with his father, who tended always to view the outside world mostly in terms of what it meant for himself and his family.”

William Douglas-Home said of Jack: “He was age 21, very young, and very interested in everything. I mean, not only in politics, but the thing that struck you about him was that he was so vital about everything…He was interested, always interested. He would never have a deep political discussion without jokes at the same time. He had a very highly developed sense of humor. Joe was portably more serious than he was.”

Donald Thurber, a fellow student, remarked that Jack was willing to always challenge assumptions and to ask, “What makes you think so?” “You got the impression that here was a mind that was learning from other people, and that longed to learn from other people–he would regard them as sources of information and knowledge to fill out his own.”

In a great comparison between democracies and dictatorships, Jack noticed something. He, the author writes, “maintained that dictatorships by their nature have an easier time than democracies do in mobilizing resources–the latter, he argued, invariably must spend valuable time and energy attempting to reconcile competing priorities and competing interpretations of the national interest. Whereas citizens in totalitarian societies can be instructed on what to do, those in free societies must be won over, and that doesn’t always happen quickly.”

This gives a potential reason why it’s so hard to build things, or really do anything, quickly in America. It’s not about just finding the money and doing it. First, a majority must be convinced, and there are a lot of reasons why a majority spend time fighting things. What’s interesting is that the majority doesn’t have to be fighting for the same reason for something to not happen. One group can be arguing for the price tag, while another group is arguing the location of the project. Either of the groups by themselves aren’t a majority, but when combined, it becomes one. If this is the case (and I don’t know if it is), it would be smart to lobby the smaller of the two groups (less demands, in theory). If there are fewer people arguing about the price of a project than there are about the location, don’t spend resources trying to resolve the price and the location. Rather, try to figure out a way to decrease the cost or pay for it in creative ways (instead of through taxes.) In theory, if that group is appeased, there is no longer a majority fighting the project.

Jack’s Harvard mentor, Bruce Hopper, cautioned Jack with some helpful words of advice after his first book, Why England Slept, had massive literary success. Warning against selling out his name, Hopper wrote, “I know your mailbox must be full of laudatory reviews, letters of appreciation, and offers (maybe even from Hollywood!). Take them all in perspective, as reward for a job well done, and then try to forget them.”

Joe Kennedy helped JFK a lot in life. He helped get his book published, helped Jack get into the Navy, and then helped him become commander of a PT boat. A lot of people, perhaps rightly so, looked down upon Joe Kennedy’s “nepotism.” But to Lieutenant Commander John Harllee said: “There’s a lot of people in America who use political influence to keep out of combat, but Jack Kennedy used it to get into combat.” I thought that was a great point.

Jack’s PT boat incident made him a war hero, something Joe Jr., his now overshadowed brother and also servicemen, didn’t like. Joe, for the early part of their life, was the favorite child, but when Jack started to come into his own, that dynamic changed. It especially changed after the publication of Jack’s book, which essentially made him a famous young author. At home during a leave, the family was seated around the dinner table when Judge John J. Burns offered a toast “to Ambassador Joe Kennedy, father of our hero, our own hero, Lieutenant John F. Kennedy of the United States Navy.” “That was it,” the author writes. “No mention of the older son, who was seated right next to his father and who in a few days would be heading to England to go against the thrust of the ferocious Nazi war machine. As the judge sat down, Joe Junior lifted his glass and smiled stiffly. But another guest, Boston police commissioner Joe Timilty, said that that night he could hear Young Joe sobbing in the bed next to his and muttering, ‘By God, I’ll show them.’”

The author makes an interesting reference to Henri Bergson’s idea of “the illusion of retrospective determinism, or “the belief that whatever occurred in history was bound the occur.”

One of the most baller things to read about about America during the war is how insane our industrial factories just freaking worked. “At Ford’s bomber-producing Willow Run Plant…which featured assembly lines almost a mile long, workers by early 1944 were turning out 650 B-24 Liberators per month, or one every eighty minutes. Pilots and crews slept on cots at the plant, waiting to fly the bombers away as soon as they were built. On the West Coast, Henry Kaiser used mass-production techniques to cut construction time for Liberty ships–the huge 440-foot cargo vessels that transported the tanks, trucks, and guns overuse–from 355 days to 56 days. (In one publicity stunt, Kaiser’s Richmond shipyard, near San Francisco, constructed a Liberty ship in four days, fifteen hours, and twenty-six minutes.)…In the all-important year of 1943, the United States built three and a half times as many aircraft as Nazi Germany and well over five times as many as Japan.”

“Never be without a book in your hand.” – John F. Kennedy to his little brother, Teddy.

Distraught at Churchill’s ousting to the Socialist party near the end of the war, JFK made a few great observations. It showed his ability to think critically, and, even when he disagreed, assess the situation with poise. He wrote in his diary: “Socialism is inefficient. I will never believe differently. But you can feed people in a socialistic state, and that may be what will ensure its eventual success.” Lesson: People don’t care about their party, they just want their basic needs met. Beyond that, that’s when people start arguing. He also wrote: “It is important in assaying this election to decide how much of the victory was due to a “time for change” vote which would have voted against any government in power, whether Right of Left, and how much was due to real Socialist strength. My own opinion is that was about 40 per cent due to dissatisfaction with conditions over which the government had no great control but from which they must bear responsibility–20 per cent due to a belief in Socialism as the only solution to the multifarious problems England must face–and the remaining 40 per cent due to a class feeling–I.e., that it was time “the working man” had a chance.”

During his campaign for Congress, Jack and his aides came to an unorthodox realization: that regularly campaigning would not do the job. Their reasoning was simple: people who showed up to rallies were already committed to you. In order to win, you have to go to the people. So he would go door-to-door. He also learned a valuable public speaking skill: connect to your audience. During a talk to a group of Gold Star Mother’s (mothers who lost a son in the war), Kennedy said, “I think I know how all you mothers feel because my mother is a Gold Star Mother, too.” In that instant, an aide recalled, “the candidate established a kind of ‘magical link’ with everyone in the room, made himself real, showed that he understood their grief.”

In several speeches, Kennedy quoted a line from Rosseau: “As soon as man says of the affairs of state, ‘What does it matter to me?’ the state may be given up as lost.”

The attention to detail, even in the little things mattered. So too did having backup plans. Volunteers would get a list of names and numbers to call, with a document outlining Kennedy’s key stances on certain issues. If they got a question they couldn’t answer, someone from Kennedy’s inner circle would call back and answer it for them. On Election Day, those same people were called back, encouraged to vote, and asked if they needed a ride to the polls! At a rally with Jack, Boston mayor John B. Hynes was surprised to see two teleprompters set up for the speech. That is, until one broke down and the aides quickly and quietly switched to the other one. “Hynes understood he was in the presence of perfectionists,” the author writes. In another example, in a tea to kick off his campaign, he wanted to make sure the invitations were worded in such a way that they didn’t make anyone feel excluded. The crew settled on putting “Guests invited,” in the bottom right, “so it would have a sort of dual purpose,” Polly Fitzgerald later said, “in that a person who got it would feel that she was very lucky and it was personal, and yet people who didn’t get it would know that they could be invited.”

Kennedy was never a drinker. A running gag during the campaign was, after a long day, Kennedy would say, “Boy, do I need a drink,” and they would all go to a drugstore for a chocolate milkshake.

Jackie Bouvier loved his innate curiosity. “The luckiest thing I used to think about him was whatever you were interested in, Jack got interested in…When I was reading all this eighteenth century, he’d snatch a book from me and read and know all of Louis XV’s mistresses before I would,” she recalled. “People fascinated him,” the author writes, “and he had an appreciation for excellence in human endeavor–for virtuosity in performance, whatever the field–that Jackie admired and shared. At dinner parties, she said, Jack asked lots of questions, unlike other politicians present, who would generally talk only about themselves.” Jackie was witty too. “During the cacophonous family dinners, Jackie usually kept quiet. ‘A penny for your thoughts,’ Jack once asked her, and the room fell silent with anticipation. ‘If I told them to you, they wouldn’t be mine, would they, Jack?’”

To deepen his voice, Jack was instructed by a vocal coach to bark like a dog every morning. So he did.

After a ridiculous back surgery, Jack distracted himself, from his idleness and his pain, as he so often did when he was young. Although this time, instead of reading books, he wrote one. “This project saved his life,” Jackie said. “It helped him channel all his energies while distracting him from pain.” It would have been easy for JFK to lay low and piddle around. Perhaps even feel sorry for himself for the circumstances he was in, but that wouldn’t have done any good, and that’s not what leaders do. Leaders, hard workers, and ambitious people come to grips with reality, and seek to make the most of any situation. The increased downtime, and the fact that he was essentially bed-ridden, allowed him to research and write, so he did just that.

In a speech, JFK said: “‘Don’t teach my boy poetry,’ an English mother recently wrote the provost of Harrow. ‘Don’t teach my boy poetry; he is going to stand for Parliament.’ Well, perhaps she was right–but if more politicians knew poetry and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place in which to live on the commencement day of 1956.”

In a contrasting statement to himself and Adlai Stevenson, Kennedy said: “The hell of it is, I love [the campaigning]. Not the fakery, but learning to talk to voters in their own language. Stevenson hates it. He’s dying to be President, but he hates campaigning. That’s the difference between us, and it’s important.

The book has an incredible ending. After Joe Kennedy’s admonition for a Catholic to become president, the author writes, “The son fell quiet, then looked up and smiled. ‘Well, Dad, I guess there’s only one question left. When do we start?’” And that’s the end of volume one. (I can’t wait for volume two, especially to read about the Bay of Pigs fiasco.)

Books Mentioned

  • Dictatorship in the Modern World
  • Sawdust Ceaser
  • Germany Enters the Third Reich
  • Mussolini’s Italy
  • Communist Manifesto
  • State and Revolution
  • The Economic Basis of Politics
  • A Treasury of the World’s Greatest Speeches


Recieve new posts and my monthly reading list emails.