For a blunt-titled book with a tragic conclusion every reader knows, Thurston Clarke’s “JFK’s Last Hundred Days” surprises and occasionally delights.
This book is about life, a quick-pulsed three months of life, before it’s about death. It’s about forward movement and daily accomplishments, often history-making ones, before it’s about lost opportunities and, as the Israeli statesman Abba Eban characterized the assassination of the young president in his prime, “one of the most authentically tragic events in the history of nations.”
It’s worth noting that among these 100 days were some that John F. Kennedy himself called his happiest.
The story of these days takes the reader from early August 1963 through his death Nov. 22. The book has the feel of a wide-ranging diary, each chapter focusing on a week or even a single day. It details Kennedy’s personal dealings — playing with his children, John and Caroline, for example, or singing at the family compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. — as well as his political maneuverings and presidential actions. At times, the events are laid out hour by hour, never tediously.
This was a time in which civil rights activism was rising. We see Kennedy conferring with black leaders and, in one testy White House meeting, with the white leadership of Birmingham, Ala., amid deadly violence there. As the March on Washington plays out at the Lincoln Memorial, we see the president listening at an open White House window with a black doorman as the throng sings “We Shall Overcome.”
We watch Kennedy plunge into foreign policy. We’re privy to his horse-trading with congressional leaders, including his successful effort to win Senate ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
Politics then was about bipartisan deal-making and constructiveness, as Clarke shows. He quotes Kennedy in what could be a rebuke of today’s bitter gridlock: “Let our patriotism be reflected in the creation of confidence in one another, rather than in crusades of suspicion.”
The subtitle, “The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President,” makes clear that this is an admiring chronicle.
Kennedy skeptics may be dubious of some of its implied or stated projections. Would the Civil Rights Act have passed if he hadn’t been killed? Would he have found a way out of Vietnam? An approach to Russia and China to shorten the Cold War?
Kennedy-phobics may roll their eyes at the book’s implication JFK was becoming a better husband. While not glossing his philandering, it argues that something changed between he and Jackie Kennedy after the death of infant son Patrick in August 1963.
Such observations illustrate the highly effective research by Clarke.