Review: ‘JFK’s Last 100 Days’

Thurston Clarke, who lives on Lake Champlain in Willsboro, authored “Ask Not,” which describes the composing of President John Kennedy’s inaugural address. And his “The Last Campaign” chronicles Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential bid.

Mr. Clarke returns to the Kennedys in his wonderful “JFK’s Last 100 Days.”

In the prologue, Clarke describes the difficulties artist Elaine de Kooning, who had been commissioned by the Truman Library in Missouri to do a portrait of the president, had capturing what she considered the essence of the man. Clarke quotes Kennedy aide Ted Sorensen to explain the puzzle de Kooning was trying to paint: “different parts of (Kennedy’s) life, works, and thoughts were seen by many people – but no one saw it all.” Clarke tells his readers that he is trying to do in words what de Kooning struggled to do in paint: to capture John F. Kennedy.

To give us that Kennedy picture, Clarke reviews the changes he sees in Kennedy the man and Kennedy the president in the three-plus months leading up to Nov. 22.

We all know how the 100 days will end in Dallas. But it is another death at the beginning of this period that Clarke sees as pivotal.

On Aug. 7, Jackie Kennedy gave birth, five and a half weeks prematurely, to Patrick. The infant, weighing only 4 pounds, 10 ounces, died on Aug. 9. Clarke theorizes that the child’s death was not only horribly sad but also transformative for the young president.

JFK’s marital infidelities, hidden during his presidency, are well know by now. Even so, Clarke’s recounting of his compulsive sexuality is shocking. A German woman whom JFK romanced is deported because she was a security risk. She was probably not the only security risk because there was sex with secretaries, strippers, interns, and call girls. And others.

The sex is so constant that one wonders if it is really always about sex. Maybe it’s about something deeper, sadder and more neurotic: after having sex with Marlene Dietrich, Kennedy asked her if she had ever slept with his father, and is pleased to learn that she had not.

Clarke believes, however, that Kennedy changed when, and maybe because, infant Patrick died. His extensive research (nine pages of bibliography, 40 pages of notes) supports the view. The philandering did not cease, but diminished. And Secret Service agents recognized a tenderness between the President and the First Lad they had not seen before, while photographers noticed hands being held, which was new.

The second part of Clarke’s equation – that JFK’s last 100 days as president were especially significant – is exciting history. For an older reader (that’s me) it’s a reminder of major changes and tensions in America. Clarke focuses on the nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union, our relationship with Cuba (Castro and Kennedy were seeking through intermediaries for ways to reestablish diplomatic relations between the countries), operations that would eventually suck the U.S. deeper into the Vietnam war; the Civil Rights Bill and the March on Washington.

Clarke reminds us that there was no Camelot halo around JFK when he was in office. Some military leaders were so antagonistic to their commander-in-chief that Kennedy did not discount the possibility of a coup. The novel/movie “Seven Days in May” grew out of distrust between the military and the White House. Many white Americans opposed the Civil Rights bill and many black Americans found Kennedy’s initial support tepid.

Some of the history echoes today. The Civil Rights bill and Medicare discussions polarized the country. Descriptors like “totalitarian” and “socialist” were used against these legislations. And as early as 1963, Kennedy was worrying about Vietnam, listening to Senator Mike Mansfield’s warning that the sooner the U.S. got out, the better.

As we know, that anger exploded in Dallas. But it was very evident in Dallas before Lee Harvey Oswald shot his rifle. Before Kennedy got to Dallas that November day, many residents had seen a “Wanted” flyer with Kennedy’s photo on it, which had been delivered to their front door. The president was guilty, the flyer said, of treason, betraying the Constitution, and giving the United Nations authority over the United States.

And the Dallas Morning News printed a full-page vitriolic anti-Kennedy advertisement that day, reminding us that today’s ugly partisanship is not new.

Last 100 Days is great history, well organized and artfully written. Like a good teacher, Clarke has gathered the information and put it together for his student/reader. Clarke’s evidence argues successfully that in his last 100 days, JFK was indeed different – as a father and especially as a husband, and accomplished as a President. Clarke here provides another mosaic tile for the personal Kennedy portrait many of us carry in our heads.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.