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The Literary Search for JFK

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Before John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States in 1960 he served for nearly eight years as the junior senator from Massachusetts.

My new book, JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency is the first to focus exclusively on Kennedy's tenure as a senator and how he used the upper chamber as a policy and political training ground and as a springboard for the presidency. Senator John F. Kennedy participated in some of the critical debates of his time including America's Cold War struggle with the Soviet Union, France's faltering military interventions in Vietnam and Algeria, and the battle to reform the labor movement in the United States.

Unlike Senate Democratic leader Lyndon Johnson, JFK never aspired to be a dealmaker who kept the institution under his control. Rather, he envisioned himself as a historian-statesman along the lines of his hero, Winston Churchill, shifting easily between the worlds of ideas and action. Drawing on archival research, memoirs, and interviews with congressional experts, former Kennedy aides and associates, JFK in the Senate provides insights into this overlooked period of Kennedy's remarkable political career. I also show how Kennedy became only the second sitting U.S. senator to go directly to the presidency. Warren Harding did it first in 1920 and only Barack Obama in 2008 has done it since JFK.

My research into John F. Kennedy's Senate career propelled me into the seemingly endless, always expanding, universe of the Kennedy literature. I reviewed dozens of biographies, memoirs and histories about JFK, his contemporaries, and the Senate of the 1950s. I carefully studied Kennedy's three major books and hundreds of his speeches and articles as well as memos and files from his Senate career which extended from 1953 to 1960.

Based on my research, I recommend ten books that should be read by those trying to understand Senator John. F. Kennedy. These books, especially when considered as a package, provide a comprehensive and nuanced perspective about the first Senator Kennedy.

My recommendations are:

1-James MacGregor Burns, John F. Kennedy: A Political Profile, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961.
This campaign book by historian James MacGregor Burns was researched as Kennedy was running for president and was published as JFK entered the White House. Burns had access to JFK's congressional files, family records and letters and conducted lengthy interviews with Kennedy and his family, friends, colleagues and adversaries. Consequently, it has a wonderful "what he was really like" quality. The reader should know the book was authorized by Kennedy and he lobbied Burns aggressively to revise parts of the manuscript before it was published. The book provides a kind, but revealing, profile of Kennedy.

2-Herbert S Parmet, Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy, Dial Press, 1980.
Parmet is, I believe, Kennedy's best biographer and this book is my favorite in the vast Kennedy literature. It is well written, comprehensive, and balanced with superb chapters on Kennedy's youth, academic development at Harvard, war record, early political career, first Senate campaign, role in writing Profiles in Courage and four year quest for the presidency. If you only have time to read one book about JFK's pre-presidential years, this is it.

3-Robert Dallek, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, Little, Brown, 2003.
In my opinion, this is the best modern biography of JFK. It's admiring but also tough-minded. Dallek's most striking contribution is his deep and probing examination of JFK's health. We learn that between May of 1955 and October of 1957 Kennedy was secretly hospitalized nine times for a total of 45 days, including two week-long hospital visits and one stay that extended for nineteen days. Dallek shows just how sick JFK was during his years in the Senate.

4-John F. Kennedy, The Strategy of Peace, Poplar Library, 1960.
JFK won the Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, the book most often associated with Kennedy. But The Strategy of Peace reflects JFK more fully. Published in 1960, it is a campaign book to be sure. The volume is primarily a compilation of his Senate speeches which show the range of Kennedy's interests and his ability to analyze problems, offer specific solutions and place contemporary challenges into a broad historical context. After reading this book, you will think differently about Senator John F. Kennedy.

5-Theodore Sorensen, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History, Harper-Collins, 2008.
Sorensen was one of JFK's first hires as a Senator-elect and the collaboration between the two men was critical to Kennedy's political success. In this book, Sorensen describes how this partnership worked and specifically how he and Kennedy wrote speeches, articles and books. Sorensen clarifies several aspects of Kennedy's political career, including his avoidance of the Senate's 1954 censure vote on Joseph McCarthy. This memoir was written a few years before Sorensen's death and after the passing of Jackie Kennedy. Sorensen's admiration for Kennedy is palpable, but this account of JFK is more candid and nuanced than Sorensen's 1965 book, Kennedy.

6-Kenneth O'Donnell and David Powers with Joe McCarthy, Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye: Memoirs of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Little Brown, 1970.
This is a warm reflection about Kennedy as friend and politician written by two admiring aides. They chronicle Kennedy from his first congressional campaign in 1946 until his death in Dallas on November 22, 1963. O'Donnell and Powers offer wonderful vignettes about Kennedy's early years in politics and show how a callow young man transformed himself into a tough and resilient political powerhouse. The authors capture Kennedy's toughness and ambition along with the joy that his political career brought him.

7- Evelyn Lincoln, My Twelve Years with John F. Kennedy, David McKay, 1965.
It's been said that no man is a hero to his valet and it's probably equally true that few ambitious executives are revered by their personal secretaries. Lincoln's memoir about her dozen years working for JFK is not soaring literature but she offers valuable insights about what he was like up close. The Kennedy we see in this book is a hard, demanding and often self-absorbed man who is capable of great charm and startling narcissism.

8-Robert Caro, Master of the Senate: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002 and Robert Caro, The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson, Alfred Knopf, 2012.
Master of the Senate is one of the best books ever written about Congress. In it, Caro chronicles Lyndon Johnson's highly consequential Senate career which extended from 1949 until 1961. While JFK is not a major figure in this book, Caro provides important context for understanding the Senate in which JFK served. This book's treatment of the 1957 civil rights bill is superb.

The Passage of Power is extremely valuable for those seeking to understand the complex relationship between JFK and LBJ. This volume deals with LBJ's career from 1958 to 1964 and provides a wonderful account of the different paths that Kennedy and Johnson took as they battled for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. Caro shows how the single minded and surprisingly fierce JFK seized the Democratic nomination from the more cautious and tentative LBJ.

9-Thomas Whalen, Kennedy Versus Lodge: The 1952 Massachusetts Senate Race, Northeastern University Press, 2000.
This is an excellent account of the most important political campaign in JFK's career: his successful 1952 bid to defeat incumbent Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Kennedy won narrowly, becoming only the third Democrat in Massachusetts history to win election to the Senate. Whalen shows how Kennedy prevailed by building a formidable political organization and executing a shrewd and disciplined campaign that hammered Lodge as too focused on national and international issues and insufficiently attentive to the people of Massachusetts.

10-Gretchen Rubin, Forty Ways to Think About JFK, Ballantine Books, 2005.
I realize that most Kennedy scholars would not include this book in their top ten JFK books. Rubin does not claim to be a JFK expert but she has carefully reviewed the Kennedy literature and provides a fresh, even bracing, perspective on Kennedy that illustrates the many different ways that one can look at him. After reading this book, it occurred to me that yet another way to look at JFK is as a United States Senator. This insight led me to write JFK in the Senate.