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Chris Matthews -- A Softball Review of the JFK Book

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Hardball's Matthews Writes Campaign Handbook

Chris Matthews cut his teeth in politics for six years working for House Speaker Tip O'Neill who was famously quoted as saying, "All Politics is Local."

Thus his book Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero is a political playbook. Matthews describes the first real canvassing program, Kennedy's grassroots effort building a state by state organization and get out the vote campaigns. It also tells political junkie readers like me how Bobby Kennedy strong-armed recalcitrant delegates to the 1960 Democratic National Convention including big city mayors. The JFK book describes in detail how the "Kennedy Men" kept Richard Nixon from getting made-up before the celebrated and much dissected NBC-TV appearance. "Dirty Tricks" are shown to be a chess game. Strategies on winning key primary states, early and Midwestern (as a Boston pol), turning Adlai Stevenson "Intellectuals" his way, and playing upon American fears of communism are revealed. Freedom for Eastern Bloc countries and relief from colonialism and French imperialism are common Kennedy themes to win votes.

He interviews inside sources, folks who were on the ground, many of whom will not be around much longer to tell the tale. His research is excellent, shedding new light on an oft-covered president. Ben Bradlee is a good source. Jacob Heilbrunn's Book Review in the New York Times can be found here.

Yes, there is some salacious gossip, including how cold-hearted his mother Rose Kennedy was to her children. But Matthews is exhaustive in his research, including reviewing contemporaneous notes from Pierre Salinger's journals, Choate prep school records, and Ted Sorenson's daily retinue on the road for years building the Kennedy organization.

Matthews is Irish Catholic and relates the prejudice and the strategy for overcoming religious bias, especially in the pivotal West Virginia primary. Kennedy declares allegiance to the U.S. based on his military heroism, the PT 109 challenge and bringing his sailors to safety after almost a week and with all of them near death on a South Pacific Island.

At a private book-signing at AB Bernstein investment house here in Washington, Matthews was voluble in his love for Kennedy and romance for political hardball: "RFK was like the Godfather," he said. "There was an amazing coldness to both Kennedy Brothers. Jack was cold and calculated" and while "Bobby was a good guy," he was made to do the dirty work.

"Jack Kennedy's life was segmented like his PT cruiser." Kennedy was "frighteningly detached." We get the sense from this author that he admires that compartmentalization.

"His greatest achievement was the handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis," thinks Matthews. "Krushev would have bombed New York City. The U.S. Congress was prepared to make a strike to hit all Soviets. And we call ourselves civilized?"

Kennedy called for civil rights, created the Peace Corps, "but like most men there is both good and bad" in our nation's revered President Kennedy. "Jack Kennedy was amazingly good at reading people," added Matthews. Perhaps the insight is best said by Matthews: "Kennedy was a complicated man, very sharp, but never reacted emotionally."

Matthews seems to marvel at how a politician like JFK can "know someone's feelings but not be moved at all."

Lem Bilings, a top Kennedy aide and former Choate roommate, told Jackie Kennedy before their marriage: "Jack is a bachelor and that is not going to change" an errand on which JFK was said to dispatch him. Later, when he wins the Democratic primary putting Kennedy over the top, Jackie is left to sit in the car as the men immediately begin planning to destroy former President Richard M. Nixon.

"Sex among politicians was OK then; a blogger would take it viral," Matthews muses. "The press is more predatory now." He should know on both the sex scandals and the predatory press side of that equation. During his introduction at Bernstein's plush offices overlooking the White House, Matthews admonished bloggers. "No Bloggers please... if you write about this (book signing) you have no honor!" Sorry Chris.

"The Republican Party has failed its people," Matthews said at the reception. "This campaign is a clown show. Republican voters moving to Santorum just shows how confused they are!"

I am going to vote for Mitt now in the open Virginia swing state Republican primary. Mitt is a better candidate than Rick Santorum. But I am a Kennedy Man -- Irish, Catholic, Democrat -- just like Chris Matthews.

Mike Smith is a Washington Political Commentator who attended St. Luke's Catholic Church, McLean, Virginia, with Bobby and Ethel Kennedy's children.