Chris Matthews -- current host of MSNBC's "Hardball" -- was a 15-year-old working as a paperboy for the Philadelphia Bulletin when he found his political loyalties shifting.
Like the rest of his immediate family, he considered himself a Republican, but something about John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign had inspired him, made him question what he stood for. Not only did he find himself suddenly rooting for a Democrat, but he had grown enamored with the entire Kennedy dynasty, and momentarily cheered the possibility of a two-term JFK presidency, and a Lyndon Johnson presidency to follow.
Thus began a lifelong fascination that hasn't ever let up. In 1996, while still the D.C. bureau chief for the San Francisco Chronicle, Matthews published "Kennedy & Nixon: The Rivalry that Shaped Postwar America," and on Nov. 1 he'll release "Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero," a wide-ranging biography that focuses on the life and dual natures of the 35th president.
Jackie Kennedy famously called her husband both "elusive" and "unforgettable," and in this new work, Matthews seeks to elucidate the conflicting shades of Kennedy's character, while also celebrating a leader who he believes united the American people more than any other president since the 1960s.
In an interview with HuffPost, Matthews reveals the Kennedy traits that caught him off guard, why he made everyone feel "included," and a few essential qualities he thinks Obama -- and other American politicians -- could pick up from Kennedy.
Was there any significance to releasing this book now, or did it just work out that way?
I've been working on it for years. I started back in the 80s, looking at the Nixon/Kennedy rivalry, but since then I've been working on this for a long time. I guess I was thinking about the 50th anniversary [of the assassination], sure, and I didn't know what the current zeitgeist would be. But I think it's the perfect time for it. The country wants to be reminded what a leader is. A hero. We haven't had a hero since Kennedy, really -- a guy who proved himself in battle, a hero in war who had a rite of passage like that. This guy was the guy. He was it.
What surprised you most to learn about him?
How sick he was. I say in the book how he was a greater hero than he wanted us to know. He was sick all the time, had a terrible stomach injury, blood counts all through high school, it went on and on and on. He was always in a hospital. He must have had a record in Choate for the number of days he was in the infirmary. Also, he was always reading. Always. He was a reader, and a hero worshipper, and he became who he became because he was incessantly studying King Arthur, Churchill, the history of World War I, the Times every day in high school. I got this from his classmates.
You repeatedly discuss how much Kennedy loved politics, in general, and how he was proud to be a politician. What about politics appealed to him most?
He loved meeting people, loved campaigning, loved the competition, loved the zest of it. He loved building a party and punishing his rivals. It's all there, what a politician has to be. Even the day he was killed, he was going to the airport in Fort Worth, asking people what the difference was between Dallas and Fort Worth politically. He was always asking questions, always trying to learn more about it.
Was Kennedy feared?
You can't be loved for long if you're not feared. Kennedy did not hold grudges, but he dealt politically with people. I think he'd make Eric Cantor fear him a little if he were [president today]. He was tough on his enemies, he always was. Look at everything he did: He beat Nixon, he beat Johnson, he beat them all. He didn't join those guys, he beat them. You think Johnson wanted to be his running mate? He had this stick, this ability to enforce. He wasn't moved by those emotions around him and he could stand up to people.
You write in the book that Kennedy knew, more than anyone, "that nations die or thrive on the ability and judgment of their leaders to stir them at perilous times." How was Kennedy able to stir people?
Everyone was part of his mission. There was always this inclusion of bringing people in and making everybody participate. It was never, "Let's see how smart he is," it was always him bringing other people in, making people a part of it all. Ask anybody from that generation, they felt included. I think the big Kennedy distinction was the ability to make everybody part of the effort. "We're all in this together."
How did he do that, specifically?
He was all about relationship politics. It wasn't about transactions -- "Once you're with me, you're with me." He stuck with them. Obama's sort of like, "You elect me now, I'll do the job, and watch me do it." The Clintons were all about relationships, too, but the entire Kennedy party -- that was everything. He was always building a team around him, and people trusted him. He had 12 kids in the mud, 12 guys in the military, he saved his crew. When you go out and you carry your 42-year-old engineer on your back for four hours, the strap of his life jacket in your teeth, it creates a certain competence. Those guys loved him.
Because he was strong on the battlefield.
He was a leader! It's not about the ability to give a good speech or to be smart, it's about a talent to really lead people. I don't know if Romney or Obama have showed that kind of leadership, someone who men and women want to follow into battle. "We want to go with him. I want to go with that guy." Kennedy could walk into a room and men and women both would just melt. He was very impressive in terms of personal chemistry.
Have any politicians since Kennedy possessed similar qualities?
Scott Brown got a bit of it in Massachusetts, he connected with that anti-establishment thing in Boston. But that's more parochial. Jimmy Carter in '75, '76, he picked up on the country's mood for a while. I think Reagan picked up on some of it in his time.
Does Obama possess some of those qualities?
Obama hasn't clicked into the zeitgeist the way Kennedy did. Does [Obama] feel what we feel the way Kennedy felt what we felt? Does he get us right now? I hope he does, but I don't know. Kennedy connected with the country. We were losing the Cold War, the world's global map was changing from red and pink and we could see it. He said, "Let's get this country moving again." He knew exactly how to brace us for what was [to come] -- that sense of when to strike something. [Kennedy] always had this fear of complacency, and he knew the times, he knew us. Obama hasn't clicked into the zeitgeist. Is there an Obama party? I don't know.