Young Jack Kennedy

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Kennedy’s wartime role before, during, and after the sinking of PT-109, blown out of proportion by some early biographers, then minimized by his posthumous detractors, is shown here to have been almost everything the campaign literature with which his proud father flooded the electorate said it was. His miserable health could have kept him from the fighting altogether; he had to falsify his medical records just to get into the Navy, then did so again because he was determined to see combat. Without radar on a moonless night, no one could have foreseen the sudden advent of the Japanese destroyer that sliced Kennedy’s boat in two, Hamilton argues, and in the grueling days that followed, when his incompetent superiors had given Kennedy and his crew up for dead, it was his stubborn courage that kept them all alive until they could be rescued.

Hamilton concentrates so closely on his star that most of Jack’s eight siblings are little more than walk-ons, but Joe, Jr., often portrayed as the most likely politician in the family and certainly the first choice for prominence of his doting father, is seen here as far slower and more conventional—“heavier”—than Jack, alarmingly admiring of Nazi Germany when he should have been old enough to know better, without much wit or charm, and too much in awe of the father who harbored such extravagant hopes for him.

One of the most persistent myths about John Kennedy has been that he somehow fell into politics at his father’s direction and was only a reluctant stand-in for his dead brother. Hamilton provides concrete evidence that in fact he harbored presidential hopes for himself well before his brother’s death.

That, and a good deal more, is revealed in the most compelling part of Hamilton’s book, his richly detailed account of Kennedy’s relationship with the Danish-born newspaperwoman Inga Arvad. Far from the lurid tale tabloid biographers have made of it— JFK’S AFFAIR WITH NAZI SPY —theirs was a remarkable romance. Arvad was no spy, but, because she was beautiful and married, had once interviewed Hitler, and was carrying on a landestine romance with a naval intelligence officer, J. Edgar Hoover set his gumshoes on her trail. Their romance was doomed from the first—she was four years older than her smitten ensign, his father was dead set against marriage, the FBI recorded their telephone calls and bugged their hotel bedrooms—but clearly Arvad provided Kennedy with an almost maternal understanding as well as ardor, and he reciprocated by confessing to her doubts and dreams he otherwise kept entirely to himself.

The young Jack Kennedy who emerges from Hamilton’s pages is both more substantive and more troubled than we had thought.

In 1941 and 1942 Kennedy seems to have mused aloud to her of heading West after the war to run a ranch, out from under his father’s watchful eye, perhaps with Arvad at his side. But he also talked to her of going into politics and running for President one day, and she was shrewd enough not only to take him seriously but to see that this ambition would eventually overshadow his wish for tranquillity. “Put a match to the smoldering ambition and you will go like wild fire,” Arvad told him. “It is all against the ranch out West, but it is the unequaled highway to the White House. And if you can find something you can really believe in, then my dear you [will have] caught the biggest fish in the ocean. You can pull it aboard, but don’t rush it, there is still time.”

But John Kennedy could never count on there still being time. For him, life had always to be seized now, because it might end at any moment.

Hamilton believes that what he accurately calls “Jack’s lifelong need not simply to flirt with women but compulsively to lie with them—obsessively, manically, to the point of sexual addiction”—was primarily an unconscious reaction to his mother’s eerie aloofness. There was also always the gaudy example set by his perennially randy father, who thought nothing of flaunting his mistresses at the family table. But surely the main impulse, pushing him on toward action of every kind, including sexual conquest, was the central fact of his sickly boyhood—the constant, if rarely acknowledged, terror that he was fated to die long before his time.

“If anything happens to me,” Kennedy wrote Arvad at twenty-six, just after he was rescued in the Pacific, “I have this knowledge that if I had lived to be a hundred, I could only have improved the quantity of my life, not the quality. This sounds gloomy as hell … I’ll cut it. … You are the only person I’d say it to anyway.” We shall have to wait for Hamilton’s second and third volumes to see if Kennedy ever revealed so much about himself to anyone again, but the reader senses that it would be just as true of him the day he set out for Dallas, two decades later.