The young president who brought vigor and glamour to the White House while he confronted cold war crises abroad and calls for social change at home
John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a new kind of president. He redefined how Americans came to see the nation's chief executive. He was forty-three when he was inaugurated in 1961—the youngest man ever elected to the office—and he personified what he called the "New Frontier" as the United States entered the 1960s.
But as Alan Brinkley shows in this incisive and lively assessment, the reality of Kennedy's achievements was much more complex than the legend. His brief presidency encountered significant failures—among them the Bay of Pigs fiasco, which cast its shadow on nearly every national-security decision that followed. But Kennedy also had successes, among them the Cuban Missile Crisis and his belated but powerful stand against segregation.
Kennedy seemed to live on a knife's edge, moving from one crisis to another—Cuba, Laos, Berlin, Vietnam, Mississippi, Georgia, and Alabama. His controversial public life mirrored his hidden private life. He took risks that would seem reckless and even foolhardy when they emerged from secrecy years later.
Kennedy's life, and his violent and sudden death, reshaped our view of the presidency. Brinkley gives us a full picture of the man, his times, and his enduring legacy.
Brinkley is a Columbia University professor of history and National Book Award winner for Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression. In this latest addition to the American Presidents series, Brinkley's concise biography of the iconic John F. Kennedy offers judicious opinions of the 35th president's overall legacy. Brinkley doesn't shy from Kennedy's well-documented flaws, noting euphemistically that even after becoming a U.S. senator in 1952 he was "slow to grow up." Brinkley focuses on the highlights of his subject's eventful presidency, giving the basics of the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kennedy's early role in Vietnam policy, and the civil rights movement. Regarding the latter, Kennedy's journey from holding a politically expedient view to a commitment to "the political and moral necessity of the end of segregation" is central. Brinkley treats Kennedy's assassination matter-of-factly, commenting that the bottomless conspiracy controversy is evidence of Kennedy's sustained power over the national imagination. In Brinkley's final analysis Kennedy's successes were modest and his legacy based on his embodiment of the unfulfilled promise of an America that, in retrospect, seems to many to have been a time of "national confidence and purpose."