Countdown to tragedy creates ominous effect
JFK's Last Hundred Days: An Intimate Portrait of a Great President
Allen Lane, €28.99
You can watch Walter Cronkite announcing JFK's death on YouTube. After saying that the rumours were not confirmed, Cronkite then looks down, clears his throat and blinks away his tears: "From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official: President Kennedy died at 1pm central standard time, 2 o'clock eastern standard time, some 38 minutes ago."
As the 50th anniversary of John F Kennedy's death rolls around, a flurry of books and films are commemorating that terrible day. Thurston Clarke has already written several accounts of the Kennedys, and JFK's Last Hundred Days is an informative and enjoyable portrait of America's most glamorous president.
JFK's achievements in 46 years are little short of astonishing. His exploits in the Second World War earned him a medal for leadership and courage. He married a woman the gossip columnists called the "debutante of the year". By the time he was elected president he had won a Pulitzer Prize, for a book about US politicians who had shown bravery under pressure. Along with all of that, he had great personal charm: the novelist William Styron said talking to him was like "being bathed in sparkling water".
Clarke's account begins on Wednesday August 7, 1963, the day Kennedy's second son Patrick was born, a premature child who lived for just a couple of days. It's a strange place to start, but gives Clarke a chance to outline the tragedies that had already afflicted the family – JFK's daughter Arabella had been stillborn in 1956, and his older brother Joe was killed in the Second World War.
His sister Kathleen perished in a plane crash, and another sister, Rosemary, was institutionalised in 1944. Having nearly died in 1943 when a Japanese destroyer hit his boat, Kennedy was already a survivor, with a keen appreciation of the fine line between life and death.
This opening section also offers a bewildering glimpse of the Kennedy marriage. Jackie gave birth to a stillborn daughter while her husband was "cruising off Capri with what one newspaper called 'several young women'."
He learned about his daughter's death three days later and did not bother to return, instead leaving his brother Bobby to help Jackie arrange the burial. Clarke argues that the marriage was improving.
Last Hundred Days is dotted with snippets about the couple's daily routines. JFK swam regularly, often changed his suits several times a day, and worked so hard to acquire his deep tan that on at least one occasion, "a sun lamp had to have accounted for" it. Of Jackie, Clarke rather cruelly says that "she wore ... white gloves to hide her nicotine-stained fingers and huge hands". Wilful and enigmatic, Jackie worked hard on the marriage. Conscious of Kennedy's Irish roots, she called their holiday home "Wexford" to please him.
Despite the gossip, the book is a serious history and is organised minutely in chapters covering just a couple of days at a time. Some of the sections on military planning are tedious and overwhelming; but the story gains momentum as the tragic end gets close. In fact, the day-by-day countdown to November 22 has an ominous effect. When you see that the final section is titled "Days 22-1", you can't help shivering a little.
Any discussion of Kennedy's administration is dominated by a sense of what might have been. Clarke reminds us of Kennedy's role in Vietnam, where, pressured by the military, he sent thousands of advisors. He seems to have intended to reduce America's part in the conflict but after his death, Lyndon Johnson took the opposite approach and increased the US presence there.
Fateful decisions regarding war are not the only topics to have a modern resonance. Surveillance is another. The president bugged the Oval Office, placing concealed microphones under a coffee table and in his desk. He recorded only certain conversations – those of historic significance, Clarke says, suggesting that he may have wanted to use the information for his memoirs. At best though it was an odd thing to do.
Like many biographers Clarke is a little in love with his subject, and sometimes he pleads too much on Kennedy's account. After receiving a disturbing telegram about Vietnam we learn the president invited a woman called Mary Meyer to the White House. She signed in at one o'clock and stayed for several hours. "They may have resumed their affair," Clarke writes, "but it is also possible that he simply wanted her there to comfort him."
It is easy to feel nostalgic for the hopefulness Kennedy embodied. He was one of the first presidents to invite writers and artists to mingle with diplomats at the White House, and believed that "the arts were a barometer of national excellence, and flourished under a great leader". At a campaign speech in Philadelphia, he declared that he wanted historians to look back and say: "These were the great years of the American life, the 1960s. Give me those years!"
The undercurrents of the era were dark, however. The civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated earlier in 1963; and by the decade's end both Bobby Kennedy and Dr Martin Luther King Jr were dead.
On the news of Kennedy's death, Clarke says that advertising men in suits hurried to St Patrick's Cathedral and fell on their knees, Laurence Olivier paused a performance in London and even Fidel Castro said, "This is bad news."
But America was a divided country. "Not everyone mourned," Clarke reveals. "Some white Southerners celebrated, and a wire service story reported schoolchildren in Texas cheering."
Clarke aptly captures the desolation and lost possibility that most Americans felt. As Norman Mailer put it at the time: "Fifty years may go by before such a witty and promising atmosphere comes to life in America again. So the corridors are gloomy." Mailer went on: "'He was a great man,' said a girl at a party the other night.' 'No, he wasn't a great man,' I said. 'He was a man who could have become great or could have failed, and now we'll never know.'"