“Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” I grew up with these words, spoken by President John F. Kennedy, which were finely printed on a trivet in my family’s kitchen. The souvenir belonged to my maternal grandmother and was used mostly for holding serving spoons instead of shielding the dinner table from heat, due to its having been damaged. When washing dishes I would scrub spaghetti sauce, pancake batter, and what ever other ingredients and mixes my mother used for cooking, from off this plate and read over the words, time and time again. And now thinking back, it seems odd that I never learned much about the man who spoke them. That is until now. Chris Matthews’ book Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero provides its reader a clear, concise introduction to the life and times of JFK.
Although categorized as a biography, Matthews’ Jack Kennedy reads more like an Action/Adventure. A page turner, I felt like I was along for the ride as a young JFK plots practical jokes in rebellious spirit railing against authority, answers the call of duty to serve his country while encountering enemy ships in the South Pacific, and then goes door to door after WWII as a military hero, introducing himself as the new political candidate in town. The book also took me on the campaign trail, sharing intimate details of the tenacity, nerve, stomach and guts it takes to run for a seat in Congress, the Senate, and ultimately, the White House.
And this isn’t an outdated Action/Adventure story retired on a dusty bookshelf. On the contrary, it is timely. And if the old adage that history repeats itself is true, Chris Matthews’ book goes a long way in demonstrating how events that happened nearly fifty years ago still have relevance today. Like the story he tells of the Buddhist monk who lit himself on fire in protest of South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem’s persecution of the country’s Buddhists, as a precursor to the Vietnam War. I instantly thought of the vegetable cart owner in Tunisia who similarly lit himself on fire which sparked the Arab Spring. And there is also the narrative of how the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union came to sign a treaty vowing to not test nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, space, and water. Just last week, the news was filled with stories about North Korea’s missile launch and possible attempts to test nuclear weapons by their leaders in Pyongyang.
If the lure of the Kennedy dynasty has ever grabbed your attention, as it has successfully in my case over the years; this story, as told by Chris Matthews, will be an immensely enjoyable one to read. The notion that countries on the brink of war can somehow, in the nick of time, resort to diplomacy instead of catastrophic engagement, is reassuring in the current context of global affairs. The idea that presidents showing restraint instead of the use of force, despite being pressured to be the aggressor, opens the door for the possibility of peace, offers sobering advice for a world that finds itself in a climate of potential new wars, based on old vendettas, on the horizon. Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero helps draw the line between nearsighted thinking and foresight, emotion and reason.