Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy
- By Stephen F. Knott
- University Press of Kansas
- 280 pp.
- Reviewed by Paul D. Pearlstein
- February 22, 2023
The story of Camelot was always just that: a story.
Professor Stephen F. Knott acknowledges that there are already 40,000+ books about John F. Kennedy and his era. So why write yet another one? Today, many revere Kennedy as among our best presidents; others see only his terrible mistakes in Vietnam and in the game of nuclear chicken he once got us into with Russia. After 60 years, can we finally determine whether JFK was merely “good teeth and good hair” or a figure of lasting greatness? That’s what Knott has set out to do here.
Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy considers some of the significant events of JFK’s 1,036 days in office. The author discusses Kennedy’s distinguished successes (the Berlin airlift, his brilliant use of television, and the creation of the Peace Corps) and his catastrophic failures (the Bay of Pigs debacle, the near-disastrous Cuban Missile Crisis, and Operation Mongoose). Kennedy’s outrageous and reckless philandering is also chronicled without restraint. The conduct wasn’t much of a secret but was a cause of chagrin to those working so hard to conceal it. (Sleeping with a Mafia boss’ girlfriend while his attorney-general brother was investigating the Mafia was low, even for a young, lustful president. Watching as an aid had relations with a girlfriend was even lower.)
The author is a Massachusetts native from a Kennedy-worshipping family. Currently a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, Knott had previously been employed at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston for several years. Though he began that job as a JFK admirer, he became disillusioned by the censorship imposed by the Kennedy family, including its unusual restricting of access to many original documents on the premises.
The family sought to control and sustain the mythical Camelot and the unblemished, heroic portrait of JFK. Uncomfortable truths about the assassinated leader were concealed from all but a handful of anointed writers. (Those happy few were friends deemed safe and manageable, including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Doris Kearns Goodwin, William Manchester, and Ted Sorensen.) Apparently, this manipulative censorship continues even though taxpayers fund most of the library’s costs via the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 and the National Archives and Records Administration.
The book’s final chapter is titled “Legacy,” but in fact every chapter is concerned with the 35th president’s legacy. In it, Knott reiterates his strong condemnation of the family’s grip on JFK’s story. The scrubbed picture resulting from their control distorts reality and alters facts, leading to confusion and myriad conspiracy theories. In many ways, Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy is a tell-all, an opportunity for Knott to call out the family’s inappropriate influence on JFK scholarship. Such control is anathema to any scholar working at a public research facility.
The author’s treatment of the era’s historic events provides a readable stroll down memory lane for some of us. Facts are presented in a fresh context, and Knott offers an excellent discussion of Kennedy’s Nov. 22, 1963, assassination. Immediately after the shooting, he recounts, many accused Fidel Castro — who’d long had unpleasant relations with JFK — of orchestrating the murder. It wasn’t much of a leap. The Kennedy White House, after all, had once enlisted the CIA, FBI, and Mafia in Operation Mongoose, a botched mission to assassinate the Cuban leader (which Castro himself knew about).
This unresolved suspicion over Castro’s complicity persists today because the Warren Commission — officially the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy — was never allowed to review Operation Mongoose documents, which remain classified. Despite the blue-ribbon membership of the commission, Knott believes its investigation into Kennedy’s killing was incomplete, shoddy, and a politically motivated rush to judgment. It also ended its work prematurely, leaving many important issues unresolved. Someday the censorship will lift, and we should learn some hard truths, good or bad.
Knott’s writing is excellent throughout the book, and he makes reading about pivotal, decades-old events exciting all over again. The only problem? Those other 40,000 titles competing for space on the JFK shelves. Ideally, Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy will be able to claim its rightful place in the Kennedy canon as public memory dims and the family’s chokehold on the late president’s image loosens.
Paul D. Pearlstein, a retired lawyer, was in uniform and preparing to invade Cuba in October 1962.