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The Real JFK

Fifty years after his presidency came to a violent end, John F. Kennedy basks in a mostly golden light of popular memory. Most Americans alive today were not yet born on that fateful day in Dallas, but his name still resonates–the popular memory of JFK is very much alive and well.

The historical nostalgia runs deep. He is held up as something of an idealized president. For many, his name connotes leadership. “You’re no Jack Kennedy” has become a knowing put-down amongst the political set. And his electoral prospects evidently remain strong. Polls have repeatedly shown that if Americans could choose any president to run the country today, Kennedy comes in first by a comfortable margin.1 This generally favorable perception of the 35th president has weathered revelations of serial infidelity and questionable acquaintances.

Nostalgia tends not to favor nuance, and along the way the “real” JFK has become obscured.

And yet the popular memory of “JFK” is mostly a construction, the result of bitterly fought idea-shaping between Kennedy’s loyal admirers and his staunch detractors waged on the public stage. In terms of popular memory, at least, the admirers have had the better of the fight.

But nostalgia tends not to favor nuance, and along the way the “real” JFK has become obscured.

In part, that was the way Kennedy himself wanted it. He went to considerable lengths to avoid being boxed in, publicly, privately, and politically. The pragmatism that he wore so proudly meant that he liked to keep distance between himself and a decision. He preferred to have control over when to show his hand. That presents obstacles to the historian chasing the “real” JFK.

JFK went to considerable lengths to avoid being boxed in, publicly, privately, and politically.

That is what makes Kennedy’s secretly recorded White House tapes so special. Because they were never meant to be made public, because they were unfiltered, and because nearly all of the people caught on tape did not know they were being recorded, the tapes provide a remarkable and unique view inside Kennedy’s White House. One can peer behind the curtain, hearing events unfold and decisions being made in real time. Better than many types of historical evidence, the tapes help us better understand the how, the when, and, crucially, the why.2

This book draws heavily on Kennedy’s tapes, along with the rich veins of documentary evidence that have been released in the past decade and a half; much of the material is published here for the first time. In doing so, it aims go back to the raw evidence of history to cut through the nostalgia.

It focuses on a crucial but generally overlooked period of JFK’s presidency. It was a period during which key aspects of what we think of as “JFK” were forged. It was a period when humanity was challenged by crises that threatened its very survival, when Americans were taking their first steps into the brave new world of the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy fought to turn the tide of his presidency.

Notes:

1. Marjorie Connelly, “Americans are Still Voting for J.F.K.,” New York Times, 16 August 1996.
2. It can’t be ruled out that that still more Kennedy tapes might yet be discovered and released. There are half a dozen summaries or rough transcripts of discussions in the holdings of the JFK Library textual records for which no corresponding recording has been found.