For as long as I can remember, November 22 has always been a sobering date on my calendar. My late father, like many of his generation, revered John F. Kennedy. He owned several pieces of memorabilia. He also vividly remembered where he was and what he was doing on that fateful day when his favorite statesman tragically fell under the bullets. Before the Roosevelts, Truman, LBJ, Reagan and both Presidents Bush – commanders in chief for whom I have tons of admiration – JFK was the first one who piqued my intellectual curiosity.
I cannot proclaim that I have read every book regarding the main figure of contemporary Camelot, but I always make a point of skimming the pages of as many as I can. Mark K. Updegrove is a presidential historian whose work I have always been interested in. I was, therefore, impatient to grab a copy of his recent book Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency. I was expecting a good read because the author has an enthralling writing style. But I got much more than that.
I was looking forward to renewing my understanding of what made JFK such a legendary figure.
As a starting point, his greatness cannot possibly be found in his presidential record. The Massachusetts politician spent fourteen years in Congress, and the author – who is also president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation – characterizes this passage as having been infertile. Upon entering the White House, the 35th President’s interest instinctively zoomed in on international affairs – his forte – to the detriment of domestic policy. He “[…] had little interest in moving more than cautiously in propelling action on the front lines of the civil rights movement.” Events would eventually twist his arm to join that crusade for which he received way more credit than he might deserve in posterity. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson was the one who truly bore the brunt of this cause after ascending the Oval Office. JFK’s death and legacy gave him plenty of ammunition to succeed, but LBJ’s legendary political and parliamentary talent cannot be discarded.
Internationally, the Bay of Pigs episode emboldened Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to advance further against the West and rip into his American counterpart at the Vienna Summit of June 1961. Few weeks later, on August 13, the world would witness the monstrous appearance of the Berlin Wall. Despite all these toils, mistakes and missteps, American voters forgave a President who accepted responsibility and was ready to always work harder – a common trait of the Kennedy family. Humility and hard work are two traits people can easily recognize and embrace.
Which brings me to the notion that JFK’s greatness can be found in his humanity and personality. Truth be told, he was an introvert who declared: “I’d rather read a book on a plane than talk to the fellow next to me, and my grandfather wanted to talk to everybody else.” He introspectively saw himself as “the antithesis of a politician.”
Also, being Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.’s son must not have been a cakewalk. One can only imagine the psychological toll of growing up under the thumb of an over-ambitious, demanding and dominating father. To a certain point, things must have been manageable for JFK, as long as his father’s expectations lay on his elder brother Joe Jr.’s shoulders.
Everything would change during World War II. In August 1943, JFK’s “[…] boat was rammed by a Japanese warship […]” in the Pacific, granting him the fame of the PT-109 mystique. He also unfortunately suffered back injuries that compounded his chronic condition, leaving him with permanent ailments for the rest of his life. One year later, his eldest brother disappeared in a secret bombing mission over Germany. The political mantle henceforth was placed on JFK’s enfeebled backbone.
Others might disagree with me, but I believe the crux of JFK’s persona lies in his suffering. He “had few days when he wasn’t in pain or sick in some way,” yet he “seldom heard him complain”, said his lifelong friend Lem Billings. Reading the list of medications, he was given on any given day is jaw-dropping. On top of physical suffering, there was also a tremendous emotional toll to be dealt with. Only a few weeks before his assassination, he was holding his newborn son Patrick’s fingers when the newborn died on August 9, 1963. This is probably the most touching passage of the book.
For many years, I have held dearly to the thought that glamour, eloquence, and stardom were key ingredients in the Kennedy mystique. There is undoubtedly lots of that in the equation. Reading Incomparable Grace nevertheless made me realize that JFK’s profound humanity – with his heart-wrenching sufferings and countless travails – is probably what connected the politician to the people, nurturing the endless admiration – perhaps I should say adulation – that endures to this day. A feeling that can only deepen with the current state of political life where we must deal with the loathsome antithesis of JFK.
I have come to realize that the best biographies are those where you easily and agreeably enter the book to walk alongside the characters. There are still many things I’d love to say about Incomparable Grace. But permit me to conclude that Mark K. Updegrove fully brought his main character to life. To the point where I surprised myself, hoping that the story would not end the way I knew it did. This engaging author brought me into the stressful corridors of the Cold War in Vienna and the White House, reducing me to tears while imagining I was standing helplessly in a corridor of Dallas Parkland Hospital 59 years ago today.
Without hesitation, Incomparable Grace is one of the best books I have read in 2022.
Mark K. Updegrove, Incomparable Grace: JFK in the Presidency, New York, Dutton, 2022, 368 pages.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Sarah Thegeby of Dutton (Penguin Books) for her precious assistance in the preparation of this review.