To some, Chris Matthews is a loudmouth liberal blowhard whose show, Hardball, is a perfect example of how our collective politics has become akin to a six-car pileup. That’s certainly the caricature of Matthews many see. I don’t like that caricature at all. Sure, he can be brash, opinionated, and prone to exaggeration, but at his core, Chris Matthews is old school, and that’s why I like him. He’s a northeast blue-collar Democrat, raised politically at the knee of legends like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Tip O’Neill. He’s got killer political instincts, an unmatched appreciation for the hardball tactics of yore, and a sense of history that is rare as we become accustomed to 24 year old “embeds” covering political campaigns on Twitter. He’s Jesuit-educated, Irish, and I bet, tells a crude joke or two over drinks in a smoky bar. Another larger than life persona, Tim Russert, possessed many of these same qualities. Together, they offered some of the best political analysis in contemporary politics. All this is why I still think Chris Matthews worthy of our respect.
Back in 1997, Matthews wrote one of my favorite political books—“Kennedy and Nixon.” It’s where I first became aware of Matthews’ fascination with John F. Kennedy. The book was legit—it’s no amateur history. It’s well researched and covers two legends of American politics, exploring in detail how their lives differed, intersected, and affected one another’s.
Idolatry may be too strong of a word, but Matthews comes close in the way he discusses JFK. Kennedy represented a personal awakening for Matthews; though he never voted for him, it seems that through JFK, Matthews discovered his love for politics. Some guys put posters of sports stars or swimsuit models on their bedroom door; Chris Matthews would have hung a picture of Jack Kennedy. He represented the allure of politics for guys like Chris Matthews, and Matthews admits he has spent a good part of his life attempting to better understand our 35th President.
In “Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero,” Matthews does an even deeper dive into his political hero. He sets out to answer the question: “What was he like?” As in “Kennedy and Nixon,” Matthews has done his homework. He’s pulled together interviews from JFK’s friends—a unique approach to introduce us to the people who knew him as a person, and not just a President. He’s sketched a slightly different portrait than other historians have, and it’s a terrific read.
What I loved most about this book is the description of Kennedy just before he ran for office. His political awakening fascinates me. Where did it come from? Was it his father? The war? The loss of his brother, who had once been predestined to be the family’s political leader? Was it a quest for power or a quest for attention? Matthews seems to conclude it was just part of who he was—a natural leader, destined for politics and leadership. Kennedy’s friends saw the awakening up close: His old friend Chuck Spalding noted just after World War II that Kennedy’s tone had changed. “Either wittingly or unwittingly, he began to write as a politician.” Lem Billings, another friend, said of his ambition, “nothing could have kept Jack out of politics.”
Reading these pages, I couldn’t help but think about the many friends I have who are also in politics. I’ve been fortunate to see many of them wrestle with the decision to enter public life or not, and it is captivating to see up close. All of them have different reasons for considering a political life and as I reflected on Kennedy’s journey, I found myself thinking about my friends’ individual situations. To each of them I would recommend this book. Not all of them will be Jack Kennedy, (though most are undoubtedly inspired by his legacy), but the lessons are the same.
What JFK possessed before running for office should be required for any candidate at any level: a desire to lead, a strong ambition, a touch of moxie, a sense of history and a sense of humor, a collection of true and honest friends, and a willingness to throw a punch. Kennedy had another requirement, something that could be described as a comfort in his own skin. As Lem Billings said about Kennedy, “he was never pushed off this hard, sensible center of his being.” Kennedy knew himself more than he knew anything. If you get into politics and you don’t yet know yourself, it’s going to be a bumpy road.
There’s plenty more to love about this book—the description of Kennedy’s first few political races, his hardball tactics (Onions Burke!), his convention escapades in both ’56 and ’60, and his early decisions as President. Matthews does not let his love of Kennedy color his history—he does not shy away from the fact JFK was a legendary philanderer and treated Jackie very poorly at times. He dissects his flaws as a friend and a leader. We can idolize Kennedy for his gifts, but we shouldn’t ignore his defects.
The pictures at the beginning of each chapter are incredible—most are uncommon glimpses of Kennedy. I found myself staring at them, wondering what JFK was thinking or saying in each picture. It’s a nice touch to put the pictures at the beginning of each chapter, instead of in a middle section as most books do.
And Matthews has saturated the book with old-school political nuggets of wisdom and lore. I couldn’t leave this choice passage out of this review—this is from the intro to Chapter Fifteen:
“Politicians are, at different times, driven by grand notions and near necessity. Speak of the next election when they are dreaming loftily, and you risk being dismissed as a hack. Speak of high purpose when they’re hearing footsteps of a rival, and you invite instant dismissal.”
So true and a classic Matthews observation.
It turns out the question Matthews is trying to answer in this book is actually a question inspired by Kennedy himself. In the introduction, Matthews notes that JFK once said to Ben Bradlee “that the chief reason anyone reads biography is to answer the simple question ‘What’s he like?’” Near the very end of the book, after Matthews has done his best to meet JFK’s own standard for a biography, Matthews almost seems to reconsider whether he’s been able to adequately answer the question. He leaves us with this gem, an appropriately enigmatic anecdote from Chuck Spalding, an early and close friend of Kennedy. Answering the question in an interview with Matthews, Spalding
“said he’d answer by way of a story. It was back when he and his then-wife, Betty, were getting ready to go through divorce, not a good time for them. Still together, though, they were out on the dock one day when Jack joined them for a sail. Spotting their two faces, he said, ‘Ah, the agony and the ecstasy.’ That’s what one of his closest lifetime pals said Jack Kennedy was like.”
Terrific stuff. That this book relies heavily on the observations of JFK’s friends is probably its best quality. As I said earlier, I’m fortunate to have friends who are also part of the political world. Some of them will reach high office, I’m sure, and some will be defeated prematurely. Some may never run at all. But I love the fact that one day, I’ll be able to think of them the way Lem Billings and Chuck Spalding and others thought about Jack. As friends.
Thanks for reading.