Nobody would have been more amused by the sentimental myth of Camelot imposed upon the presidency of John F. Kennedy after his death than the martyred hero himself. If the first volume of Nigel Hamilton’s vast, readable, and amazingly bitchy biography, JFK: Reckless Youth, makes no other aspect of JFK’s complex character clear, his scathing wit and utter disdain for appearances emerge as among his most likable traits. ”A sort of aristocrat of the masses,” Hamilton quite properly calls him.
JFK came by his skepticism honestly. Hamilton’s account of the family of Joseph P. and Rose Kennedy of Boston, Bronxville, Palm Beach, and Hyannisport, long touted by an adoring (and handsomely bribed) press as the plutocratic equivalent of the Brady Bunch, makes it sound like a Euripidean nightmare — ”an almost psychotic drama” pitting a ruthless, bullying, philandering husband against his frigid, willful, religious fanatic of a wife, with their nine children as emotional hostages.
Previously the author of an ”official” three-volume life of Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, Hamilton treats the elder Kennedys with contempt. What irritates him about Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. is neither the man’s history of stock-market chicanery nor his personal cruelty, but his strange performance as FDR’s ambassador to Britain in the years leading up to World War II. Having gone to great lengths to avoid military service in 1917, Kennedy remained an isolationist and arch-appeaser of Hitler — even making a highly embarrassing radio speech during the Battle of Britain in 1940 announcing that Britain and democracy in Europe were doomed. ”Sniveling,” ”odious,” ”defeatist,” ”quitter,” ”coward,” ”sell-out,” ”double-crosser,” ”bigot,” ”braggart,” ”swindler,” and ”horse’s ass” are just a few of the adjectives Hamilton pins upon him in revenge. ”Kennedy and Stalin,” he announces absurdly at one point, ”even shared the same name.”
The future President was sent away to Canterbury, a Connecticut prep school he regarded as a ”Catholic concentration camp,” then to waspy Choate, which he disliked even more. There JFK’s irreverent wit and refusal to conform kept him constantly in danger of expulsion. But even at Harvard, Kennedy’s family remained the crucible of his character. His passion for individual freedom and strong anticommunism, Hamilton argues, owes less to his Catholicism — lukewarm at best — than to the experience of a ”tyrannical, Stalinesque figure of a father he both loved and resented.” Indeed he makes a persuasive case that both JFK’s and his older brother Joe’s almost foolhardy acts of bravery in combat during World War II were self-conscious attempts to extricate themselves and the family name from the consequences of their father’s cowardice — or die trying.
Objectivity is certainly not among Hamilton’s gifts as a biographer. A formidable snob whose own relentless moralizing — particularly regarding JFK’s sexual conquests — often verges upon sanctimoniousness, he’s also prone to sweeping ethnic generalizations. Kennedy’s ”sense of fun might be Irish,” he advises, ”but his deeper emotional coolness accorded with Anglo-Saxon society.” His fondness for psychological typecasting — he speaks of JFK’s ”dysfunctional family,” ”disordered ego,” and ”narcissistic psyche” — can be similarly aggravating. Even so, Hamilton’s politically disengaged perspective, his trenchant style, and love of gossipy details bring the young JFK to life — the story ends with his 1946 election to Congress — as has no author before him. A-