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A Titanic Hero Made by History: Interview with Author and Commentator Chris Matthews on the Elusive John F. Kennedy

What prompted you to write a new biography of President John F. Kennedy?

There were a number of inspirations for it. I wrote Kennedy and Nixon, the story of their rivalry back in 1996, and I had this in my head. Part of it was a feeling like [The Great] Gatsby where [the narrator] Nick Carraway keeps thinking he’s got to bring somebody to the funeral who gets to people and lets them know the story. Part of it was that sense that I want to make sure this doesn’t fade from our history. A few years ago, [a poll] asked who should be added to Mount Rushmore, and Kennedy beat out everybody—FDR, Reagan and everybody else in the twentieth century. 

There is a residue of belief in Kennedy as a hero and I wanted to tell that story, not of a politician, but a hero who other men and women followed into battle, who had this instinctive power as a leader. We really need that today and we don’t have that kind of leader.

I also wanted to answer the question Jack Kennedy raised when he told [Washington Post editor} Ben Bradlee that he read biography to learn “what’s he like?” I wanted to find out what Kennedy was like. That’s why we read about Churchill or sport figures or leaders or generals. What was it like to be in a room with them? What was it like sitting next to the guy? What does it feel like? What comes across? You never get that in many of these political books. 

Can you talk about your research process? You found new archival records and conducted original interviews.

I went back and got all kinds of material from guys that went to prep school with him at Choate. Luckily, I came across a whole pile of survey responses from the fiftieth reunion of his class about what he was like. I got the original notes from the lecture script of the sermon of George St. John which was the inspiration, by all accounts, for the “ask not” [what you can do for your country] line because it [implores] the young students who love their alma mater to “Ask not what she can do for you, but what you can do for her.” A direct quote. It was in the binder of the headmaster. I couldn’t believe I had found it. Ted Sorensen, his speechwriter, surmised it might be from there, but could never find it.

And I did a lot of oral history interviews about what he was like as a roommate and what he was like in the war. I loved Dick Keresey, a fellow PT boat captain. I believe he was a Republican. Most of those guys were. He said “I’m not going to judge him as a politician. I’ll judge him as an officer. He was good and he was great company.” He said that they were pretty much on the frontlines sweating it out. And here Jack Kennedy sat next to him and was great company. He laughed at jokes and told jokes. He was a great listener. A good guy. And that’s what I wanted to put in the book: real-life examples of what he was like.

And [Kennedy] kept a diary. When he first ran for Congress, he collected information on the Irish political strength in America with Dewey decimal numbers listed and anecdotes people shared with him when they gave him political advice. 

And I had his dictated memoirs from the fifties. I have the notes of the first [1964] interview of Jackie Kennedy after Jack’s death, in Hyannis Port with Theodore White. She went well beyond the Camelot story and told about how Jack was always sick as a kid and always lonely. And she said he wasn’t always this hale fellow well met that people thought but was a much deeper person. And she said his mother never loved him—how she liked being an ambassador’s wife, but never loved her son. That’s strong stuff, and never made it into print.

Jackie Kennedy’s interview with White was surprising, and she also stressed Jack’s deep interest in and love of history since childhood. 

Yes. At age fourteen, he read Churchill’s whole history of World War I and he read the New York Times every day at school. He was a real reader. Jean Kennedy Smith, his last surviving sibling, told me that he was so sick and isolated and bedridden as a kid, that he wasn’t an athlete like the other brothers, but was always reading and that’s what made him an intellectual, unlike the rest of the family.

I try to explain the complication his life. He was like the Titanic with all the different compartments he lived in. He had his Irish political allies, his elitist friends, Jackie, academic friends, people in government. He kept them all separate from each other. It’s funny how he lived this life, keeping everything afloat around him. 

And he was sick all the time and kept that secret. He had the last rites in 1947 when he wasn’t even thirty yet. He had the last rites again in 1951 and when he had back surgery in 1954.  And that time, Nixon was pretty close to Kennedy back then, and a Secret Service told me that [Nixon] was crying when he heard Kennedy was near death. 

All these times he had extreme unction, and how many times he was close to death was astounding, yet we think of him as a guy who had it made.

In his new book A First-Rate Madness, Dr. Nassir Ghaemi reports that medical records also show that Kennedy almost died in the summer of 1961, the first year of his presidency, from the complications of Addison’s disease.

I know the Addison’s was always there and he was taking medicine all the time, including steroids, and they were hurting his bone structure. His bones were degenerating and that’s why he was having the back problems. Too many doctors and too many different drugs. He was taking Novocain or procaine in his back, six shots a day, just to stand the pain.  

And when you see these documentaries with him sitting in his rocking chair, he just doesn’t look right. He walks very carefully. There are pictures of him lifted by a cherry picker into Air Force One. He couldn’t even climb the stairs. He couldn’t pick up a golf club on the ground. He was always in pain. 

This was so World War II of the guy: he never complained about it. He never explained it. He tried not to let anybody see his crutches. And [his associates] would cover for him. His naval attaché told me a couple years ago that he never used crutches, but of course he did. We have pictures of it. Even today they’re covering for all the problems he had. I had to cut through to get to the truth.

You stress how hard he worked despite his health problems. And you write that his political success was through his own hard work, not just the result of his father’s wealth.

His old man was sympathetic to the Nazis in World War II. And in the Cold War, he didn’t believe in the Marshall Plan, but believed in just letting the Soviets take over Western Europe and saw it as a business opportunity with Communists as part of America’s market out there. He was a pretty bad guy in that sense. He didn’t think big about the world. Jack was much more modern and liberal in a good sense. He was always thinking about how America should be in the world and how responsible we should be—basically, to avoid another war.

How did Kennedy’s war experience affect his foreign policy? He was a tough Cold Warrior.

Yes. He didn’t want another Munich. And he didn’t want another Yalta, the February 1945 decision between Churchill and Roosevelt and Stalin that ended up dividing Europe. At the same time, he’d been through World War II and he didn’t want World War III.

Even though he knew he had to stand up to the Russians, he was careful about a nuclear situation and that’s why he behaved so bravely during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He knew that if he’d gone for the Cuban missile bases, Khrushchev would have [attacked] Berlin, and then the United States would have gone nuclear because we were outnumbered in Berlin with 15,000 NATO troops up against 350,000 Soviet troops. We would have had to go to “first strike” with nuclear weapons just to protect Berlin. He didn’t want to do that. Kennedy [crafted] a deal with Khrushchev to get the missiles out of Cuba without going to war.

But he was complicated to read. He was a Cold Warrior, but he wasn’t nuts about it. He wasn’t interested in initiating world war with the Soviets. That was what the Peace Corps was all about and the moon program and demonstrations to the Third World that we were the system they should follow, not the Communist system. That’s why he felt that the space program and getting to the moon first was very important, which he put us on track for. The Peace Corps was training people to create good relations with the United States. He did it the right way. He started the Special Forces units because the way to prevent wars was de-escalating rather than escalating up to nuclear war. Everything was aimed basically at avoiding a nuclear war. 

In the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy stood up to military leaders who were much more belligerent in their approach to the Soviets.

Yes. [Air Force General] Curtis LeMay wanted basically to attack, and he and [Marine General David] Shoup were essentially laughing at Kennedy because he wouldn’t go along with their war plan.

It turns out that Kennedy was right and they were wrong. Khrushchev said in his memoirs that if Kennedy had attacked the missile bases in Cuba, if he had any missiles left, he was going to attack New York and bring nuclear war to [American] territory. What Khrushchev wasn’t considering was that there was no way an American president would allow New York to be destroyed with nuclear weapons.  We would have hit them with everything we had. As frightening as that is, that’s what any president would have done. Kennedy wrote a speech, by the way, that if we got attacked by Cuba, we would see that as an attack by the Soviet Union. It’s scary about how close we came.

An anxious time. I was surprised that General Douglas MacArthur asked President Kennedy to develop nuclear pistol bullets.

MacArthur wanted holster-mounted nuclear weapons and he was disappointed that a Cornell nuclear physicist couldn’t develop one. He just didn’t know what nuclear weapons were. He thought of them like any other weapons. And Kennedy knew what radioactivity was and that you couldn’t shoot at someone at short range and not have it hit you.

That was good for Kennedy going into the Cuban Missile Crisis—to be exposed to that kind of anachronistic thinking. He wasn’t as surprised when LeMay was talking like that.

There’s a lot of speculation on whether Kennedy would have removed American advisors from Vietnam or escalated U.S. involvement.

Yes, there’s so much speculation. He said as early as 1951 that the war wasn’t about communism, but it was about nationalism and that [North Vietnamese leader] Ho Chi Minh represented the Vietnamese people. He knew about all the soldiers the French put in there, and that they couldn’t hold it without granting independence.  He was so ahead of his time.

Then he put advisors in there but he always made sure that if any advisor went into combat, he was going to sack them. Kennedy was very wary of any U.S. combat role and he didn’t want to replace the French. But you never know. Ted Sorensen said that he didn’t know what Kennedy would have done. With the National Security Council he had an exit strategy. But it’s just not clear. He wouldn’t have had to face the issue probably until 1965 after his first term. Johnson had to make the fateful decision in 1965. If [Kennedy] was ready to deal with Ho Chi Minh in 1964 as some kind of compromise or coalition government—a face-saver—I think he would have done it. He would have prevented a war.

He also was hoping that Big Minh, a military guy who led the coup against Diem, would win the war if he unleashed him. 

Kennedy was prescient in seeing beyond the Cold War and talking about the world in a more holistic way than previous leaders.

Yes. In that American University speech in June 1963, he said the problems of man are manmade and can be solved by man, and in the past man has solved the seemingly unsolvable and he can do it again. It was a very optimistic speech about how [we] could basically prevent a nuclear war if we set our minds to it. He was hopeful that this could be done with a process of banning the testing of nuclear weapons. 

He ended up getting a Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets by August 1963. This came out of that “Peace Speech.” Khrushchev let that speech be rebroadcast in the Soviet Union, the first time they let an American president speak to the Soviet people. It was perhaps the beginning of the end of the Cold War, but it didn’t happen. Kennedy was killed. 

I wanted to also ask you about some of Kennedy’s relationships. I think some readers will be surprised by how close he was to Nixon in the 1950s.

They sure were. This is well-documented. Their first debate was in 1947 in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, a steel town. The newspaper wrote of how friendly they were. They took a midnight train home together. They flipped for the bottom bunk, and they talked all night about the Cold War.

Kennedy would stop by Nixon’s office all the time, as shown in the notes of secretaries. One time he came by with a thousand dollars for Nixon to run for the Senate against Helen Douglas in California. Nixon was thrilled that Kennedy came by with money to help a Republican win an election against a Democrat. Of course, Kennedy was delivering money from the old man, but he was personally delivering it. They all covered it up later, but that’s a fact.

Also, when Nixon and Kennedy were about to go at each other in 1960 for president, Kennedy said to his friend in journalism Charlie Bartlett, “If I don’t win the primary, I’m going to vote for Nixon.” That’s astounding and all true.

Truth is interesting, and it’s intriguing why people are the way they are, and they’re not what you’re supposed to think.

I was surprised that Joseph Kennedy, Sr., was funding Nixon in that California Senate race against Democrat Helen Gahagan Douglas.

He funded (Florida Rep. George) Smathers against Claude Pepper, too.  He didn’t like the Left much. 

Watching the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960, I had that impression that they didn’t even know each other.

I know. Wasn’t that weird? That’s what got me to write that book on Kennedy and Nixon. They were on that stage like perfect strangers, and that was Kennedy’s doing. He wanted them to look like strangers, and Nixon wanted to go in like a couple of buddies yucking it up. Kennedy was cold as ice.        

And in my book, you meet that Jack Kennedy who was quite capable of being ruthless. He got Bobby to do the dirty work, the hardball. Jack would say get this guy to come through for us, or give us his endorsement, or keep me out of this. You’d think Bobby was a mobster, he was so tough on these people in the backroom.

Jack didn’t show his anger. It’s like The Godfather: Jack was like a Michael Corleone: the young, Ivy League-educated don who could be really tough but never showed it. He could be very cold and detached and make a ruthless hard decision, and make the Sonnys of the world, the rougher guys, do the work. 

How do you see Jack on civil rights?

The University of Alabama back then was 100 percent white. And Ole Miss was 100 percent white. Jack went in there and said this is unconstitutional and you cannot discriminate, and the courts have said you must open the doors. You cannot keep denying the rights of the people who live in these states to go to these colleges. You just can’t say the blacks can’t attend. It was time for somebody to say that, and that was Kennedy.

Some writers describe President Kennedy as often removed from civil rights issues, but you note some accomplishments.

Something magical happened when he was hit with a crisis. When Mrs. King was worried about her husband [Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.] when he was arrested and hauled off to a backwoods prison during the 1960 campaign, [Kennedy] did the right thing. He called her, and all of a sudden the black community said they had a friend in Jack Kennedy looking out for Dr. King. And then Bobby worked through the governor to get King out of prison for something like a driver’s license problem or a probation violation.

Then in 1963, when he was confronted with the problems in Alabama with [Governor] George Wallace, all of a sudden he decides to go on television to give a major address. He said that civil rights are as fundamental to the United States as the Constitution. All of sudden he said that the moral authority of the presidency now stands behind civil rights. It never happened before, but Jack Kennedy did that. 

That’s what I find wondrous about the guy. Under pressure, he delivered. He did it in the war, he did it the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he did it with civil rights. There is something there about grace under pressure, as Hemingway writes, where he seemed to get better the tougher things got.

Do you think President Kennedy felt threatened by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover?

He named [Hoover] right away after he was elected, so Hoover knew he would be staying on. I guess he was a bit intimidated by the guy because Hoover had been on his trail going all the way back to the forties when he was going out with Inga Arvad, a Danish movie star who had had her picture taken with Hitler. Hoover put her on the FBI Watch list. And Joe Kennedy, Sr., was a Nazi sympathizer, so they were probably worried about the connection there and it was a pretense for checking on Jack. 

The FBI followed Jack to Charleston where he was transferred with the Navy, and he was spending the weekend with Inga Arvad, and the only time he came out of the hotel was to go to church. A fascinating example of Jack’s compartmentalization: he’s having a relationship with a woman and he makes sure he gets to church on time. A complicated guy.

His personal life was complicated. You write of his friend Dave Powers tucking him into bed at the White House. Where was Mrs. Kennedy?

Jackie was out. He would send her off in the summers up on the Cape in Hyannis Port or she’d go on long weekends out in horse country. Maybe that’s the way wealthy men behave by sending their wives away for the summer. He would pray at the side of his bed with other people, including Jackie. And his friend Lem Billings talked about it.

Whatever else he was doing in his life, Kennedy was religious, and went to confession to the time he died. He didn’t have to do that. He went to church long before people were watching whether he went to church or not. He kneeled at the grave sites of his son Patrick and his sister Kick.     

He had a real emotional devotion to his religion, yet he was who he was too when it came to women. He was Catholic in his emotional life but not very churchy

Your own story is interesting. You mentioned that when you were young, you were a Republican and cried when Nixon lost in 1960.

Yes, I cried when Nixon lost. I’ve always been emotional about politics. I came from a Republican family. 

I went back and forth during that campaign. I was for Kennedy in the primaries as a Catholic, and then during the convention. Then watching the Republican convention, I was really taken with Nixon as the underdog and I started rooting for him.

I didn’t move to the Democratic side until [Sen.] Gene McCarthy in 1968.

What turned you around politically?

It was civil rights, the big issue of the sixties. Even though Republicans were pretty good on the issue of civil rights, the leadership as a party came from the Democratic side. I remember voting in 1968 for Humphrey and Muskie because I liked Muskie and Humphrey was good on civil rights, but I didn’t think he was good on the war. I thought Nixon would get us out of the war faster, but it turned out he didn’t. 

The Peace Corps service was really important to me. I taught business in southern Africa in Swaziland. I would drive around in the middle of nowhere and teach about small business, or I’d bring people in for a week and teach them about organization, bookkeeping, marketing. It was very basic. They were rural traders. I also put on a big national industrial show and brought people in from around the country to organize that. We also had an emergency program to supply cheese, and a program to make sure people had enough money to buy maize to grow and sell.

During your Peace Corps service, did you see Kennedy as an inspiration because of this legacy, this international outreach program?

Yes. Anybody you talk to in the Peace Corps will say that it changed their life. That’s what changes people and that’s how I see our experience. Usually you’re changed more by what you invest in than by what’s given to you. The guys who serve in the military and go into combat certainly deserve more credit than me because they risked their lives for the country and some lost their lives. When you give something like that, you feel deeply connected to your country, and that’s how it works. 

And that ties in with President Kennedy’s view.

That’s how he became a real patriot—from personal experience. Kennedy was one of the few presidents who went through frontline combat. This guy saved his crew in World War II and earned his spurs by his personal rite of passage, and then came back and led the country with vision. That’s an important part of our history that we had a leader like that.

Many comment on the lack of those leadership qualities now and you’ve written about lessons President Obama could learn from Kennedy. In 2008, JFK’s advisor and speechwriter Ted Sorensen campaigned for Obama and saw him as Kennedy’s heir but, for many, the hopes for Obama haven’t been realized.

No. I can speak for myself. I saw Obama’s strength as an orator and felt it represented other strengths. As a leader, his strength was oratory, whereas Kennedy’s strength came from fourteen years of political experience following his military experience. And he had been a leader in school and a leader in his social life, then a leader as skipper of his ship, and a leader of his political faction, “the Kennedy Party”—his own party within the Democratic Party.

I think he had a lot of growth before he got to the White House, whereas Obama was only a two-year veteran of the Senate so he had only two years of experience in [national] legislative life, let alone executive experience. I think a lot of people like me misread his oratorical skill as overall political skill and it hasn’t proven out. It’s a tougher time now and it’s very tough to see how he’ll move the Congress effectively. It’s a real time where he’s required to stand up to them.   

In a recent public service ad, you call for hiring of people to rebuild the infrastructure, to build bridges.

If the stimulus bill was entirely a jobs bill, it would be hard to fight. It would be much better to have a bill that gets people to work because things need to be done.

Instead of attacking the rich, Obama should simply say all Americans should do their part, their fair share. For some that’s military and for some it’s just paying fair taxes. Not exorbitant taxes. Talk about restoring the progressive tax system where people who made a lot paid a bit more, but not squeezing anybody, and not changing the tax rate every four years depending on who is president. I don’t think people are angry about paying fair taxes.

I don’t think this attack on the rich is helping the country. It may divide and end up conquering, but it’s not going to make us a better country. It’s setting us at war with one another and it doesn’t feel right for Americans to do that.                 

Would you like to add anything about what you hope readers take from your book?

It’s a book that covers a big part of the lives of people in their fifties and sixties and seventies. It’s also a great way to teach younger people—in their twenties or thirties. There was an America where people were happy to have a president like Kennedy and we felt great in the world to have this leader. People felt involved somehow whether it was the Peace Corps, the Special Forces, the space program, or fifty-mile hikes [to improve fitness]. People were getting engaged in a way they haven’t been engaged lately. If people are asked to do something for their country, they feel a lot better about being American.

Americans are not happy observers, and when they are observers they become critics and get grouchy, but when they’re involved in something, they tend to be happier people. We’re not happy passive people. We’re happy when we’re doing something.

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