Book Review JFK 1917 -1956 by Fredrik Logevall

Ambition. A simple definition might talk about a deep-seated longing to accomplish something, an accomplishment which requires hard work and resolve. Unbridled ambition, ambition that is uninhibited, unchecked, and unrestrained, is often destructive in its ability to consume someone. It is also rather ugly to witness… or even read about. JFK 1917 to 1956, written by Fredrik Logevall, is an example of this ugliness that pervaded the Kennedy family, as uninhibited, unchecked, and unrestrained ambition was passed down over generations  from fathers to sons.

Joe Senior, the father of the Kennedy tribe, was the grandson of Patrick Kennedy who arrived to Boston from Ireland in the mid- 1800’s. Patrick’s son, PJ, went into the saloon business in Boston, Boston saloons also serving as a place to talk politics. PJ became a Precinct Officer, and his son, Joseph, often tagged along with his father to political gatherings among the Irish Catholic community in Boston. However, to really get ahead, PJ knew his son had to attend Harvard. Through his connections, he was able to pull the required strings to have his son, now known as Joe, enter Harvard with the class of 1912. Joe never really fit in at Harvard, an Irish Catholic in the fortress of Boston Brahmins. However, Joe went on to marry the mayor’s daughter, Rose, and this couple’s combined uninhibited, unchecked, and unrestrained ambition for their nine children landed Jack, their second son, in the White House. Although Jack Kennedy’s political vision differed enormously from his father’s, there was no issue there for Joe Sr. He opened his checkbook and his rollodex whenever Jack needed his solicited or unsolicited help. Money was no object nor was the severe physical pain suffered by his son as Jack relentlessly campaigned again and again and again hiding his crutches and his extended periods of convalescence from the public…himself a walking definition of unbridled ambition.

There are other reasons to read this remarkable biography.  JFK’s life parallels major world events in the 1900’s. His father’s stint as ambassador to England, which began in 1935 and landed the whole family in London, was a starting point for Jack to use the incredible access his father’s position gave him to travel throughout Europe and come to his own understanding of what was happening before WWII broke out. JFK was, in some ways, a version of Forest Gump – if something was going on, he was there. However, I read this story with one eye as a mother and the other eye as the seventh child of Irish Catholic parents who revered the Kennedys.  My parents were both born within ten years of JFK, and they thought JFK walked on water, and that his parents, Joe Sr. and Rose, were remarkable parents to have raised such an admirable brood with such ambition.

There is that word again. David Whyte, in his collection of essays entitled Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, addresses this word, ambition. Whyte suggests ambition is frozen desire, and left to itself, seeks only larger and larger “empires of control”. He contrasts ambition with a vocation, explaining that a true vocation enables us to understand that what we needed we had within us all along, but we never would have known this without the journey. Whyte goes on to clarify that when we come to the ending of our vocation, which could be understood as retirement, we delight in the hopes of the young just starting out as much as we delight in our giving way to them. According to Whyte, the last years of someone under the spell of ambition turn into a second childhood, and makes someone who appeared successful as “an object of pity”.

Given that, wouldn’t we all choose a vocation? Even Joe Sr. and Rose would have chosen vocations over ambition for their children. What parent wouldn’t? However, somewhere along the line, this couple were blinded by ambition. My own take on the Kennedy family lies in where they landed upon leaving Ireland. Not New York, with her own unique challenges, but Boston, among the snobby Boston Brahmins of whom Joe Sr., and his father, PJ, wanted so much to be a part of, equal to, accepted by. This is not a new phenomena, nor an abandoned one. My mother was born and raised in Maine, and she had an innate understanding of New Englanders. Mom once explained to me that the only thing worse than someone from Boston was someone who thought they were from Boston. Through Boston Brahmin eyes, the Kennedys weren’t from Boston, and their trying harder only served to prove the point.

A simple definition of ambition would talk about a deep-seated longing to accomplish something, an accomplishment which requires hard work and resolve. Finding our vocation enables us to understand that what we needed, that one certain thing we were looking for,  had resided deeply within us all along….and we never would have discovered this without the journey.  What path would you choose?

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