A book reviewer's confession:
My favorite show on TV these days may be "Hardball," the nightly MSNBC high-speed freeway ride, with Chris Matthews wielding the traffic baton to make sure no one goes UNDER the speed limit. Matthews is insightful and witty, and he conducts the flow of ideas with an impatient traffic whistle that allows no long-winded meandering. Make your point and get out of here.
And that's how he writes. Matthews writes quick; look elsewhere for pointless platitudes. You never have to skim Chris Matthews. He takes out all the boring, redundant stuff.
This is written with the same pace, and just like his show, Matthews doesn't try to hide his biases, his views or his background.
Matthews reveres Jack Kennedy.
This is a different kind of book, which is doubtless why it's a best-seller. This is no weighty, historical tome likely to redefine JFK's place in the history of the American presidency.
Call it an "anecdography," an anecdote-jammed look at the man, not just his too-short tenure in the White House.
As Kennedy himself once told the Washington Post's Ben Bradlee, people read biographies largely to answer one basic question: "What's he like?"
Matthews answers that question.
In some ways, this is revisionist history, no matter how many tomes already have been penned about our Camelot president. Matthews' thesis is multipronged, but pretty straightforward. Thus the subtitle: "Elusive hero."
JFK was much sicker, physically, than the public ever knew, Matthews shows. His brother, Robert, had the reputation of being the ruthless one, but JFK really was the tough guy. Kennedy comes across as courageous, loyal, willing to buck conventional political wisdom, self-reliant and unafraid to take a gutsy stand, especially as the commander in chief who may have saved the nation -- and the world -- from a nuclear showdown during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
At least that's Matthews' take.
"In searching for Jack Kennedy, I found a fighting prince never free from pain, never far from trouble, never accepting the world he found, never wanting to be his father's son," Matthews writes. "He was a far greater hero than he ever wished us to know."
JFK even comes off as humble, especially after his PT-109 heroics as a Navy skipper in the South Pacific in August 1943. When his boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, Kennedy cut loose a strap from his badly wounded engineer's life jacket and towed him with the strap between his teeth. Later, with a pistol on a lanyard around his neck and a flashlight wrapped in a life jacket, he swam out into a passage to try to signal a ship.
He later wrote to a close friend, "We had a bad time -- a week on a [Japanese] island -- but finally got picked up It really makes me wonder if most success is merely a great deal of fortuitous accidents."
And that's a letter from a future politician.
Matthews also rebuts the commonly held view that JFK had to be dragged into politics, kicking and screaming. Close friends, quoted by name, insist that nothing could have kept Kennedy from the political arena.
Some good old-fashioned digging -- talking with longtime pols, former schoolmates and Navy buddies and gaining access to old diaries, school records and letters -- allowed Matthews to unearth some great nuggets about JFK, almost half a century after his assassination:
Perhaps JFK's most famous line -- "And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country" -- clearly grew from a chapel speech from his Choate School headmaster:
" the youth who loves his alma mater will always ask not 'What can she do for me?' but 'What can I do for her?'"
Kennedy thought Richard Nixon was brilliant. They shared a similar world view, both deeply concerned about the threat of Communism spreading. As freshmen congressmen, from the class of 1946, Nixon and Kennedy used to meet at a D.C. diner, munching on burgers and talking baseball.
And in 1959, JFK told a good friend that if he didn't get the Democratic nomination for president, he planned to vote for Nixon.
Despite his image now, Kennedy and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party never were comfortable with each other, especially in JFK's early years in politics. Part of it stemmed from Kennedy's failure to cast a censure vote against the obsessive anti-Communist Joseph McCarthy, an old family friend.
As Kennedy once told the Saturday Evening Post, "I'm not a liberal at all I'm not comfortable with those people."
Matthews, to his credit, isn't blind to JFK's weaknesses, especially his documented philandering and his seeming devotion more to his old buddies than to his wife.
In August 1956, after the Democratic Party convention, JFK went on a sailing trip with his old friends in the Mediterranean, while a very pregnant Jackie delivered a stillborn daughter.
"Jack had hurt his wife deeply," Matthews writes. "While he had always refused to accept his father's politics, or his selfish view of the world, when it came to his marriage, he was Joe Kennedy's true son."
Gene Warner is a veteran Buffalo News reporter and presidential observer.
> BOOK REVIEW
Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero
By Chris Matthews
Simon & Schuster
479 pages, $27.50