Out of grief's long shadow

Kennedy
June 6, 1997

This is a rare book. Finely considered and finely composed, it may be the best short study of its over-burdened subject ever written.

The author appears to have every gift. He is pellucid ("It is the brevity and incompleteness of Kennedy's career which make it baffling, and nothing will alter that"), pungent ("to discuss Kennedy's assassination is to re-enter nut country"), poignant ("he played a long game, and by 1963 was confident that it was going to be a winning one"), and routinely, almost imperceptibly, profound: "It pleased him to be well briefed about sensible proposals for improvement and reform, and to launch them with suitable eloquence, and to see them successfully through Congress. His attitude recalls that of the 18th century's enlightened despots, and had he lived in quiet times no doubt he would be remembered as a humane and practical statesman, with no delusions that the Kingdom of Heaven was just round the corner, but with a firm belief in the capacity of democratic leadership to improve the world continuously. As it was, he lived from crisis to crisis, and this individual ambition could only manifest itself intermittently, above all in his speeches."

The profundity is greatest, perhaps, in these worldy wise speculations on intangibles, especially the exploration of expectation. "He was the best hope which America had to offer the world. He was too good to be true; Kennedy was far from perfect, and as the facts about his weaknesses emerged, a bitter deception d'amour energised many of his posthumous critics; but the legend was sufficiently accurate to justify his hold on the world's affection and imagination." For good or ill, he was the spokesman of his generation. "Had he done nothing else, he would at least, in his speeches, have consolidated the American world view into something apparently rational, solid and noble."

Kennedy, however, is something more than Kennedy. It is a miniature model of the historian's craft. "The good historian," said Marc Bloch, "resembles the ogre in the fairy tale. Whenever he scents human flesh he recognises his prey." Brogan recognises his prey. His preliminary essay on "The Kennedy problem" - which is, as it were, the Brogan problem - could be read with profit by any ogre aspirant, young or old, for its perspicuous reflections on the task at hand.

"There is no longer any justification (if ever there was) for adding to the high pile of tendentious pamphlets even if the author's experience is that of one who, when young, saw Shelley plain, greatly admired him, and was like all the world appalled by his assassination ... There has been enough outpouring of grief, anger, prejudice, eulogy and abuse. The time has come to try for the beginnings of a permanent judgement, that forever unattainable prize which historians are obliged forever to seek .... Kennedy is no longer part of our present; he belongs to a definable historical period, and the task is to define it." Hugh Brogan does that.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

Kennedy

Author - Hugh Brogan
ISBN - 0 582 02889 2 and 02888 4
Publisher - Longman
Price - £39.99 and £12.99
Pages - 249

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