In war, he saved the lives of his crewmen, swimming for four hours with the strap of a man's life jacket in his teeth, carrying that badly-burned sailor on his back. Say what you will about Jack Kennedy. He accepted the call to duty -- and met that duty when his time came. His time came again as president when he saved his country and the world from a nuclear war, in a way I can't imagine any other president doing, with cool detachment, cold calculation and a brazen ability to cut the secret deal that got us through. And, oh yes, he was the president who stood up for civil rights right out there in the midst of the fighting down South, with a strong voice and with federal troops to cut through history and begin the change that had awaited three and half centuries, the real end to slavery and its long, cruel afterburn. So, yes, he met his duty, and yes he had courage, and yes he had the strong, positive, hopeful vision that none of us will ever forget, nor should. But he was, too, what he was. The new book by Mimi Alford gives us more details of a story most of us already knew well. Certainly his widow did. The week after he was killed, Jacqueline, just 34, told a friendly reporter "all men are a combination of bad and good." The reporter covered for her, transposing it to "good and bad" when printed in Life magazine. She said his mother "never loved him; never loved him," she repeated. And the reporter never printed that, though the widow was trying desperately to say something true about the man she'd just lost.
Was she trying to explain that cold detachment of his, that ability that gave him such remarkable power, to know so well the feelings and motives of others, to track and use them for his own purpose, yet not to be moved by them… at all? That detachment, that cold ability to know others so well but not be affected, that edge that got him to be such a cold-steel leader, could be just as headless of the people close by and therefore so deeply cruel, most of all to her?
In 1980, long after he was gone, Jacqueline Kennedy called him that "unforgettable, elusive man."
That's where I got the title. She said after hearing a tribute to Jack by Ted Sorensen that included: "He made no pretense of being free from sin or imperfection." She said it was "the only true portrait of him that has ever been done."
Jack Kennedy was hard to figure. He prayed at his bedside each night, a ritual his wife thought superstitious. He went to mass, grieved prayfully for his lost brother and sister and his lost child. At his Protestant boarding school he would go into town for mass, to another island; when he was a naval officer in war, to confession right to the end. He lived life in compartments, sharing himself with Jacqueline in one, his political confederates in another, his social pals in another, his affairs in yet another, his religious beliefs in another still. His was a flawed hero but, looking coldly at history and what he did, a hero nonetheless. And, yes, he makes us proud.