One could be forgiven for thinking there is nothing new to be said about the 35th president of the United States. Whether you’re looking for a minute-by-minute account of the Cuban missile crisis or a comprehensive tally of John F. Kennedy’s sexual conquests, you will not come away from Amazon.com empty-handed. But in this centennial year of JFK’s birth, veteran biographer Christopher Sandford’s new book, Union Jack, manages to find a fresh angle by focusing on just one aspect of Kennedy’s personality: the late president’s fascination (or “love affair,” as Sandford characterizes it) with Great Britain. This ostensibly narrow scope actually provides much insight into Kennedy’s career, as we learn that an early affinity with British culture in general and the British Conservative party in particular did much to shape his personal lifestyle and political philosophy.
The first stirrings of this “affair” began at age 16, when the perpetually ill Kennedy devoured Churchill’s The World Crisis (1923–31) and several other volumes of British history during an extended hospital stay. Some years later, he came across David Cecil’s The Young Melbourne (1939), which he often cited as his favorite book. Cecil’s examination of the early life of 19th-century British prime minister William Lamb (Lord Melbourne) provided a working template for Kennedy’s own life — particularly after Jack crossed over from journalism into public service. Lamb’s combination of canny leadership and, as Sandford puts it, “a generous degree of personal license” held an immediate appeal for the young man. Sandford reports that Kennedy reread this book “on roughly an annual basis” for the rest of his life.
John Kennedy’s multiple sojourns in England during his father’s ambassadorship there (1938–40) furthered his infatuation and laid the foundation for his undergraduate thesis and eventual bestseller Why England Slept, even as the elder Kennedy’s relationship with the U.K. frayed. A sharp divide occurred between father and son, with the former (the oft-maligned Joseph P. Kennedy) favoring appeasement of Hitler and the latter siding with Winston Churchill in defiance of the Nazi advance. Churchill came to assume godlike status in the younger Kennedy’s imagination, and this appreciation seems to have spilled over into a general sympathy for the Tory position on most matters (except colonialism). Diary entries from this and subsequent periods highlight the young Jack Kennedy’s precocious grasp of world affairs and his antipathy toward both fascism and socialism. These early writings, coupled with his loudly anti-Communist stance while in public office, do much to bolster the recent view (as put forth by Ira Stoll and others) of Kennedy as a fundamentally conservative politician, though Sandford himself is too scrupulous a journalist, too steadfast a practitioner of the “show, don’t tell” school of nonfiction, to attempt to claim JFK for the Right.
If the diaries reveal a surprising depth to the young Kennedy’s political thinking, they also reaffirm his well-known lascivious streak. No surprise there, but the sheer volume of Kennedy’s sexual exploits still has the power to shock. Even with Sandford mostly limiting his coverage to Kennedy’s U.K.-based conquests, the numbers resemble those racked up by the touring Rolling Stones. Some JFK partisans will doubtless be annoyed by Sandford’s sustained focus on this aspect of their hero’s life, but the writer has compelling reasons for following this thread.
To apprehend Kennedy fully, one must acknowledge just how much of the man’s energy was diverted into womanizing, and how tangible were the consequences of that compulsion. In addition to rendering him vulnerable to blackmail, Kennedy’s behavior had a real impact on foreign policy. Sandford cites a pivotal moment during the nuclear-test-ban negotiations with the Soviet Union when the president’s judgment seemed to have been “weakened” by his extracurricular pursuits. He quotes British prime minister Harold Macmillan: “I mean weakened by constantly having all those girls, every day. . . . He was weak in pressing the Russians for seven inspections instead of three. If we could have had that, it would have eventually led to no testing at all. . . . I feel that this was a great opportunity that we missed, and I do blame Kennedy’s weakness.”
The weight of Kennedy’s many foibles never becomes too oppressive in Sandford’s hands, for the author brings his marvelous British wit to bear on all proceedings. His writing style, at turns breezy, poignant, and hilarious, and always grounded in solid research, seems much better suited to its British-affected subject than the portentous tone that tends to infect other treatments of JFK. Surely John Kennedy, with his lifelong love of the light touch, of quick wit, of the “thrust and parry” of parliamentary debate, would have appreciated this book’s style, if not all of its content. Regarding “Operation Mongoose,” the Kennedy administration’s in-house sequel to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Sandford writes that the details of the anti-Castro plot “read like a luridly melodramatic James Bond movie script as interpreted by Woody Allen. Overall, these were not initiatives that conspicuously added to the reputation of American foreign policy for probity and high-minded principle.” Elsewhere, Sandford sizes up onetime British prime minister Alec Douglas-Home, “whose misfortune it was in the television age to resemble a prematurely hatched bird.” I am happy to report that very few pages of this book go by without some similarly offbeat observation.
Kennedy probably would have agreed with Sandford’s assertion that his “special relationship” with Great Britain represented one of the most enduring and faithful unions of the politician’s life. The descriptions here of the president’s nightly “hotline” calls with Prime Minister Macmillan during the Cuban Missile Crisis are surprisingly moving, as are the sketches of the many decades-long friendships that often began at debauched parties in the English countryside and blossomed into partnerships of real global consequence, as one after another of Kennedy’s youthful carousing buddies assumed posts in the British government. Add to this the binge reading of Churchill, David Cecil, John Buchan, and other British historians, and a fervent love of the English aristocratic lifestyle with all of its attendant eccentricities, and it becomes clear that this was an intensely sincere, character-defining immersion.
As to the larger question of JFK’s place in history, here once again Sandford refrains from making overarching pronouncements. Speaking strictly in terms of the Anglo-American alliance, the book makes the case that the Kennedy presidency was a consequential one. This period represented a sort of “soft landing” as Great Britain transitioned from its colonialist past into the more diminished stature that it maintains to this day. It fell to President Kennedy to reaffirm the primacy of the special relationship, affording England a prominent place at the table in global decision-making even as her actual geographic power waned. It is not at all certain that a President Nixon in 1961–63 would have acted in quite the same manner.
If there is a flaw in this book, it probably lies in the fact that the narrative takes a little while to get into gear. The introduction and first chapter give the impression of an orchestra tuning up, with the author essentially free-associating on his theme before locking into a mostly chronological account with Chapter Two. The writing in this section is every bit as wonderful as elsewhere, but it presupposes a familiarity with both the extended Kennedy family tree and the intricacies of British government that not all readers may possess. Still, this is a minor point. Union Jack is political history of a high order. In this very crowded year, it is the Kennedy book to beat.
– Mr. Lurie is the author of We Can Be Heroes: The Radical Individualism of David Bowie.