“MY TWELVE YEARS WITH JOHN F. KENNEDY” is Evelyn Lincoln’s account of the time she served John F. Kennedy as his secretary. The book begins in 1952 when Mrs. Lincoln was working on the clerical staff of a Georgia Congressman. The U.S. was on the cusp of a major sea change, for after 20 years of Democratic presidential administrations in the White House, a Republican tide in November of that year would bring in the war hero Dwight Eisenhower as President. What’s more, on his coattails, many Republicans would win election to Congress. Mrs. Lincoln had read earlier in the year about a young Massachusetts 3-term Congressman (John F. Kennedy) who had decided to challenge a powerful Senator (Henry Cabot Lodge) for his seat. Kennedy, a Catholic, was not expected to win. But Mrs. Lincoln was impressed with him and sensed he had potential. She told her husband that she believed that Kennedy could someday be President. Indeed, she asserted that he would be elected President in 1960! And for that reason, she wanted to go and work for him. That took some doing, for Kennedy, at the time, was often away in Massachusetts campaigning. What’s more: he already had a secretary. So, in addition to her normal job on Capitol Hill, Mrs. Lincoln got a job as a volunteer in Congressman Kennedy’s office.
Kennedy would defy the odds and win election to the Senate in 1952. Within a year, his regular secretary had left and Mrs. Lincoln, by dint of hard work and having learned to cope with the demands Kennedy would place on his staff (Kennedy challenged his staff much as he challenged himself), had earned the position as his secretary. The book then takes the reader into the life and times of John F. Kennedy as Evelyn Lincoln experienced them between 1953 and his assassination in November 1963. She writes in a way that will make the reader feel that he/she is not only a witness to history, but also to the life of a singularly remarkable politician and human being. I loved this book and will cherish it always.
Nearly 55 years after his assassination, John F. Kennedy stands as the most popular of America's post-World War II presidents. Poll after poll serves as testament to his enduring appeal for millions of Americans, which crosses racial, ideological, and generational lines. How Kennedy came to assume such an indelible place in the American imagination is the subject of Michael Hogan's book, which looks at the development of Kennedy's posthumous image and why it endures decades after his demise.
Kennedy's wife Jacqueline is at the center of Hogan's account. In the hours following the president's assassination, his grieving widow asserted a leading role in the planning for his funeral, making decisions and choreographing events so as to cement the image of the young, hopeful leader that he and his wife had done so much to cultivate. As Hogan notes, this proved a dramatic success, one witness by the people of the world thanks to the use of television, Jacqueline furthered this effort by exercising close control over the works published immediately after his death (particularly William Manchester's book Death of a President) and the memorials constructed in D.C. and in Massachusetts.
Kennedy's circle of family and friends continued even as the nation emerged from their grief and began to reassess the president's legacy. As authors began challenging the sentimental, rose-colored view propagated in early biographies by Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the family pushed back by attempting to dissuade authors who did not offer the Kennedys editorial control from writing their books or restricting their access to JFK's papers. To Hogan, the effort here was not an effort to control history but memory -- the public image of Kennedy held by millions of Americans. This, even as the sordid details of Kennedy's private life gradually leaked out and revisionists challenged the image of Kennedy as a successful president, the public continued to hold him in an esteem which made association with his image a laudable political goal even today.
Hogan's book is an excellent account of the construction of Kennedy's posthumous portrayal by those closest to him and its impact how how he is remembered. In it he recounts the calculations of the people involved, the fighting that took place to realize their goals, and the effect of the result upon the nation's remembrance of the 35th president. Though Hogan's scope leaves out many fictional works which reflect the broader national effort to engage with what Kennedy meant to the country, his book is nonetheless a superb study that helps to explain why Kennedy continues to occupy such a beloved place in our national memory.
This is proving to be a good book, but I'm disappointed by its narrowness. What I took to be a history of JFK's posthumous image is really more about the efforts by the Kennedys (particularly Jacqueline) to define that image in the days and months after his death. It's interesting stuff, but it really diminishes the thousands of other contributors who shaped it in smaller yet important ways.