Book review: JFK: Volume 1: 1917-1956

As the American electorate prepare to decide the fate of their 45th president, here is an excellent opportunity to take a look at the life of the 35th holder of that office, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. This book from acclaimed US historian, Fredrik Logevall, in fact, concentrates solely on the first forty years of Kennedy’s life, ending with his bid for the 1956 Democratic vice presidential nomination. The fact that this bid failed was perhaps no bad thing as the main candidate, Adlai Stevenson was destined to go down to a second heavy defeat to the popular Republican President Eisenhower, a development which might have harmed JFK had he been Stephenson’s official designated running mate. Kennedy’s bid, in fact, left him very well placed to run for the presidency himself in 1960. It also represented a show of independence from the influence of his all-powerful father, the ageing former Ambassador Joe Kennedy, who had privately disagreed with his son’s attempt to become Stevenson’s Number Two.

Kennedy’s 1960 campaign, his eventful presidency and his assassination will all be dealt with in a future second volume.

The story of the young JFK is to some extent, the story of the Kennedy family itself and it is always a fascinating one, told brilliantly here with plenty of fresh new insights even if you think you’ve heard it all before. The ruthlessly ambitious but flawed father. The loving if occasionally mis-guided mother. The favourite son: Jack’s older brother Joe, who Jack was already starting to outshine even before his tragic wartime death. The tragic fates of his sisters Rosie and ‘Kick’. Bobby’s brilliant and youthful political strategising.

But Jack’s tale alone it itself a fascinating one. His easy elegance and charm. His endless battles with serious illness. His epic wartime heroism.

Some reviewers have seen similarities between Kennedy and the current president, Donald Trump and it’s true, there is some common ground. Both were born to racially prejudiced millionaire fathers of immigrant stock: Joseph Kennedy was the grandson of 19th century Irish immigrants, Donald Trump’s father Fred had German parents. Both JFK and Trump also shared an unfortunate penchant for womanising. In Trump’s case, this has resulted in a number of sexual assault accusations, a charge never levelled at JFK.

And there the similarities end. In his demagoguery and total disregard for the truth, Trump, in fact far more closely resembles the disreputable Senator Joseph McCarthy who oversaw the witch-hunts of the early 1950s, than he does Kennedy. The Kennedys’ unfortunate closeness to McCarthy is in fact, a significant point against them. Incidentally, there is a lesson here: McCarthy’s reign of terror ultimately came to an end largely due to his foolhardy decision to target the US Army in his self-serving campaigns. Trump’s own obvious contempt for the armed forces reflected in his odious comments undermining the heroism of the late Senator John McCain and about those killed in the world wars, have seriously undermined his re-election campaign.

Kennedy, in contrast, was a genuine hero of the Second World War. He maintained a cool head during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It is terrifying to imagine how someone of Trump’s volatile temperament would have fared under similar circumstances.

Finally, Kennedy frequently demonstrated a level of wit, intelligence and sophistication almost without parallel in any US president. Trump, in contrast, seems never to have uttered an eloquent sentence in his life. His most memorable slogan has not been “Ask not what your country can do for you” but his reality TV catchphrase, “You’re fired.” The “make America great again” mantra, popularised by the current president in fact long predates Trump. He is narcissistic and appears to have no real sense of humour at all. His idea of wit is to be insulting: crudely mocking a disabled man or suggesting a female interviewer’s perfectly intelligent and level-headed but challenging line of questioning must be the attributable to the fluctuations of her menstrual cycle.

In short, JFK was an infinitely better leader than Trump could ever have been. And, ultimately, a much better person. As the late Lloyd Bentsen once almost said of George HW Bush’s politically maladroit running mate, Dan Quayle in 1988: he’s no Jack Kennedy. No one is.

Book review: Comrade Corbyn, by Rosa Prince

Book review: Comrade Corbyn by Rosa Prince. Published by: Biteback.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has divided opinion like no other British political leader since Margaret Thatcher. To his admirers, he is above reproach, the flawless, bearded, living embodiment of socialist perfection: any criticism of him can only suggest insidious bias by the right-wing mass media.
His detractors, in contrast, see him, in the words of Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun as “a friend of terrorists who’s ready to open our borders and hike up taxes.” In short, they portray him as an unpatriotic, unprincipled, malevolent, Marxist bogeyman.
Neither characterisation is accurate and neither does the real Corbyn any favours. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between these two extremes.
Jeremy Corbyn has now led Labour for three years, a period exceeding that of John Smith and Gordon Brown. Rosa Prince’s biography, Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup was the first comprehensive biography of Corbyn to emerge, appearing in 2016. Rosa Prince is online editor for the Daily Telegraph and many thought she was an odd choice to write about the Labour leader. But as Prince herself says, this is “not a hagiography but nor is it a hatchet job”. She is right. The Guardian attacked the book as “spiteful” which is entirely unfair. The book has its problems, but judging by this third edition (two supplemental epilogues update us of events since Corbyn became leader), this is a thorough and fair account of the Opposition leader’s life so far.

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By and large, he comes across as a decent and principled man, an eternal campaigner, who genuinely seemed to have no ambitions or expectations beyond being an apparently excellent constituency MP for Islington North and a back bencher even as recently as the 2015 General Election. The story of his astonishing triumph in the 2015 Labour leadership contest (partly, though certainly not entirely, a consequence of disastrous campaigns by the three other contenders, particularly a chronically indecisive Andy Burnham) is thoroughly and vividly recreated.
There is nothing at all to suggest any anti-Semitism in Corbyn: quite the opposite. Corbyn has speculated openly in the past that he himself might have some Jewish heritage. The worst that can be said of him is that he has been too relaxed about meeting various dubious figures with terrorist connections in the past, mainly in the 1980s, He is certainly not pro-terrorist, however and these past acts are unlikely to cause serious issues in the future.
Another valid charge against Corbyn is that he has also grown so used to constant media hostility that he can no longer tell whether any criticisms of him have any validity or not.
The press is indeed relentlessly unfairly brutal towards him, as one would expect they would be towards anyone on the Left. Corbyn has a genuine element of greatness within him, for all his failings. This should worry the Tories and the Tory press even more.

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There are a few errors in the book. Harold Wilson did not call a General Election in October 1966 (p29), Ed Miliband was not elected “under the electoral college system which had been in place since 1980” – it had been reformed in the meantime, notably under John Smith (p192) while Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup was about a Sheffield steelworker who is unexpectedly elected Prime Minister and was not “inspired” by the career of Anthony Wedgwood-Benn (p71 and p308).
By far the worst flaw in the book, however, occurs in its early stages. Like many on the Right, Rosa Prince seems incapable of comprehending the fact that anyone who has any wealth might aspire to work towards improving society as a whole, rather than simply to consolidate their own position. Prince thus marvels endlessly over the not unusual fact Corbyn’s background was relatively comfortable but that he nevertheless became a left-winger. She simply can’t get over it. Indeed, every time someone privileged appears in the story, we are told “they were not an obvious socialist” or that they were an “unlikely radical”. Even the fact that this occurs time and time again in the narrative, does not seem to provide her with any sort of clue. Prince seems completely unaware that there has always been a large cohort of middle and upper-class support for the Left in general and for Labour specifically. Think of: the Milibands, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Clement Attlee, Shirley Williams, Hugh Gaitskell, George Orwell and others. They were no more “unlikely” socialists than those from relatively humble backgrounds such as John Major, Margaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon or indeed Adolf Hitler – who became figures on the Right, were “unlikely conservatives”.
Classics scholar Mary Beard is also described as “outspoken” (she isn’t) while Prince seems slightly obsessed by Corbyn’s 1970s relationship with Diane Abbott. Still, we should remember: Rosa Prince writes for the Telegraph. Perhaps we should be grateful there is only one mention in the entire book of the Duchess of Cambridge?
These blind spots (admittedly common to many Conservative Party supporters) flaw an otherwise thorough, well-written and well researched biography of a man who may yet one day lead Britain.

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