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107 of 111 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spell-Binding Biography Of JFK's Life
So much has been written about John F. Kennedy and his family that it perhaps hard to conceive of a book that could add much to a discussion about the meaning and purpose of his life. Yet that is exactly what this erudite and well-written new biography by acclaimed biographer and historian Robert Dallek accomplishes. For those of us steeped in the flood of Kennedy...
Published on June 27, 2003 by Barron Laycock

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73 of 81 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Pay any price, bear any burden..."
What you will like about this book:

1) The apt title: it's a nice little turn of phrase which both recalls and overturns the biographical genre. Also, it reminds us that JFK's life was unfinished in two respects: he died young, and he died without completing his term in office.

2) The sober treatment of the subject. Dalleck neither sensationalises...
Published on October 3, 2007 by Sugunan


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107 of 111 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spell-Binding Biography Of JFK's Life, June 27, 2003
By 
Barron Laycock "Labradorman" (Temple, New Hampshire United States) - See all my reviews
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So much has been written about John F. Kennedy and his family that it perhaps hard to conceive of a book that could add much to a discussion about the meaning and purpose of his life. Yet that is exactly what this erudite and well-written new biography by acclaimed biographer and historian Robert Dallek accomplishes. For those of us steeped in the flood of Kennedy biographies that flowed after his assassination, this refreshing and revealing new look by famed historian Robert Dallek is a Godsend. It mines a lot of previously unavailable material only recently made available, and interprets this new information in a way that both questions and extends the Kennedy legend.
JFK has become so much a figure of legend that it is useful to see him in the way that he is masterfully portrayed here, as a much more ordinary human being than he is often pictured as being, a person more profoundly sidelined and marginalized by serious illness and physical handicaps than is generally known. Yet by revealing these aspects of John Kennedy's existential circumstances, JFK inevitably becomes a much more admirable public and private figure, as someone who was able, often through sheer force of will, to make the most of out of every single day. Kennedy was a great believer in the commonplace Zen notion of "being here now", on focusing on the immediate present and enjoying every moment by wringing it of all its intrinsic possibilities.
As a man in constant pain, for example, it brings new meaning to other aspects of his known personality, such as his admiration for Green Berets and active sports. As compromised as he was by his physical limitations, he did his damnedest to fully engage himself in life. It is revealing, too, in its relevance toward his admiration of Hemingway, and Hemingway's coda regarding what constitutes courage; grace under pressure. And Kennedy fits the definition of a courageous man along a number of dimensions.
On the other hand, new facts surrounding the way the Kennedy family hid such aspects of JFK's life from view are cause for consternation, as they show the extent to which Joe Kennedy, JFK's imperious and ambitious father, was willing to go to further his son's political ambitions en route to the White House. He twisted facts, withheld important medical reports, and paid off officials to guard against the truth regarding his son's medical condition becoming public. Moreover, the degree to which the elder Kennedy used corrupt political practices to further JFK's efforts to become the Democratic nominee, while long suspected and much discussed previously, are even more scandalous.
Finally, Dallek shows the ways in which JFK was a man living on the edge, a man willing to risk it all for an infantile sexual tryst with an under-aged cheerleader while on the campaign trail in 1960, a man who evidently got a kick out of sneaking hookers into the White House for pool parties while Jackie was away with the children. In sum, this is a biography bound to become the new standard bearer for Kennedy works precisely because he is so successful in showing all the many and often-contradictory strands of Kennedy's personality and life circumstances made him such a pivotal figure in contemporary American history. This is a great book I recommend for anyone as a good choice for an entertaining and informative summer read! Enjoy!
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73 of 81 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "Pay any price, bear any burden...", October 3, 2007
By 
This review is from: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963 (Paperback)
What you will like about this book:

1) The apt title: it's a nice little turn of phrase which both recalls and overturns the biographical genre. Also, it reminds us that JFK's life was unfinished in two respects: he died young, and he died without completing his term in office.

2) The sober treatment of the subject. Dalleck neither sensationalises JFK nor does he excoriate him. There is an admirable even-handedness in his assessment of JFK's achievements and fiascos.

3) The slow, patient accumulation of facts upon facts, which might make for a long book, but which help to build up a thorough picture of what exactly happened. Especially useful if this is you first Kennedy biography or if your knowledge of this era is a little hazy.

4) The sheer drama of the events that unfold. Kennedy's tenure was brief but the crises he had to deal with were of monumental proportions. Especially engrossing are his confrontations with Kruschev during the Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

What you may not like about this book:

1) I never thought I'd be tempted to put away a book about Kennedy, but I almost did. The first 200 pages were especially hard going. Most exasperating were the overlong, involved discussions about Kennedy's medical problems. Of course these are relevant to his life-story, but they are interesting only up to a point. Then they become tiresome and spoil the pacing of the narrative. One can safely skip these parts and move on to the "story".

2) Dalleck's writing style: Now don't get me wrong...Mr Dalleck is a fine writer and his expositions are very clear and sometimes brilliant. I thought the epilogue was especially well-written. But his style is too deadpan to generate any excitement in the reader. I think a life as colourful and portentous as Kennedy's deserves a narrative with more panache and perhaps a little flamboyance.

3) Whatever happened to Kennedy's private life ? There is adequate treatment of his growing up years and of his relationship with elder brother Joe. But his relations with women, with his wife and children, what he did when he was not being "political", all this gets only cursory treatment. The omission is especially glaring after Kennedy assumes the presidency. From then on the book is almost entirely political. This means that it falls short of being a complete biography.

4) As an old hand at reading biographies -I've recently read books on Mao, Hitler, Gandhi, Lincoln, Napolean, Indira Gandhi, Darwin, Einstein--I know that one of the most effective things a biographer can do is to provide a sort of leitmotif, a common thread running through the book and at various lifestages, that helps to explain and understand the character. Without such a device, the reader doesn't get a satisfying grasp of the protagonist. The only recurring theme is Kennedy's medical problems and how these might explain his actions. There are others, but they are not explicitly stated. Dalleck tries to do this by rounding things up in the epilogue, but it's a case of too little, too late.
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46 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars REMEMBERING WHAT WAS LOST, July 20, 2003
By 
Rev. C Bryant (Newton, IA United States) - See all my reviews
When my son was about 20, the two of us saw Oliver Stone's JFK. This semi-hysterical film, based on the theories of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, posited a conspiracy in the death of President Kennedy. My son asked me about the film's historicity. I replied that I doubted its historical veracity, but that it caused me to remember what was lost when President Kennedy died. "The assassin," I said, "stole our future from us." As a 57-year-old male European-American, I certainly believe that the history of the past forty years would have been different had President Kennedy lived. Robert Dallek helped me to understand why I feel that way, and that's one of the marks of great biography. Americans who were not yet born in 1965 cannot always understand the catastrophe that was Vietnam. It changed America in fundamental ways, prolonging the Cold War, dividing the country in equally fundamental ways, paving the way for the radical Republicanism that now dominates our foreign and domestic policy. Kennedy saw the seeds of all three things in the bitterly divisive debate over Vietnam occurring in his administration in 1963. It caused him to lament that his government was coming apart. Dallek convinces me that, had Kennedy returned alive from Dallas, the President would have ended American involvement in Vietnam.
A second way Dallek touches me is in his description of the role of West Virginia in the 1960 campaign. For decades, I had assumed that Daddy Joe's money bought the state for JFK, an assumption (erroneously) repeated by several of these reviewers. The President himself said, "I owe my presidency to the people of West Virginia." Dallek demonstrates that the situation was at once more simple and more complicated. The unique nature of West Virginia politics, which turns on the "slate" system, encourages candidates to "spread money around." When I was a pastor in WV, the richest (and most troublesome) man in the congregation was married to the daughter of the former sheriff of our county. She was the one with the money, because her father had collected (and kept) money from candidates who wished to be placed on the slate in our county. The Kennedys understood this system and used it better than their opponents, but that doesn't mean they "bought" the election. The President meant that WV had proven that a Catholic candidate could win in a predominantly Protestant state.
In the Acknowledgements, Dallek thanks his son and daughter for showing him the things younger Americans need to know in order to appreciate the Kennedy presidency. The lasting value of Dallek's biography, I believe, will be its ability to instruct such citizens in their own history--that there once was a time when presidents thought less of re-election and more of statesmanship, in which war, particularly nuclear war, was considered abhorrent, in which the notion of impeaching a president for sexual dalliances was laughable, in which personal courage and fortitude trumped political correctness. If this is a definition of Camelot, then I say, "bring it on."
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The truth about an American hero, May 25, 2003
By A Customer
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This is the second JFK book I've read within the last six months (the first being Perret's JACK), and have enjoyed them both. What a complicated man Kennedy was! Within him were both idealism and pragmatism, humanitarianism and reckless disregard. Yes, he had a prodigious sex life and yes, he hid his health problems from the American public. And yes, he was a hero. Studying those sides of his character do not constitute "assassination" -- no one who actually read this book can say that -- any more than understanding Lincoln's melancholia diminishes our 16th President. This is NOT a hot, gossipy book. Instead of a sexy beach read, this is serious and scholarly. In addition to handling the sexual aspects of the Kennedy story in a realistic, nonsensational way, Dallek presents the medical history as though we are adults and can handle it. I also appreciated the way Dallek ended the book. The assassination is often handled as sensationally as Kennedy's sex life. Not here. No gory passages, no lurid conspiracy theories. Instead the book ends with an exploration of why Kennedy still captures our imagination, why his short Presidency still resonates. I found these last passages about Kennedy appealing to this country's "better angels" especially moving. This eloquent explanation of why JFK is still one of our heroes would not have had the same impact if the hundreds of pages that came before it weren't as credible.
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54 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fully realized biography...wow!, May 16, 2003
By 
A O Cazola (Toronto, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
THere have been so many books written about the Kennedys (and JFK especially) so my reaction to the news that there was to be yet another JFK tell-all was a big yawn. But when I first read some of Robert Dallek's revelations in Atlantic Monthly last year, I felt compelled to check out An Unfinished Life.
I was not disappointed.
This is an extremely well-researched and complete look at a man who, considering his public profile, led a very private life. Without spoiling the book, I must say that the information about JFK's health in An Unfinished Life are reason enough to pick this one up.
Although the media has been making much hay about Kennedy's own "Monicagate," that revelation is not at all the backbone of the book. Without taking sides, Dallek has given us the first look at the man behind the image. It's refreshing to see JFK not as an icon, but merely as a man who happened to be President of the USA...and like everybody, his life was not perfect.
Kennedy fans will learn new things (both good and bad) and others will catch a glimpse of a man who became one of the prime newsmakers of the 20th century. A great read.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A new look at Kennedy, May 26, 2003
By A Customer
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Who'd think that there would be another Kennedy book with something left to say? Well, there is. This book is done in a scholarly way, but mostly readable. We are getting far away enough now to have some perspective on Kennedy. For those of us who were there when he ran, and saw him as the breath of fresh air that he was - for all the failings we hear about now - this is a must read. A lot of new information, concentration on his political career and what he fought for, and a new look at all his physical problems, make this book interesting from cover to cover.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Fair and Balanced Bio of JFK, July 16, 2003
There are many kinds of biographies of John F. Kennedy available. Many are fawning. Many are tawdry exposes. Few are serious efforts by legitimate historians to assess the life and times of the 35th president of the United States. Although there are excellent serious books on Kennedy's presidency such as Richard Reeves' President Kennedy-A Portrait of Power, the time is ripe, forty years after Kennedy's death, for a fresh historical look. Fortunately this lively new biography, by Robert Dallek, fits the bill nicely.
The book is a fairly thorough examination of JFK's entire life with a special emphasis on the campaign of 1960 and his presidency. Although Dallek touches on Kennedy's womanizing, he does not dwell on it except to the extent it touches on issues of Kennedy's character and/or events of his life. Dallek's conclusion is that to Kennedy sex was a form of recreation, no different than golf was to Eisenhower. More important are issues of Kennedy's health. Dallek is the first historian to gain full access to Kennedy's medical records. They reveal that JFK was a very sick man, much sicker than is commonly known. Indeed, Kennedy seemed to live his life in constant, nearly debilitating pain. Dallek has great admiration for Kennedy's ability to overcome these disabilities and doesn't believe they affected his judgment or ability to carry out the duties of his office. Part of the reason Kennedy was able to function was the huge quantity of medications he took on a daily basis. Dallek describes these in detail and concludes that, contrary to the conclusions of some of the previously published hatchet jobs, did not adversely affect Kennedy's ability to do the job and in fact made it possible. Dallek's final conclusion on JFK's medical problems is that far from preventing him from doing his job effectively, they are an indication of President Kennedy's determination and strength of character. I agree with this assessment. It is ironic though, that a president with such an image of youth and vigor could be so sick.
John F. Kennedy was really a very interesting and complex person, he lived in interesting times and he lived an interesting life. The image he cultivated was one that attached to him in life, not only after his death. By November 1963, he had won over a significant portion of the country (though not all) and his re-election likely would have been substantially easier than the 1960 election. The tragedy of his death simply adds pathos to his story. Dallek's overriding theme is one of promise unfulfilled. Kennedy was not a fraud. He was not a saint. He was a gifted politician and rhetorician. He came to show excellent qualities of leadership, including the capacity to grow and learn from mistakes and setbacks. His short administration showed promise but did not accomplish a great deal. In that sense his truly was an unfinished life.
Although his successor, Lyndon Johnson, carried through a number of policies Kennedy only grappled with, such as civil rights legislation, there is no question that Johnson took the country in a different direction than Kennedy would have in a second term. Among the more controversial sections of the book are Dallek's speculations on what JFK might have done regarding certain issues, had he lived to serve a second term. In particular, a whole industry has arisen over what Kennedy would have done regarding Vietnam. As others as well as Dallek have demonstrated, Kennedy was well aware by his death that the policy of "Vietnamization" of the conflict was an utter failure and that the South Vietnamese State could never survive without American military support.. Nor did he have any intention of committing the huge number of American forces that his generals were calling for. From what I know of Kennedy's pragmatic and cautious character, I cannot believe he would have allowed things to unfold as they did for LBJ after 1964. Would he have abandoned Vietnam in 1965? It's impossible to ever know. But Dallek makes a strong case that a complete abandonment of the policy was something Kennedy was considering in 1963. But the truth will forever be lost in the mists of an alternate reality in which the events of November 22, 1963 did not take place. Nevertheless, as Dallek persuasively argues, the war that developed after 1965 under the administration of Johnson was not the policy of John F. Kennedy and such a deterioration was not inevitable.
This is a well-written serious biography of a talented, tragic President whose life deserves serious scrutiny not the sort of pap, which has been written about him by friends and foes alike. History lovers and Kennedy aficionados will enjoy this book a great deal. Kennedy haters will not like it. The open minded will gain a window into a time that is rapidly retreating into the haze of history.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Very Best Book on JFK, June 24, 2003
By 
Brenan Nierman (United States of America) - See all my reviews
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Having read Robert Dallek's two volume biography of LBJ, which, though comprehensive, pales in comparison with the stellar work in progress by Robert Caro, I approached this biography with enthusiasm, to be sure, but something less than highest expectations.
I should not have worried. This is by far the best biogaphy of JFK that I have read; and I have read pretty much all of the ones worth reading (that leaves the Victor Laskys of the world out). Dallek is an academician by training: and his writing has sometimes suffered for this (this was my major problem with the LBJ volumes, which are otherwise excellent and which I highly recommend.) But he has captured, perfectly I think, the essential paradox that was at the core of JFK's personality. The only other JFK book that remotely apporaches this one is Nigel Hamilton's supurb JFK: RESTLESS YOUTH. It is a pity that the Kennedy family got so upset about the Hamilton work (because of its depiction of Rose); because any careful reader of Hamilton's book comes away with what Dallek makes explicit: that John F. Kennedy was truly a heroic man who struggled to overcome a plethora of illnesses and handicaps which would have left many other people in the dust, no matter how wealthy they happened to be. That JFK did not allow self-pity and a life of ease to overtake him is one of the psychologically triumphant stories of political history, and one which Dallek relates with informed expertise and sympathy.
It is clear that Dallek admires Kennedy. I have no problems with this, as I do too. But he is no blind acolyte; and for this reason, his account is far more credible than those of Schlesinger and Sorenson, although these were admittingly penned in a time of intense grief for the recently murdered leader. Dallek takes Kennedy to task for a variety of things: from his intemperate and reckless pursuit of women to his hesitancy on civil rights. But his criticism of the Kennedy record is tempered with what I am convinced is an accurate sense of what was possible at the time.
Dallek is at his best in making the case that JFK would not have done what Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam. Much is made of his skepticism of the military; but another reviewer -- I think it was in the Washington Post -- made the point that Dallek could have easily added that Kennedy's civilian advisors were also subject to his scrutiny, and that JFK did best, particularly in foreign affairs, when he trusted his own judgment on an issue. It is inconceivable to anyone reading the account herein of the Cuban Missile crisis that Kennedy could have blindly followed the advice of the Taylors and Westmorelands of the Vietnam conflict.
To his credit, Dallek passes through the assassination quickly. I have always thought that Kennedy's life should eclipse the attention given his death, and this book makes that point in a subtle manner befitting its subject.
This is, in short, an excellent book about a man who strove to excel, who was convinced that making the effort to be your best in a field of endeavor is the only way to live and be happy. I think that John F. Kennedy would be very happy with this book.
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22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A strong one-volume biography with new material, September 30, 2006
This review is from: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963 (Paperback)
Growing up in the post-Camelot years, it was difficult to avoid reading about the Kennedys, especially JFK. It'd been awhile since I'd read a biography of JFK and was impressed that Dallek had had access to records previously unavailable to scholars and journalists. Although Dallek's three volumes on LBJ are an incredible resource, Dallek's plodding Senate narrative and his canonization of the sleazy right-wing Coke Stevenson (an early LBJ opponent) left me with some doubts about his writing.

For the most part, the book is an engaging read and it is obviously well-sourced. Dallek doesn't go into as much detail about the Kennedy ancestors or JFK's childhood as some books and because of this some things are a bit puzzling. For example, how engaged was Rose with raising her children?--she seems to have had plenty of servants as well as opportunities to buy dresses in Paris, but is described as a hands -on parent. The book introduces JFK's medical problems from a fairly early age. The medical records are an important resource that other biographers have lacked. OTOH, there often seems to be an effort to make more of this information than necessary and to ascribe more motivation to JFK's afflictions than may have been the case. Dallek makes passing mention of some of the drawbacks of medical records and post-hoc analysis of this information. He probably should have done more of this, perhaps in the epilogue. Medical records often are incomplete (esp. if the patient is famous) and difficult to interpret unambigiusly. In addition, the Kennedys often used multiple sources of medical opinion and care which frequently were ignorant of each other's existence. Some records were destroyed by the family, as well. Finally, people with chronic health care problems often adapt in ways that healthy people cannot imagine and they often learn to tolderate mixes and doses of medication that seem incredible. So, the medical information is both plus and, in some cases, perhaps over analyzed in a less than useful way.

What does come across is the way that Kennedy led. He had been a Congressional slacker and, before that an indifferent student with few goals. It's clear that he was someone with a great capacity for learning and, in a non-academic way, a person of great intellectual breadth and curiosity. Despite his efforts to deal bluntly with the media (not unusual among presidents), he comes across as a pragmatic leader of broad but not always well-developed principals, who could be prescient about short-term and long-term consequences of hiis possible courses of action. It's interesting to see the evolution of civil rights policy and his recognition of how violence could come from the oppressed, as well as the oppressors. The discussion of Vietnam also is interesting in terms of the back and forth movement of his opinions and the variety of issues and consequences that Kennedy considered.

Given that the current president is someone from a privileged background and rather limited experience, the comparisons are unavoidable. Although Kennedy had first rate speech writers, it's clear that the wit, eloquence, and capacity for self-deprecation, were all his. He lacked the common touch or the desire to pander. Instead, JFK was that rare person of privilege who had the capacity to elevate--unlike his successors, people wanted to be like JFK and Jackie and the elegance rubbed off on others rather than being off-putting. The comfort in the job, the pragmatism, the capacity to inspire and searching intellect are other contrasts with the current president and with JFK's immediate successors. Dallek is perhaps a bit optimistic in judging how Kennedy would have dealt with Vietnam or the continuing evolution of the civil rights movement. Dallek seems overly optimistic about the odds that Kennedy would have had the mandate that was given to LBJ in '64---just about anyone with a pulse and something resembling moderate views could have beat Goldwater, but the Johnson landslide owed much to the post-assassination climate, as well. This may be why Johnson's popularity so quickly declined. Even so, Kennedy does not seem like someone who would have been troubled by the paranoia, hostility, self-doubt or short-term thinking of LBJ or Nixon. He also lacked Nixon's capacity for bathos and self-pity. One could imagine things going a bit differently, but many of the social currents of the 60s and 70s would have occurred regardless of what had happened on Nov 22, 1963.

Dallek's wrap-up is a bit disappointing and could have pulled together more threads. It is the weakest part of the book and does not take full advantage of the material he has brought together. Still, Dallek recognizes the importance of the symbolic accomplishments of the Kennedy presidency. He engaged and inspired in a way that no subsequent president has been able to do; this seems to have reflected a force of personality, more than a particular vision, although Kennedy seemed very attuned to shifts of public mood. Kennedy's presidency also was important in breaking down barriers. Anti-Catholic prejudice was still very socially acceptable, as much among liberals as conservatives, in 1960. In some ways, Kennedy was the perfect person to break the barrier. he was a nominal Catholic even in the cultural sense and he could address the question that worried Protestants in a way that was completely sincere. Despite breaking this barrier, the effort to impose Protestantism, particularly that of an evangelical sort, continues to be an issue in public life. Kennedy's ability to deal with this issue and to inspire without sacrificing literacy and wit are important lessons for readers who only rememeber Reagan's homilies, Clinton's ponderousness, or the Bushs'incoherent sales pitches.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Detail medical look at JFK, May 9, 2005
By 
lordhoot "lordhoot" (Anchorage, Alaska USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963 (Paperback)
Robert Dallek's biography on John F. Kennedy takes a pretty sympathatic feel on his subject. Dallek seem to write quite a lot on Kennedy's medical conditions which he suffered from his teen-age years until his death. In fact, in some ways, you can probably considered this book as JFK's medical biography as many words were written to that facts and how it affected JFK's life.

Its appears from Dallek's perception that JFK spent much more time trying to hide his medical problems then his womanizing habits. It seem like despite of his youthful and robust appearance, JFK was a virtual cripple for most of his adult life. His family connections, wealth and name allowed him to overcome or bypassed his health issue. It was pretty obvious that he would not be allow to served in the navy with his conditions without his father's influence. When I was a boy reading his biography, I read that his "back problem" was due to wartime injuries but Dallek made it clear that Japanese destoryer had little to do with what was already there in the first place.

Most of the book dealt with JFK's presidential years. One third of the book deals with JFK before his election and rest of the two third handled his election and his 1,000 days of presidency. Dallek's view on JFK proves to be pretty positive although he did sound disappointed in JFK's lack of action in the Civil Right movement. He obviously believed that JFK's rich lifestyle made him totally unprepared to deal with social issue dealing with white racism in his own country. I thought the book should have gone deeper dealing with his relationship with his own family: Jackie and the kids. This subject proves to be very sparse and the book's only real weakness.

Overall, a well written book, interesting and quite readable. It may not be the best book on JFK but if you want to know his medical conditions in detail during his life, this is the book for you.
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An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963
An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963 by Robert Dallek (Paperback - May 4, 2004)
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