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An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 Hardcover – May 13, 2003

4.2 out of 5 stars 217 customer reviews

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Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream: The Most Revealing Portrait of a President and Presidential Power Ever Written by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this riveting tour de force, Boston University history professor Dallek (Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times, 1961-1973) delivers what will most assuredly become the benchmark JFK biography for this generation. A master of the art of narrative history, Dallek is also the first biographer since Doris Kearns Goodwin to be granted unrestricted access to key Kennedy family papers (most importantly, the Joseph and Rose Kennedy Papers) in the JFK Library. This is a substantial and significant trove to which Dallek brings a refreshingly critical eye. He has also mined many nuggets of key information from the papers of JFK's colleagues, doctors and friends. Thus Dallek has significant new ground to break on a range of fronts including but not limited to Kennedy's health, politics, personal recklessness and love affairs. Dallek's revelations about JFK's health, based on previously unavailable medical files maintained by Kennedy's personal physician, have already received significant publicity from the Atlantic excerpt in December 2002. But here Dallek expands on that information and reveals (for the first time) the full extent of the medical coverup orchestrated by the Kennedy family: a coverup that involved the destruction of key medical records even after JFK was in his grave. On the political front, Dallek uses new inside information from a Kennedy associate to reveal the detailed mechanics (and enormous scope) of the use of Kennedy money to purchase the West Virginia primary in 1960. At the same time, Dallek has new evidence on both Jack's philandering and his recklessness. Example: During the same 1960 campaign on which his father spent millions, JFK risked it all by inviting an underage cheerleader to his hotel room. As is appropriate, close to two-thirds of this biography covers Kennedy's truncated presidency. In one of the book's most important sections, Dallek marshals new evidence that JFK did not view with favor the expansion of the war in Vietnam, and that he most likely would not have sanctioned such an expansion. Throughout the book, Dallek stops short of worshipping his subject. He is a Kennedy admirer, but he never allows this admiration to cloud either his focus or his truth telling. Dallek is to be thanked for providing the thoroughly researched, well-sourced, responsible and readable biography that has for so long been wanting in Kennedy scholarship. Illus. not seen by PW.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From The New Yorker

It's hard to believe that someone could find anything new to say about John F. Kennedy, but Dallek succeeds in this riveting and well-documented biography. Despite plentiful revelations about Kennedy's private life, the book is very much a political biography, which keenly explores Kennedy's grasp of modern political campaigning. (The account of how the Kennedy machine managed the issue of his Catholicism in the 1960 West Virginia primary is particularly telling.) But he wasn't always sure what to do with power once he had it. His ideas on domestic policy were surprisingly conventional, and his foreign policy seems jingoistic. Kennedy, however, had the ability to change his mind—no small accomplishment for a President—and by the time he died he was a considerably more sophisticated leader. One need not accept Dallek's fanciful, if familiar, conclusion—that, had Kennedy lived, he might have pulled the United States out of Vietnam—to think that J.F.K.'s political career was a work in progress that was arrested too soon.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 848 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1st edition (May 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0316172383
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316172387
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.8 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (217 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #79,410 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Barron Laycock HALL OF FAME on June 27, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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Format: 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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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