Picks and Pans Review: The Kennedy Legacy: a Generation Later

updated 09/05/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/05/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Photographs by Jacques Lowe; Text by Wilfrid Sheed

Few of the Kennedy books published in this sad anniversary year will be as evocative as this one. Many of the 100 photographs by Lowe, John Kennedy's personal photographer, have not been published before. They show the man of consummate public charm, laughing and gently playing with his children, but they also show the offstage politician, the gleam in his eye replaced by a steely chill. The text, by New York—based critic-novelist Sheed, is a mixed proposition. His insistence on referring to people by first names—"Jack," "Lyndon," even "Nikita"—is trivializing. He is guilty of pathetic East Coast provincialism, sneering at American tourists' use of what he calls "Milwaukee French," as if Wisconsin could never produce anything as elegant as, say, Hamptons French. He uses "Dayton, Ohio, frame of mind" to represent a backward community, too, as if everyone agrees Dayton is a primitive village. He begins by asking, "Was our enthusiasm for Kennedy some sort of mass delusion based on a hoax?" His enthusiasm for the Kennedys, however, makes his answers—he ends up calling John Kennedy "a great President"—of suspect value. He is especially soft in his discussion of two of JFK's most vulnerable areas: the degree to which his liaison with ex-Mafia moll Judith Campbell Exner called his judgment into question and the extent to which he was responsible for U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Sheed resolves the issues by noting that unnamed friends of the President have said that had Kennedy lived, he would have avoided involvement with anyone like Exner and would have avoided a deeper Vietnam War. Despite that kind of tooth-fairy school of logic, Sheed is such a vivid writer that the book is often a pleasure to read. He notes, for example, that when John Kennedy ran for office in Massachusetts, "his whole family had seemed to blanket the state, as if they were all running for office in a body." And he is capable of summing things up with great clarity: "Kennedy created the impression that anything could happen in this world and beyond, and that everything was being considered, and this was at the very heart of the fun." (Viking, $24.95)

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