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It’s A Man’s World

A BOOK SUCH as Chris Matthews’s biography of President Kennedy would not ordinarily seem like best-seller material. Unlike Robert Dallek’s recent big study of JFK, An Unfinished Life, it is not the product of extensive research. Nor does it cater, like bottom-feeding, gossip-mongering books such as Seymour Hersh’s Dark Side of Camelot, to a vulgar taste for trash by luridly promising titillating disclosures. And, much to its credit, Jack Kennedy shies away from the fashionable Kennedy-bashing in which conservatives and academics alike now indulge, although it has no real new insight into Kennedy to offer instead.

In fact, this book doesn’t really try to illuminate the past at all. It doesn’t try to say anything interesting about politics or the presidency, or manage to explain the special hold that this able and accomplished but hardly monumental leader still exerts over the American public. The bulk of the book comes straight from other well-known, widely read biographies—by Dallek, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Herbert Parmet, among others—and from the memoirs of Kennedy aides, including Ted Sorensen, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Dave Powers and Kenneth O’Donnell. Most strangely of all, just 78 pages of Jack Kennedy deal with the man’s presidency. It’s as if the author, having rambled on until he noticed that his prolixity would produce a book too long to sell at Costco, wrapped it up hastily, rehearsing a few standard set pieces of the early 1960s—the civil rights struggle, the Peace Corps, the thaw in the Cold War—and tacking on a conclusion.

The reason that a book so devoid of historical or literary merit can become a best-seller is, of course, that its ostensible author is a famous television personality. As I write this, Jack Kennedy is one of three books of “presidential history” on the New York Times best-seller list, jostling for position with Bill O’Reilly’s treatise on Abraham Lincoln and Glenn Beck’s opus about George Washington. (Perhaps the publishing houses’ spring lists will bring more in this vein—Regis Philbin on Dwight Eisenhower? Rachel Maddow on Jimmy Carter? Elizabeth Hasselbeck on Ronald Reagan?) These books exist to extend their authors’ brands—to make money, to be sure, and to express some set of ideas, however vague, but mainly to keep their celebrity creators in the media spotlight.

Serious readers tend to believe, not wrongly, that books by such people aren’t worth much thought. They don’t get reviewed in scholarly journals, and after their sojourns on the front tables at Barnes & Noble they vanish into obscurity. But they do sell in large quantities, often to intelligent if not intellectual readers. They are praised and promoted by Washington insider friends, whose voices collectively shape the national discourse. Launched with a luxe party at the Hay-Adams hotel—attended, the Huffington Post reported, by two hundred “Washington A-listers” from the “political and media elite”—Jack Kennedy comes packaged with blurbs from Douglas Brinkley, Walter Isaacson, Brian Williams, Peggy Noonan, and Goodwin (who surely cannot regard this as a meritorious book). It has drawn positive or polite reviews from several respectable publications. This tells us only that the punditocracy cannot be relied on to summon any discernment when it comes to history.

But Matthews’s biography warrants consideration nonetheless: its success is revealing, not just about what sells, but also about what passes for historical knowledge in our political culture. It is noteworthy as a specimen of pundit lit.

A chief characteristic of the pundit class that dominates political journalism today is that its leading members generally do not research or report the news. Political discussion certainly needs critics and analysts as well as fact-gatherers, but few TV talkers have gotten where they are because of their deep expertise, analytical acumen, or literary ability. Mostly, these are people with a talent for keeping viewers engaged—by mouthing conventional wisdom, by purging subtlety from their opinions, by pandering to a side, by being outrageous—as they sound off night after night.

Matthews typifies the pundit as yakker better than anyone in cable news. He even looks the part: though his head is disproportionately large, topped by a thin wisp of blondness, most of his face is fleshy and pale, its mayonnaise plainness directing attention to his motorized, kinetic mouth. It is hard to imagine Matthews doing anything but talking, as the guests on his show whom he interrupts and bullies and shouts at can attest. He is not a trained journalist. He entered the ranks of professional opinion-mongers in the 1980s, after working as an aide to Jimmy Carter and Tip O’Neill, having consciously set out to become, as Tom Rosenstiel once wrote, “a pundit, a player, a face on the Sunday political talk shows.”

This was the period when television news was undergoing a transformation. Shows such as The McLaughlin Group and The Capital Gang grew popular, and Crossfire morphed from a somewhat enlightening discussion program into a shrill shoutfest. In this style of broadcasting, which is now pervasive, opinions were to be defended not with carefully wrought arguments but with volume, vigor, and sheer righteous force. Although Matthews was undistinguished as a writer or thinker—“few in Washington see his column” in the San Francisco Examiner, noted Rosenstiel—he arrived on the scene just as TV was seeking out hyperconfident chatterboxes. He has been chattering ever since.

So completely does talking constitute Matthews’s raison d’être that he mistakes it for historical research. What Matthews claims to be new in his Kennedy book are not facts gleaned from documents, but yarns and peppery comments recounted by an assortment of JFK’s old pals such as LeMoyne (“Lem”) Billings, a prep-school friend, and Red Fay, a companion from Navy days. Some of these tales Matthews has extracted from transcribed interviews now archived at the Kennedy Presidential Library, while others come from his own gab sessions with people such as Tip O’Neill (his former boss) and Ben Bradlee. There is nothing wrong, needless to say, with conducting interviews, and they can be invaluable for journalists trying to set down a first draft of history. But the farther one reaches into the past, the less precise and clear memories become; and while they can provide help when existing records are unreliable or deficient, they have to be used with care.

But Matthews wildly tosses about quotes and stories, some of which may not be accurate. Frequently the passages foster Camelot-style mythmaking. In a section on Kennedy’s relationship with his wife, he stitches a quote from Red Fay together with one from reporter Charlie Bartlett. He reverts briefly to his own voice to describe “Jack and Jackie” as “characters out of Fitzgerald”—it is a bad sign when a writer uses clichéd fictional types to analyze the real—before falling back again on lengthy quotation: “Lem Billings, I think, had it right when he said, ‘He saw her as a kindred spirit. … He understood the two of them were alike. … It was unbelievable to watch them work a party. Both of them had the ability to make you feel that there was no place on earth you’d rather be than sitting there in intimate conversation with them.” (The second ellipsis is mine; the quotation as Matthews presents it takes up a full third of a page.) Comments such as these—and the short recollected vignettes that Matthews rehashes—do not enrich our understanding of Kennedy. With their chatty feel and sentimental triggers, they conjure a comforting pseudo-familiarity, an illusion of intimacy and insight. This is history from the garrulous guy on the barstool, who tells funny stories but who is there primarily to entertain. It gives the phrase “oral history”new meaning.

If Matthews’s treatment of Kennedy’s personal life is simplistic or inane, his talk-history method is even more problematic when he tackles policy. On the question of whether Kennedy would have escalated the Vietnam War had he lived—the subject of many a bull session—Matthews simply lays out a string of statements by General Maxwell Taylor, Arthur Schlesinger, Ken O’Donnell, and Ted Sorensen, who declares that “I do not believe he knew in his last weeks what he was going to do.” Without any further analysis, Matthews then jumps to a paragraph about Kennedy’s plans on civil rights—based entirely on a conversation Tip O’Neill had with the president in late November, 1963. Meanwhile, such important subjects as Kennedy’s economic plans rate barely a mention. James Tobin does not appear in the index. The War on Poverty appears in one passing phrase, part of a well-crafted encomium to Kennedy by Sorensen.

The blustery world of cable commentary has many problems besides its indifference to historical accuracy and political ideas. One of them is its sexism, which is sometimes explicit, sometimes tacit. The heavily male world of TV talk encourages a macho ethic and esteems an aggressive, sharp-elbowed approach. At its worst, it models itself on the obnoxious culture of sports talk radio, where every man’s opinion is deemed as good as every other’s (and where women seldom participate at all). It’s no coincidence that two archetypes of the new political broadcasting, Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, honed their styles and got established in sports, not politics. The late Tim Russert, the longtime host of Meet the Press, was always steering his show’s conversation for no good reason into athletics, embarrassing himself by asking eminent people frivolous questions about the Buffalo Bills. This tendency trivialized public affairs by implying a fundamental likeness to sports (no wonder they are so obsessed with the “horse race”), while alienating any viewer left cold by “March Madness” or Thanksgiving Day football—or just unmoved by the bombastic opinion-slinging characteristic of diehard sports fans.

Like Russert, Mike Barnicle, and other male talkers of similar cloth, Matthews never concealed his misogyny, crudely leering at female guests on the air or teasing them about their appearance. But during the Democratic presidential race in 2008 Matthews crossed even the capacious lines of decorum set down in punditland. His and others’ demeaning remarks about Hillary Clinton piled up, triggering a backlash in the news media and a mild feminist revolt. Matthews was forced to apologize. But as Mark Leibovich of the New York Times Magazine reported in a damning profile later that year, the apology was insincere and he retracted it. He shows no signs of having reformed or partaken of any introspection since.

The sports-bar ambiance that Matthews wallows in has not only sexist elements but also homosocial (I said homosocial) overtones. Matthews has been ridiculed for developing a series of “man crushes” on each good-looking (or not-so-good-looking) male politician to blaze across the sky. Barack Obama, he noted in sexualized language, sent a “thrill up my leg.” He cooed over Mitt Romney’s “perfect chin … perfect hair, he looks right.” Even the gargoylish Fred Thompson prompted Matthews on one program to ask his guest, Ana Marie Cox: “Can you smell the English leather on this guy, the Aqua Velva, the sort of mature man’s shaving cream, or whatever, you know, after he shaved? Do you smell that sort of—a little bit of cigar smoke? … Does he have sex appeal?” The flummoxed journalist could only reply, understatedly, “I can only speak for myself. I do not find him terribly attractive.”

In his Kennedy book, Matthews evinces the same attitudes toward women (patronizing, dismissive) and toward male bonding (exultant) as he does on his TV shows. He romanticizes the all-male milieus in which Kennedy spent so much of his life—the fraternal halls of Choate and the pre-1960s Harvard; the Navy, in which Kennedy displayed rugged old-fashioned war heroism; the clubby atmosphere of the political campaign, where JFK’s “Irish mafia” partook of a masculine code of honor and ethos. (In 1960, some of them watched a relatively innocent stag movie the night of the West Virginia primary.) Jack’s manly world of buddies and aides provides Matthews with not just the chatter that fills his pages but also the lens for regarding his subject.

In these environments, which Matthews idealizes, women function largely as accoutrements or subordinates. This book marginalizes or stereotypes almost all the women who appear in it. Jackie Kennedy, who awaits her proper biographical treatment, is depicted as the perfectly composed socialite. Eleanor Roosevelt, perhaps the central figure in postwar liberalism, is not only cartoonishly depicted as a harridan but, worse, smeared as a bigot as Matthews repeats an unverified story that she once said of JFK, “We wouldn’t want the Pope in the White House, would we?” (Although the book includes several pages of endnotes, Matthews offers none for this particular claim, saying only that he heard it at some unspecified point from Lester Hyman, then a low-level Kennedy aide.) Meanwhile Matthews neglects altogether the early ripples of second-wave feminism and fails to discuss substantive issues relating to gender equality, such as Kennedy’s establishment of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women—which, one would not learn from this book, Eleanor Roosevelt chaired.

Ultimately Matthews is not interested in women, or in policy, or in Kennedy’s contributions to liberalism. As he makes clear on his show, what excites him about politics is the fight, the game of ambitious men vying ruggedly or even brutally for the spoils. This ethos is captured, fittingly, by another sports term that Matthews deploys excessively: hardball—the title of his MSNBC show, of his first published book, and now also of this book’s chapter about the battle for the Democratic nomination in 1960. Here, too, the obsessions of the pundit infect the work of the would-be historian. Matthews delights in a tale of how Kennedy in 1956 wrested control of the Massachusetts Democratic Party machinery from Congressman John McCormack and William “Onions” Burke, a powerful local pol. Kennedy joined the fight reluctantly, only when he realized that Burke was conniving to block Adlai Stevenson’s presidential nomination bid, which Kennedy supported. Dave Powers and Ken O’Donnell described the incident as the first time Jack had thrown himself into “a mud-slinging Boston Irish political brawl.” Kennedy prevailed, ousting Burke, installing his own man as state chairman, and shoring up his influence over the state delegation.

Matthews cheers Kennedy on as he relinquishes his posture as a worldly, well-schooled young statesman and clambers into the gutter. For Matthews, the street fight with Burke marks a turning point in Kennedy’s career, when he learned that success meant mastering local along with global politics, or what Joe Kennedy called “the problems of Worcester” and not just “the problems of Algeria.” Speaking of Algeria, Matthews passes over the fact that Kennedy’s speech criticizing French colonial rule in Northern Africa in 1957 helped him slough off the playboy image that was hampering his presidential ambitions. But Matthews isn’t much interested in the emerging global order of the 1960s. He sneers at the Algeria speech, calling it “urbane commentary on colonialism” designed to “seduce … the Democratic Left.” In contrast, he returns time and again to the William Burke incident—Matthews seems to relish just reciting the nickname “Onions”—as if this chapter in Kennedy’s schooling in hardball tactics held the key to his career. 

What’s telling about Matthews’s fixation on the Onions Burke story is how he interprets it. He argues that with this episode Kennedy broke from high-minded, reformist liberalism and embraced the “down and dirty” tactics of the machine pols. There is some truth to this view, but the full story is more complicated. Matthews makes nothing of the fact that Kennedy was going to fight for no less than Adlai Stevenson—the epitome of refined, cosmopolitan postwar politics. JFK played hardball, in other words, in the service of moving his party toward Stevensonian liberalism. But Matthews doesn’t like Stevenson or his values. In the most tired of clichés, he calls him an “egghead,” asserting of his family, “There was distance between us and those like Stevenson. We were regular people.” This is raw anti-intellectualism, and the oldest trick in the anti-Stevenson book. (Isn’t Obama an egghead, too?) Despising liberals and revering Kennedy, Matthews is unable to see the affinities between them, and so he flattens out and fails to fully understand what might have been a rich and nuanced story.

Indeed, throughout the book, Matthews is at pains to separate Kennedy from his liberalism. He begins his book by asking, “Was he a liberal as he’s been tagged, or was he a pragmatist open to liberal causes?” This is a strange way to pose the question of Kennedy’s relation to liberalism. Obviously, Kennedy belongs on the left half of the political spectrum, and in 1960 he was more liberal than most of his rivals for the Democratic nomination (though not Hubert Humphrey). But I do not know of anyone who considers JFK “a liberal” in the sense that Matthews means it: a representative or standard-bearer of the Democratic party’s left wing, as Stevenson was or as Jack’s younger brother Ted would later become.

On the contrary, it is common knowledge that liberal intellectuals regarded Kennedy skeptically, with some preferring Stevenson for president as late as the 1960 Democratic convention. Nor is it any secret that Kennedy was staunchly anti-communist or that he cravenly missed the Senate vote to censure Joe McCarthy—who was not only popular among the Irish Catholics of Massachusetts but was also a family friend. But Matthews reports on Kennedy’s deviations from the liberal mainstream as if he had discovered that Kennedy was a Soviet spy or a transvestite. At the same time, he ignores Kennedy’s affinities with the liberals—an ironic oversight in a way, since apart from Irving Bernstein’s little-read, out-of-print Promises Kept (1991), the story of Kennedy’s domestic liberalism has not been well told, and a resourceful journalist or historian could easily improve on Bernstein’s turgid though shrewd study.

Matthews thinks of liberalism in the same crude, blinkered, and gendered way that he thinks about politics in general. His view of liberalism, widely shared among the punditocracy, comes straight from the demonology of Richard Nixon, who equated liberals with effete, Ivy League-educated advocates of subversive 1960s values. To Matthews, similarly, liberals can never be tough, strong, or masculine; they are soft and effeminate, personified by the shrewish Eleanor Roosevelt or the light-in-his-loafers Stevenson. But of course many liberals of the era opposed communism vigorously, took an unsentimental view of politics and human nature, knew how to play politics, and otherwise defied the stereotypes. This ignorance about the nature and complexity of postwar liberalism may account for Matthews’s inability to understand Kennedy, whom he makes out to be much closer to the socially conservative working-class Irish of Boston’s neighborhoods than he actually was.

Matthews accepts at face value, for example, Kennedy’s description of himself in 1946 as a “fighting conservative,” claiming that he was “clearly drawing a line between himself and his party’s liberal wing.” Perhaps. But he doesn’t include JFK’s avowals of his own liberalism, such as his statement that a liberal is someone who “cares about the welfare of the people—their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights, and their civil liberties,” and that under that definition, “I’m proud to say I’m a liberal.” Nor, as noted, does Matthews, despite his rote rehearsal of Kennedy’s major achievements as president, delve much into the lesser-known elements of the president’s progressive record, in such areas as economics, education, and women’s rights. Matthews’s portrait of Kennedy is finally incoherent, because he wants to celebrate Kennedy’s liberal achievements without celebrating liberalism.

Matthews’s schtick on television—again like Russert, Barnicle, and their ilk—is to play up his blue-collar roots. Though cosseted and wealthy, he spouts a form of cranky anti-intellectual populism that has become wearingly common among pundits, rarely if ever acknowledging that in American history it is liberalism that has done the greatest good for the downtrodden, the embattled, the wronged, and the dispossessed. (To this day, lower-income voters still regard the Democratic Party as the most dependable instrument for advancing their interests.) But Matthews’s contempt for liberals, as he lazily defines them, prevents him from seeing past the cultural trappings and socially tolerant values that he seems to think make them untrustworthy allies of the working class.

Thus, in addition to all its other faults, Jack Kennedy is at bottom deeply unreliable, because it projects onto its subject a politics that just isn’t true to the historical record. Matthews wants John F. Kennedy to be an Irish machine brawler, a Joe McCarthy-like street-fighter, but he was not such a figure, even if he came to learn horse-trading and coalition-building well enough to get elected president at the age of forty-three. Like many political leaders, Kennedy was a child of privilege who, despite his money, cared about ordinary people and promoted a liberal agenda that was in the interest of the many. Though neither a knee-jerk left-winger nor an intellectual, he surrounded himself with not just skilled political infighters but also with thinkers of an academic bent and men (and a few women) of noble liberal principles. With their counsel, he brought his party to power again and guided it decisively to the left, helping to make the Democratic party the vehicle of the very liberalism that Chris Matthews and other pundits like him would, years later, come to mock and despise. It is fitting, really, and not terribly surprising, that in 1960 the young Matthews was an ardent supporter of Richard Nixon.

David Greenberg, a contributing editor, is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and the author of Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image, among other works.