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The making of the image

The Afterlife of John Fitzgerald Kennedy: A Biography - Michael J. Hogan

Nearly 55 years after his assassination, John F. Kennedy stands as the most popular of America's post-World War II presidents. Poll after poll serves as testament to his enduring appeal for millions of Americans, which crosses racial, ideological, and generational lines. How Kennedy came to assume such an indelible place in the American imagination is the subject of Michael Hogan's book, which looks at the development of Kennedy's posthumous image and why it endures decades after his demise.


Kennedy's wife Jacqueline is at the center of Hogan's account. In the hours following the president's assassination, his grieving widow asserted a leading role in the planning for his funeral, making decisions and choreographing events so as to cement the image of the young, hopeful leader that he and his wife had done so much to cultivate. As Hogan notes, this proved a dramatic success, one witness by the people of the world thanks to the use of television, Jacqueline furthered this effort by exercising close control over the works published immediately after his death (particularly William Manchester's book Death of a President) and the memorials constructed in D.C. and in Massachusetts.


Kennedy's circle of family and friends continued even as the nation emerged from their grief and began to reassess the president's legacy. As authors began challenging the sentimental, rose-colored view propagated in early biographies by Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the family pushed back by attempting to dissuade authors who did not offer the Kennedys editorial control from writing their books or restricting their access to JFK's papers. To Hogan, the effort here was not an effort to control history but memory -- the public image of Kennedy held by millions of Americans. This, even as the sordid details of Kennedy's private life gradually leaked out and revisionists challenged the image of Kennedy as a successful president, the public continued to hold him in an esteem which made association with his image a laudable political goal even today.


Hogan's book is an excellent account of the construction of Kennedy's posthumous portrayal by those closest to him and its impact how how he is remembered. In it he recounts the calculations of the people involved, the fighting that took place to realize their goals, and the effect of the result upon the nation's remembrance of the 35th president. Though Hogan's scope leaves out many fictional works which reflect the broader national effort to engage with what Kennedy meant to the country, his book is nonetheless a superb study that helps to explain why Kennedy continues to occupy such a beloved place in our national memory.