For the past decade, “The American Presidents” series has churned out a series of biographies of our nation’s leaders written by a diverse range of authors, from historians who draw upon their expertise to inform their interpretation of their subject, to more eclectic writers who inform their efforts with a sometimes refreshingly new perspective. Alan Brinkley fits squarely into the first category: a longtime scholar of 20th century America, he brings the skills and knowledge gained a lifetime of study to this sprightly book on John F. Kennedy. His perspective is critical but not unfavorable; while acknowledging Kennedy’s many gifts, he describes how they served to sustain his popularity through the numerous setbacks he suffered as president. In this respect, the power of his image rested less on his actual accomplishments, but on what he represented, both as a leader and the “transformative moment” during which he served as president.
Such analysis explains Kennedy’s enduring hold on our historical imagination and points to the value of the book as a study of his life. While hardly the first short biography of Kennedy, Brinkley’s book surpasses previous works of its type such as and thanks to its author’s analysis and incorporation of recent revelations about Kennedy’s poor health. For anyone seeking an perceptive and readable introduction to the life and career of America’s 35th president, this is the book to read.