MSNBC host Chris Matthews has never made a secret of his admiration for John F. Kennedy, but he’s always longed to know more about an enigmatic man whose own wife called “elusive” and “unforgettable.” In his new Kennedy biography, Elusive Hero, Matthews writes that “anytime I’ve ever met a person who knew him — someone who was there with JFK in real time — I crave hearing his or her first-person memories.”
It’s from first-person memories – personal interviews with close JFK associates, oral histories by top political aide Kenneth O’Donnell and others, and documents from Kennedy’s school years, among other sources – that Matthews paints a rounded portrait of JFK as he grows from sickly schoolboy to war hero to the president who admonished us to “Ask not” what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country. Matthews doesn’t find Kennedy a flawless hero, but he comes away from his study more admiring than ever of the man and of the president. “I found a fighting prince never free of pain,” he writes, “never far from trouble, never accepting the world he found.”
Rolling Stone recently sat down with Matthews at MSNBC’s HQ at 30 Rock to talk about the book. Here, some highlights.
“Armyan Bernstein’s Thirteen Days, the movie, is spectacular, and I think it’s very accurate about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then I’m a big fan of John Meacham’s book on Churchill and Roosevelt [Franklin and Winston], and I began to think, ‘What a great way to write biography.’ Limit yourself to trusted sources – none of this drive-by stuff, none of this, ‘Oh, somebody said …’ And then you put the president in the middle of these people, including Jackie, all looking at him, and they’re answering the question, ‘What was he like?'”
How JFK was “more Gatsby than legacy”
“He was a self-made guy. By the time he was 14, he had read Churchill’s history of World War I, he was reading the New York Times every day, analyzing it. He was running for student council, wanted to go to law school. We all went to school with guys like that. You know where they’re headed: they’re headed for politics. I think that was one iconic notion that I was able to smash with the book – that he wasn’t ready to go into politics.”
JFK as a leader
“I think the big thing with him is ‘We.’ It was never ‘I,’ it was never egotistical with Kennedy; it was ‘we’: We the WWII generation, the general officers come back to rule; the ethnic groups – the people that’d been shut out. He was about bringing people in. I was in the Peace Corps… I mean all this stuff about joining up and participating was so wonderful. People don’t like being discarded. Jack never discarded us; he was always asking us to do something.”
Nixon’s love-hate relationship with JFK
“I think it’s a mix of love, hate. Nixon was very drawn to Jack, he really wanted to be Jack’s friend. He wanted Jack to like him so much. And then he wanted to beat him. He wanted to beat the guy that he liked and he wanted respect and affection from the guy he was going to beat.”
How Kennedy remains elusive
“I still find his relationship with Jacqueline hard to figure, exactly. It’s kind of hard for people to accept this today, but that marriage was real – they would go to bed together every night and listen to the record-player and talk about the day.
“And then there was Jackie saying that his mother never loved him. Why would you say that to a reporter the week after your husband’s death? It’s relevance is what? It’s a problem.”
What Obama can learn from JFK
“People want to be called to duty. I don’t know why Obama’s not meeting with guys [in their twenties] who are going off to Teach for America or the Peace Corps. I’d be having dinner with them every month. He doesn’t join us. Where do we fit in? Kennedy would go to the Army-Navy game and he would change sides at half time. He’d be out there with the fleet, his goggles on, his beautiful sunglasses, and sitting there watching the fleet do their exercises as commander in chief. There is no ‘we’ here, I want some we in this administration. The feeling at [Obama’s] inauguration was just overwhelming – all those people in the mall. And then they all went home – he sent them home, he said, ‘I’ll take care of this now.’ You have to find ways of uniting people by including them, and he is isolated because he has wanted to be isolated.”