PHILADELPHIA — The first time Chris Matthews remembers hearing of John F. Kennedy, he was a 10-year-old Northeast Philadelphia boy obsessed with politics, listening to the 1956 Democratic National Convention on the radio in the family’s ‘54 Chevy Bel Air. Kennedy, then a young senator from Massachusetts, lost a bid for the vice presidential nomination and, then, in a dramatic gesture, bounded to the podium to ask that his opponent, Estes Kefauver, be nominated unanimously.
Matthews, a student at the Maternity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish school, stayed true to his family’s Republican allegiance and rooted for President Dwight Eisenhower in the fall election. But he never lost his fascination with Kennedy. As a paperboy in 1960, Matthews followed JFK’s progress to the Democratic presidential nomination in the Philadelphia Bulletin, the afternoon paper he tossed onto lawns.
Later, Matthews joined the Peace Corps that Kennedy founded, and was an aide to President Jimmy Carter and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., before becoming a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner and, ultimately, host of the MSNBC political talk show “Hardball.”
All along the way during his Washington career, Matthews collected stories about Kennedy and got to know many members of the late president’s inner circle. The result is a new book, “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.”
Matthews answered questions about Kennedy and the book project.
Q: There are thousands of books about Kennedy. What were you hoping to say with yours?
A: I always thought of him as a prince, with a charmed life. I tried to find the human Jack I could get my arms around, to try and understand him as a guy, not just a rich prince. ... He was a guy who was sick and in horrendous pain all the time — who would say, “I wish I had a few good days.” I really wanted to try to find a way with all these people who knew him to catch him in the middle, the theater in the round, to see all of him by putting together their different points of view.
Q: What insights did you develop into Kennedy that were fresh or surprising to you?
A: How much he was shaped by being in the hospital so much as a kid. Because he was sick, he was a reader, and because he was a reader, Kennedy had heroes. Because he had heroes, he went into politics. (Kennedy liked Sir Walter Scott, King Arthur’s knights, and biographies of political leaders.) If he hadn’t been sick, he might have been like everybody else in the family, a jock. But Jean (Kennedy Smith, JFK’s sister) told me she thinks the whole sports angle has been overplayed, that politics was central to him. This nonsense that he only went into politics because his older brother Joe was killed is not true. He was determined he was going to be in politics, but he would have waited his turn. The idea that he was talked into going into politics to take his brother’s place — you can’t be talked into going into politics. It’s like talking a kid into liking baseball. You liked it or you didn’t. He liked it.
It was fascinating what a total interest he had in his tradecraft of being a politician. I didn’t realize before that he was working on his memoirs all along, how he ran for Congress, that sort of thing. He kept a diary and in the White House dictated his thoughts. He felt real guilt at the killing of (Ngo Dinh) Diem, the leader of South Vietnam. On the Dictaphone, on Aug. 24, 1963, Kennedy talked about his signal to Henry Cabot Lodge to back the coup that knocked the guy off. He was really staggered. Listening, I was amazed at how honest he was.
Q: To me, it was shocking in the recent book Caroline Kennedy put out that Jackie Kennedy said JFK’s mother never loved him.
A: It matches up with what he’d said about his mother. He’d cry when she’d go away. He had leukemia at Choate, or they thought he had leukemia, and she never visited him. Action is character, as they say in drama.
Q: So Jack was basically a lonely boy?
A: The fact is he always had to have somebody around besides Jackie. Whatever their relationship, he wanted company. I think it gets back to all those years in a hospital bed. He liked fresh company, new people to come visit and then leave. ... I think he liked the protection of numbers too. ... He had compartments. Jackie was in one compartment, and he had his Irish mafia and his personal friends from Choate and the Navy.
Q: You focus on the Cuban Missile Crisis as the biggest test of Kennedy’s character.
A: Like Henry V, he’s flawed and he’s a hero — they’re both true. And that comes together then; you can really see it as a writer. Khrushchev was ready to push the button. He was going to move on Berlin. It could easily have been the trip wire to nuclear war and Kennedy wouldn’t do it. All the experts around him — McGeorge Bundy, (Gen.) Curtis LeMay — wanted to bomb Cuba and go to war. He said, “No we won’t do that. ...”
It was his coldness and his detachment, his ability to stand next to another person and not let their emotions affect him. (Kennedy’s friend) Chuck Spalding at the wedding said Jack was two guys: the groom and somebody else observing from a distance. ... It must have been maddening to be married to a guy like that, but you could at the same time argue that characteristic kept the world from being blown up. ... He was Arthur, the guy in the middle of the room with all the swords pointed at him. ... He wanted control of the situation.
Q: Many people are fascinated by the relationship between Jackie and Jack. What did she know, and why did she put up with his infidelities?
A: That’s the part you can never get to. Did it hurt her, his behavior? ... I wanted to know how Jackie felt about it, and I got to know Rachel “Bunny” Mellon. Bunny and her were buddies. I asked, “How do you know what Jackie knew?” And Bunny said, “She told me.”... Jackie called him “Magic.” Bunny said she just picked her man. That was it. This was the guy she loved.
Q: Are there parallels between Presidents Obama and Kennedy?
A: I see some parallels but I don’t see the leadership that this guy (Kennedy) had of other men and women. It’s more than being the smartest guy in room. ... The Kennedys formed a Kennedy party. I don’t sense an Obama party. I think politics is transactional for him. The real difference between relationship politics and transactional politics is loyalty. Obama doesn’t seem to expect it.