Insecure and arrogant, difficult and charming—Kennedy's assassination continues to overwhelm our attempts to see him straightby Tom Arnold-Forster / November 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
“By now it may well be impossible to add any sensible or proper words to all the millions that have been written and spoken about the life and cruel death of John F Kennedy,” said Alistair Cooke into a BBC microphone on 24th November 1963. That day, his Letter from America broadcast struggled for a theme. There was “the sense that we have been cheated” and of course the “idea of a young lion shot down,” though Cooke also worried about lapsing into “a sentimental fit.” Mostly there was paralysis and incoherence. He reported “a desperate and howling note over the land.”
Since then several more million words about Kennedy have spilled out. The New York Times recently noted that some 40,000 books have been published on Kennedy since his death. That works out at over two per day. The books have been arriving even faster with the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination this month. The howling note has died, but people have not stopped asking: who was John Fitzgerald Kennedy? And what is his legacy?
The economist Jeffrey Sachs has confident answers to both these questions. He is interested in Kennedy as a “moral leader,” whose “quest for peace” is what matters today. In To Move The World (Bodley Head, £15), Sachs takes us through the foreign policy triumphs of Kennedy’s final months, from the nadir of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 to the “historic success” of the nuclear test ban treaty in September 1963. “We can use his example, his ideas, and his oratory,” Sachs argues, “as we struggle to achieve global cooperation in our own time.”
Sachs focuses mostly on the oratory, and spends entire chapters explicating Kennedy’s speeches. Most prominent is the “Peace Speech,” delivered at American University in June 1963. “If we cannot now end our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity,” proclaimed Kennedy. “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all share the same small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.”
Speeches like this still thrill, and Sachs reprints some as an appendix. They form the most interesting part of a dull book. This is Sachs’s first…