In his recently published book JACK KENNEDY: ELUSIVE HERO, top MSNBC host and author Chris Matthews goes in search of President John F. Kennedy, the man who has fascinated him all his life. And on his long-running show Hardball, Matthews searches for solutions to modern-day issues. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to the proud Irish American about Kennedy and the current crop of politicians vying for power.
What was he like? Who did he love? Did he ever actually love anyone?
The provocative questions that MSNBC host and author Chris Matthews asks about the 35th president, John F. Kennedy, go much deeper than what he did and where he went throughout his storied career.
Matthews conjures the era and its anxieties with the authenticity of someone who lived through them and has remained fascinated by them -- and by JFK -- his entire life.
At the peak of the Cold War, Matthews reminds us in his highly accessible new book, JFK saved the United States from an impending nuclear war.
But how did he do it? What prepared him to become the leader the country needed?
Matthews’s book, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero (Simon & Schuster), is the result of a lifelong quest to make sense of the Irish American leader his wife Jacqueline Kennedy called “that unforgettable, elusive man.”
“I did an earlier book on Kennedy and Nixon back in 1996, and that kind of set up the scaffolding for a lot of this particular history,” Matthews, 66, told the Irish Voice during a lengthy interview this week.
“But then I really started getting this sense of responsibility about it.”
When asked why he wrote his latest book, Matthews replies there were several compelling reasons.
“The first reason,” he says, referencing the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Irish impulse to commemorate fallen chieftains simultaneously, “was that like Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby, I wanted to get people to attend the funeral but nobody would come. I felt it was my responsibility to get somebody. I didn’t want to let it fade.”
The next impulse was his fascination with the level of loyalty that Kennedy inspired in those around him, particularly men.
“What is it about the regard guys had for him I wondered? Men to men, they would follow him into the battle. The fealty to the skipper.”
Matthews pauses for a moment and adds, “Leadership is different from celebrity. It’s a statement that seems to draw a line between the past and present.”
Starting out, Matthews had a simple premise -- who is this guy? The answers he got from those who knew him were tantalizing but unsatisfactory: “He was just great. He was just wonderful. He could be cold, he could be careless, but oh he was something.”
What Matthews discovered early on was that Kennedy was a romantic individual in one sense; he was someone that myths could easily grow up around. It’s one of the reasons women loved him.
“Women lost all sense of responsibility around him. They fell before him. There was one young woman called Mimi Fahnestock who fell for him and she said what everyone else did – ‘I’d do it all again.’”
But rich as he was, even as leader of the free world, Kennedy didn’t like to be alone.
“He would have Dave Powers (his special assistant) tuck him in at night, he wouldn’t even turn out the lights. He always had to have company,” Matthews relates.
With all his wealth and tremendous social confidence, why did Kennedy find it so hard to be alone, Matthews wondered?
“Most guys can be alone. Nixon was a loner. It surprised me how much he craved company.
Perhaps it was a hangover from the Victorian atmosphere childhood. Neither of his parents were what you’d call warm,” Matthews suggested.
“He must have told Jackie Kennedy all these stories about his mom because she had them ready to go a week after he was shot,” Matthews says.
“When she was still in shock from the shooting she told journalist Theodore H. White about his aloof mother and he covered for it. Jean Kennedy Smith disagrees with that story. She called me some time later and said her mother was busy with my sister Rosemary. She didn’t agree with Jackie’s story.
“But they did send him off to Choate, one of those cold, British inspired schools. It sounds like Churchill’s biography, the way he was treated.”
It was old Joe Kennedy’s influence. His boys were sent to Protestant schools and the girls went to Catholic schools. It was all part of a larger plan for Irish Catholics to assimilate into the ruling class.
Says Matthews, “Here’s how it worked: before World War II my mom would say the milk company would ask you to fill out an application as a working girl. If you wrote Catholic you didn’t get the job. But the war changed everything.
“All the Catholics and all the Irish fought in the war. They were heroes, they won so many medals.