Incomparable grace



July 8, 2022

The book is a perceptive portrait of John F. Kennedy’s truncated time in the White House. As the author observes, Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 election only by the slimmest of margins, less than two-tenths of a percentage point. Americans seem to have been more generous of spirit back then. Multiple times the author observes that Kennedy had a disastrous first few months in office with the Bay of Pigs invasion but his approval rating stood at 83%. The title of the book comes not just from Kennedy’s air of noblesse oblige but also from Ernest Hemingway’s definition of courage as “grace under pressure,” which Kennedy certainly showed, at least in public. In private, things were different: Kennedy was often debilitated with pain from injuries suffered in war and the effects of steroids taken precisely to improve his condition. “He, his family, his aides, and his doctors had hidden his illnesses and medical remedies from the press,” writes the author, “knowing that Americans would raise understandable concerns if made fully aware of his extensive maladies.” Still, Kennedy met the occasion, as when the Soviets launched Yuri Gagarin into space that caused Kennedy to fast-forward the development of NASA programmes that would put Americans on the moon. Kennedy also learned from his frequent showdowns, mostly rhetorical, with Nikita Khrushchev that nuclear war was out of the question, as his deft handling of the Cuban missile crisis would prove. The author’s skillful portrait reveals a president who learned on the job and did so with humility, “calling forth the best in all of us,” which helps account for the widely shared enshrinement of Kennedy’s memory today. TW


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