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Book Review: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek

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There are so many books written about John F. Kennedy that it is quite hard to find one that can cover his many facets. There are numerous biographies that portray him via character study; others focus on the conspiracies surrounding his life, Presidency; and assassination; others capitalize on the myth of Camelot and the Kennedy dynasty. Anyone seriously searching for a complete work on his life will undoubtedly be unsatisfied with just one book.

Author Robert Dallek, whose previous work includes Lyndon Johnson: Portrait of A President, offers his An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963 to those readers who are seriously studying Kennedy's life and are looking for a starting point.

Dallek covers Kennedy's whole life, so in a sense, it can be called a "cradle to grave" biography (a phrase so often used and misused). However, most of the detail is grounded on JFK's political life, which is kind of a welcome respite from most biographies that attempt to be creative or conspiratorial in tone.

While Dallek cannot avoid including the "controversial" aspects of his subject's life (the womanizing and health problems) he does so without much fuss and without pretension.

Chapters worthy of note include "Election," which offers a well-researched account of Kennedy's 1960 campaign and his debates with Richard Nixon, and the final chapter, "An Unfinished Presidency," which sums up Kennedy’s legacy as President with a fresh perspective without putting JFK on a pedestal or demonizing him.

Dallek's writing sticks to the facts, is direct to the point, stylistically classical, and purposely eludes dramatic flair. In this sense, after reading this book, the reader is able to then branch out to other books that cover the different aspects of Kennedy’s life, such as Geoffrey Perret's adventurous Jack: A Life Like No Other or the more sinister The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour M. Hersh.

This detailed, uncluttered, and well-researched book is obviously a labor of love by Dallek. While it does not focus much on the myth and the hoopla surrounding JFK, Unfinished does offer a definitive account on the facts about the man who happened to end up in the history books as an overly glorified, assassinated President. It is a textbook analysis of JFK's political life that will surely stand the test of time, and Dallek rises above other biographers and truly imbibes Kennedy's oft-quoted phrase as an "idealist without any illusions."

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About Clarence Yu

  • Amnah Khan

    I trust Robert Dallek with his historical evaluations of JFK and his times. But for sure, The Dark Side of Camelot by Seymour M. Hersh is a total time waster and disillusioned account of the Kennedys. If you are looking for the truth then go for serious writers and not publicity seeking commentators.