Chris Matthews would be the first to tell you he’s had a long-standing obsession with President John F. Kennedy. Even though he grew up in a Republican household, as a young man he found JFK to be the most interesting political figure of the time. His first book was Kennedy & Nixon. His latest book, Jack Kennedy, Elusive Hero, goes right to the heart of the matter. In the preface, he writes that during all the decades since the 1963 assassination, his “fascination with the elusive spirit of John F. Kennedy has remained an abiding one.”
Matthews may be best known as a television personality. He hosts MSNBC’s Hardball and is an NBC political commentator. But his roots are in column writing, and his published books, so far, total six. He grew up in Philadelphia, went to college in Worcester, Massachusetts, served in the Peace Corps, was a Carter White House speechwriter, and for six years was a top aide to speaker of the House Tip O’Neill before jumping to newspapers and television.
We checked in to talk about the new book—but as in any conversation with Chris Matthews, the path was winding.
Who is the book for—people who know Kennedy generationally, or young people to whom he may be something of a mystery?
I really did write it to commemorate him, to perpetuate him. The people who have reached out to the book aggressively are my age or a bit older, fifties and sixties, who remember the period and want to resurrect him. I notice it’s selling a lot more in print than online, which says something. But young readers, in their thirties, who are starting to get interested in politics and being a citizen—I want to let them know there was a time that was like this.
You worked on the the book with your son?
Yes. This book had a lot of interviews and secondary sources. I put them in a big pile, and I needed to get it organized. I wrote a narrative outline for each chapter and then pointed out where I thought different material belonged. My son, Michael, who went to Brown, put together big piles of quotes and source materials for 15 chapters. He moved me ahead, and that’s why I thank him first. Michael is incredibly smart, and he’s interested in the things I’ve been interested in. He really latched onto this, joined the effort. He gave me the ability to expedite the project. He became a partner in organizing.
What do you think this book adds to what we already know about Kennedy?
It does one thing: It brings him back to life. It also gives a greater sense of what he was like as a person, a guy, rather than a politician. I followed the lead of Ben Bradlee and his book [Conversations with Kennedy, 1984]. What was he like in high school, in college, in the Navy? To get a sense of the him in him. That’s what I used as my template.
You are a student of heroes and great men. Where does Kennedy rank on the list?
On my list there are three people, and I read everything where I see their names mentioned: Churchill, Hemingway, and Kennedy. Kennedy had seen great leaders. He knew what a great leader was. Imagine what it was like for him coming into office after the general [Eisenhower] who had received the Nazi resignation?
When you were ten years old, you were already into politics and knew the names and the issues. Do you think that’s the same for most ten-year-olds today?
Today there are so many distractions. We’re surrounded by a constant cacophony of news about celebrities, the Kardashians or Lady Gaga. These personalities have been thrown at us. Young people know those names, but throw the name Harry Reid at them and you’d hear nothing in response. The major figures of our time—people like Dick Durbin, Steny Hoyer—they wouldn’t have heard of them, either. Their names would mean nothing. In the clutter and clatter of media-driven personalities they would have heard of Obama, maybe Ron Paul, maybe Nancy Pelosi.
At one time you were enthralled with the idea of dynasty. Do you still have the same enthusiasm?
No, I think that was childish. I don’t see any reason to believe the son or daughter of somebody is any different from somebody else. There are exceptions. Michael Douglas inheriting zeal from his father, Kirk Douglas. Tim Russertleft a lot to Luke. Luke seems to have picked up exactly on what Tim was doing. But most celebrity parents are so driven they don’t imbue the child with the excitement they had. Parents are too delinquent.
What about the Bushes?
I don’t think they’ve been that great. George Bush Senior had a great sense of public spirit. I don’t know what W. inherited, other than a certain sense of entitlement, which wasn’t good for any of us. He did have a common touch, which was good, and was how he succeeded in politics. That’s how he could beat John Kerry and Al Gore. But he led us into a war that was a terrible mistake.
Of all the people you’ve known who knew Kennedy, who brought you closest to the real man?
Charlie Bartlett. He’s very austere about Kennedy. He will tell you the raw truth about his friend. He said to me he thought that everyone [in his inner circle] was basically too easy on Jack. They hurt him by being so generous and putting up with his ways. He really loved Jack Kennedy, but he thought he was spoiled—an interesting thing to say about a best friend who became President.
Every year since his death, we have learned more about the complexities of the man. How did those revelations—political, personal, medical—affect your sense of him, your pursuit of him?
When I look at him, the pictures are distracting. He’s so handsome, the wife is so beautiful. It’s all a distraction, because the good health is not good health, the marriage was not as it appeared in pictures. Even when you look at the earliest pictures of them, and Jackie is looking pre-regal and young, and everything appears perfect, you go back and study the chronology and you realize that was the time Kennedy was in extreme pain from his back, and he was already being unfaithful to Jackie. They were all synchronized in a way that let Jack be healthy-looking and faithful-looking, but he was not healthy and not faithful. In the end, it is an elusive personality. I have tried to describe not who he was but what he was like, what was it like to be around him, to have his presence in your life on a regular basis.
In her recently published interview with Arthur Schlesinger, what did we see of Jackie, and what revisions do you believe will be made of her, if any?
She wasn’t the always-charming, always-supportive person. She could be cutting. In fact, that was one of her real appeals to Jack. She could be breathtakingly sharp about people. You do have to look at those tapes with some care. You can’t say because she’s tough with LBJ on the tapes that she wouldn’t be different about him a day later. It was not a serious interview. She should have been more careful about saying something for the ages rather than just for the mood she was in. I’ve read her letters to Johnson, and they were very supportive and loving.
Is it normal for that much woe to fall upon one family? There was an early death of a sister and a brother, then Kennedy’s death, Bobby’s death, the deaths of cousins, John Kennedy Jr.’s untimely death. Is that merely weird or a curse?
If you are risk takers, those things happen. Joe Kennedy Jr. took a risky mission. Jack went off to the Navy and took a risky mission. Kathleen was flying in terrible weather. Rosemary was the victim of a heroic but botched experimental lobotomy procedure. Bobby was taking tremendous risks in that campaign. Jack went to Texas and rode in a convertible through Dallas, where the atmosphere was poisonous. John Jr. was flying by night without a real familiarity with the instruments. It’s romance. They sensed their number was not gonna come up. They had the same luck as other people, but they pushed it. That is their curse.
We’ve always heard about the Kennedy soldiers. And just like the adage, “A lawyer can never be a friend,” a Kennedy staffer could never be a Kennedy friend?
I think so. Did they use people? Yeah. They saw people who worked for them as interchangeable. Certainly Jack did. Bobby was very personable and loyal to his people. Teddy was good to his staff. Jack was much colder personally with everybody. Bobby got the reputation of being ruthless, because Jack put him on ruthless missions and he got the reputation, but it was Jack who could be brutal.
In the book, Harris Wofford describes JFK as “not anyone’s man,” but was that true? Wasn’t he always his father’s man before he was his own man?
Jack broke with his father. The old man was a disaster politically. Jack was demonstrably his own man. He wasn’t pushed around by Jackie. The only time he was his father’s son was in the way he treated women. He used them.
Could a candidate with JFK’s health issues pass muster with today’s voter and media scrutiny?
No way. Addison’s disease would have ended his career, and so would the reliance on the number of drugs he had to take. The issue of steroid use is unacceptable today. How about the President being on a performance enhancer? He also had colitis and a back problem. His problems were so serious. Today, they wouldn’t have been able to hide it.
You recall a conversation with Pat Moynihan in which he says to you, referring to the assassination, “We’ve never gotten over it. You’ve never gotten over it.” Powerful words. You call it a knighthood of the soulful. So, is that true?
Yes, I have never gotten over it. It seems to me [it happened] somewhere between yesterday morning and this morning, a space or distance that is that close.
If you could interview either Kennedy or Oswald from the grave, which one would it be?
It would be Kennedy. I’m not interested in the other guy. I made a point of not putting the other guy’s name in my book. The perpetrator is not worth our thought. I don’t believe there was any grand conspiracy. This guy was an opportunist, a lowlife.