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About 40 years ago, I read a book edited by Bill Adler called “The Kennedy Wit.” So it was with a feeling of deja vu that I read Adler's new book, “The Uncommon Wisdom of JFK,” which seems to be an expanded version of the earlier work. Kennedy's years in public office, first in Congress and then as president, coincide with the height of the Cold War. At that time the United States and the Soviet Union were struggling to see whether liberal democracy or Communism would be the dominant political philosophy in the world. Kennedy's speeches, responses at press conferences, and off-the-cuff comments often made the nightly news on the increasingly popular medium of television. His words inspired many in the early 1960s with a pragmatic idealism that formed the basis of the Peace Corps and other New Deal programs.
This book weaves quotes from JFK with introductory comments by Adler. It presents an unabashedly positive view of Kennedy. We have a wise, sometimes self-deprecating president, a loving husband, and a caring father. There is no mention of reputed extramarital liaisons, nor is there any indication that many of Kennedy's words of wisdom even much of his book “Profiles in Courage” may have been written by his aide Theodore Sorensen. It is ironic, too, that the Kennedy administration emphasized physical fitness, when, as historian Robert Dallek has shown recently, JFK was taking a variety of medications to relieve the symptoms of various crippling diseases. These things were not widely known at the time; however, and Kennedy, or at least the image he presented, stirred a generation. The last section contains excerpts from two speeches JFK was to have delivered on November 22, 1963, the day on which he was assassinated. Kennedy's words, often laced with literary and historical allusions, are especially powerful when read now at a time when the increasingly polarized political debate has declined to the level of sniping. Kennedy's rhetoric successfully mixed patriotism with concern for the weaker members of society. It is JFK's words and his delivery of them against which more recent presidential candidates have been measured and few have risen to the standard Kennedy set. Accompanying the book is a DVD that succinctly chronicles Kennedy's presidential campaign and White House years.
So, accepting that this book is not meant as an impartial assessment of Kennedy's successes and failures, one can read 'The Uncommon Wisdom of JFK' straight through or dip in here and there with pleasure. Either way, this book makes edifying reading, especially in this presidential election year.