Friday, August 06, 2004

Book Review: John F. Kerry by the Boston Globe

The complete title is: John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reports Who Know Him Best, byt Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney, and Nina J. Easton. Review cross-posted on on August 6 2004.

As one might expect from a book expanded from a series of newspaper articles, this biography of John Kerry is a fairly dry and straightforward presentation of the facts of his life. The Globe did an admirable job in assembling, and in some cases uncovering, primary source material on Kerry. (Those expecting a local paper to do a fluff job on the local hero should be aware Kerry has had a strained relationship with the Globe's news staff for thirty years.) As such, this is a very good introduction to the man who would be president, and in a way a sort of skeleton for some as-yet-unwritten future biography that might explore him as a person and public figure in greater detail.

The Globe series pulls no punches in presenting Kerry's career, warts and all. It does a particularly good job at examining the controversies in Kerry's biography and sorting out the facts from the innuendo, the verifiable from the speciously speculative. Vietnam medals, his conservative role in the radical Vietnam Veterans Against the War, his controversial first stabs at elected office, and the basis of his at-times confusing stances on the Iraq and Gulf Wars are all covered from "both sides" with analysis limited only to a reasonable calculus of what version of disputed events is most likely to be true.

As a political biography, this book distinctly has no point of view. Supporters and detractors of Kerry will find plenty to grab onto within its pages. Very little in the way of historical context, as might be expected in a more erudite biography, intrudes upon the basic narrative of Kerry's public life. At the same time, the book should raise questions about Kerry to his partisans as well as underscore his strengths of character, intelllect, and executive abilities to his opponents. The book does a fairly good job at getting at the complexity of Kerry's manner of thinking and public stances, which both explains the allegation of "flip-flopping" in its nuanced contexts and reveals the essentially political nature of Kerry's character.

Those looking into insights into John Kerry's character will find plenty of revealing instances, although this is no "up close and personal" celebrity portrait. Kerry's alleged aloofness comes across more as a person uninterested in wearing his inner psychology on his coat sleeves than as indicative of a person truly cold and removed. It's very difficult to imagine Kerry engaging in, say, Bill Clinton-like sharing of the deep recesses of the soul which so endeared the latter to the electorate; at the same time it's abundantly clear Kerry is the type of person highly unlikely to fall into personal pecadilloes like those which dogged Clinton.

Particularly enlightening is the coverage of Kerry's youth and student days: we see the emergence of a careful thinker, ambitious and sometimes ego-driven from the earliest. Kerry's closest relationships are barely covered, however. We learn he was unhappy and morose following his divorce, but learn little of the nature of his relationship with his first wife. We learn of the pain he felt at having five friends killed in Vietnam, including one of his closest (Dick Pershing, grandson of the General, "Blackjack" Pershing), but the direct way it affected his character and motivations is less clear.

The book spends a bit too much time and space on Kerry's grandfather's Jewish-Austrian roots and death by suicide, given that Kerry himself had no knowledge of this part of his ancestral story until the Globe itself informed him of what it had uncovered. It's an interesting twist, but one which hardly illuminates his half-patrician, half-immigrant rags-to-riches family tree in a way which might've affected the formation of his character.

The tone of the book is uneven, as one might expect from an assemblage of articles written by different journalists, and there are occasional abrupt gaps in the narrative sequence. The notes on sources are usefully quoted with the exact phrase, but do not have enough detail to provide much help for those wishing to research further.

All in all, I'd recommend this as a very good start for those with the time and interest to delve more deeply into Kerry. It certainly compares extremely favorably with the sparse material available on President Bush immediately prior to his election in 2000. Readers strapped for time may wish to concentrate on the story of the young Kerry and the Vietnam-era Kerry, which is a riveting portrait in the trials of character and reads more breezily than the drier details of his Senate career.The definitive portrait of Kerry, of course, awaits at least one or two more chapters as yet unwritten.

Skip the self-congratulatory preface, by the way: the Globe editors being smug and self-righteous about their objectivity does not illuminate the subject of the book to any additional degree.

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