Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy
Stephen F. Knott
Stephen F. Knott has spent his life grappling with the legacy of President John F. Kennedy: JFK was the first president Knott remembers, he worked for Ted Kennedy’s Senate campaign in 1976, and later he worked at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston. Moreover, Knott’s scholarly work on the American presidency has wrestled with Kennedy’s time in office and whether his presidency was ultimately a positive or negative one for the country. After initially being a strong Kennedy fan, Knott’s views began to sour during his time at the library, eventually leading him to become a “Reagan Democrat.” The Trump presidency led Knott to revisit JFK, leading him once more to reconsider his views.
Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy offers a nuanced assessment of the thirty-fifth president, whose legacy and impact people continue to debate to this day. Knott examines Kennedy through the lens of five critical issues: his interpretation of presidential power, his approach to civil rights, and his foreign policy toward Cuba, the Soviet Union, and Vietnam. Knott also explores JFK’s assassination and the evolving interpretations of his presidency, both highly politicized subject matters. What emerges is a president as complex as the author’s shifting views about him.
The passage of sixty years, from working in the Kennedy Library to a career writing about the American presidency, has given Knott a broader view of Kennedy’s presidency and allowed him to see how both the Left and the Right, and members of the Kennedy family, distorted JFK’s record for their own purposes.
Despite the existence of over forty thousand books dealing with the man and his era, Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy offers something new to say about this brief but important presidency. Knott contends that Kennedy’s presidency, for better or for worse, mattered deeply and that whatever his personal flaws, Kennedy’s lofty rhetoric appealed to what is best in America, without invoking the snarling nativism of his least illustrious successor, Donald Trump.
“Stephen Knott sheds new light on the early 1960s by placing John F. Kennedy in a larger arc of presidential history, discussing both the precedents that guided the thirty-fifth president and the legacy that forever marked the US political landscape. Knott deftly weaves telling moments and decision points that help recover from decades of mythmaking a fresh, nuanced portrait of a president who remains widely misunderstood.”
—Patrick Lacroix, author of John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith
“Stephen Knott’s reappraisal of John F. Kennedy’s presidency is intertwined with a personal story of his own long journey away from the Kennedy mystique and then back to his clear-eyed appreciation of a leader who did his duty and deserved better than myths. This is more than a book about JFK: it is a call to remember the inspiration for a better America.”
—Tom Nichols, contributing writer, The AtlanticSee all reviews...
“John F. Kennedy continues to hold a prominent place in American political and cultural history. His reputation and image have received much scholarly praise and scrutiny. Stephen Knott’s Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy is a nuanced, well-balanced reflection on JFK’s legacy and its role in Knott’s own scholarly journey. Knott masterfully shows how JFK came to personify modern liberalism—the idea that the federal government can and should act for the benefit of the least fortunate. His reflections on Kennedy’s role in the expansion of presidential and federal power as well as his views on civil rights and foreign policy are a must-read for anyone interested in American institutions and politics.”
—Patrick Sobkowski, lawyer, and contributing writer, Liberal Currents
“It’s refreshing to witness an eminent historian think anew about one of our most popular presidents. Stephen Knott’s engaging and powerful reflections on John F. Kennedy not only illuminate our thirty-fifth president’s strengths and limitations, but also provide a model for thoughtful historical revisionism. Drawing on his personal experience and professional expertise, Knott argues that JFK’s influence continues to shape the presidency and the nation. It is an impressive work.”
—John M. Murphy, professor, University of Illinois, and author of John F. Kennedy and the Liberal Persuasion
“Stephen F. Knott’s revisiting of the presidency of John F. Kennedy is a masterful and judicious balancing of Kennedy’s brief and tragically unfinished presidency. It is neither an apologia nor an unvarnished critique but is instead a finely nuanced analysis of Kennedy’s deficiencies and his strengths as president. I strongly recommend this book as one that is both accessible to lay readers while also fulfilling the demands of well-crafted scholarship.”
—Bert A. Rockman, professor emeritus of political science, Purdue University
“Professor Knott has produced an extraordinary book that should be widely read by scholars and the public alike. Detailed, discerning, and deeply introspective, Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy is a compelling history about far more than the thirty-fifth president of the United States. It is a nuanced exploration into the myth-making enterprise that has surrounded the historical legacy of Kennedy’s presidency and personal character. Alongside the richly textured and carefully documented descriptions of Kennedy’s successes and shortfalls, Knott reveals his own past experiences and professional perspective on the wide variety of attempts to shape—both lionize and denigrate—the public’s memory of John F. Kennedy and his one thousand days in office. As in his highly regarded Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth, Knott again invites the reader to contend with the frequently self-serving historical constructions of his subject and reconsider their own historical biases and past judgments. He also humbly reminds us that those individuals who become revered as statesmen not only possess human frailties, but also that if we are to uncover the truth about these men and women and their public works, then we must wrestle with their full characters and complete list of accomplishments. Simply put, read this book, and read it more than once.”
—Lara Brown, president and executive director of The New Center
“Stephen F. Knott has a unique vantage point from which to assess John F. Kennedy and his legacy. Infusing his analysis of the thirty-fifth president with a blend of personal recollection, deep research, and fresh insights, Knott deftly challenges conventional narratives of JFK on topics that include Civil Rights, Cuba, Vietnam, and the dark day of November 22, 1963, and forces us to reassess what we thought we knew about the man and his presidency. All readers will appreciate that there is still something original to say about one of our most consequential presidents. Scholars as well as general readers will love this book.”
—Christopher J. Leahy, professor of history, Keuka College, and author of President without a Party: The Life of John TylerSee fewer reviews...