Review by Karl Helicher
Original text available through Library Journal Review’s Book Verdict
Clarke (Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America) offers a graceful, bittersweet chronicle of President Kennedy’s final months, when he was poised to bring to fruition his vision for a more inclusive nation.
Despite the book’s subtitle, Clarke shows Kennedy to be a presidential work in progress and not yet a great president. Kennedy, as the author points out, made diplomatic overtures to Khrushchev and Castro and was adamant about removing military advisers from Vietnam, despite the protests of Henry Cabot Lodge, ambassador to South Vietnam, and the hawkish drumbeat from the departments of state and defense.
JFK also marshaled through Congress a limited nuclear-arms ban and a compromise civil rights bill, which became the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He drew closer to his children and wife, despite his continued philandering. Clarke’s last chapter hauntingly describes the assassination’s aftermath, a time of worldwide grief for a man who inspired so much hope.
VERDICT: Clarke clearly admires Kennedy but does not ignore his flaws. General readers, both those who remember Kennedy and those too young to do so, will find this an absorbing narrative. It complements David Kaiser’s American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War and Robert Dallek’s An Unfinished Life.—Karl Helicher, Upper Merion Twp. Lib., King of Prussia, PA