Oklahoma Almanac editor Connie Armstrong loves to read history books. This is not surprising since history was her major and she taught the subject at Redlands Community College. I actually saw her with a fiction book recently and almost fell out of my chair. But history is her first love. When I caught her reading Chris Matthews’s new book on our 35th president, Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, I knew I wanted to ask my friend and colleague her thoughts on the work.
Q: There are a tremendous number of books about John Kennedy and his presidency, so I’m surprised Matthews subtitled the book “Elusive Hero.” What’s your take on that?
A: “Elusive Hero,” is a term used by Jackie Kennedy as she described her late husband to Life Magazine reporter Teddy White in late November 1963. She wanted the world to understand the man rather than the politician or war hero. During the interview, she described Jack Kennedy as a simple yet complex individual; someone just out of our grasp.
Q: I’ve caught Matthews’s show on MSNBC from time to time, and viewers can tell he has a great amount of respect for Kennedy. Was this book a love fest to the man?
A: Initially, I thought it would be love fest for Kennedy. Early in the book Matthews explains that as a young man he became enamored with Kennedy, although he grew up in a Republican household where Eisenhower was revered as a great leader. However, Matthew provides a well-balanced account of Kennedy’s personal life and political career. He does not ignore Kennedy’s failings or personal flaws.
Q: You’re a student of American History and know more than most of us about the machinations and personalities of Washington, D.C. What were some of the surprising things you learned from reading this book?
A: I’ve studied Kennedy for many years, and taught a college course on his assassination. I don’t think anything surprised me. The book reminded me that politics can be a blood sport. Kennedy took no prisoners when it came to winning campaigns. However, I do think many people may be surprised at the respect Kennedy had for Richard Nixon, and the friendship the two shared.
Q: The assassination of President Kennedy is a watershed moment, and many have identified it as the time we lost our innocence as a country. Does Matthews speculate about how different America might be had Kennedy not been killed?
A: No, Matthews does not look at a post-Kennedy America in a “what might have been” scenario. He does, however, look at the goals Kennedy pursued such as civil rights, NASA and America’s space program, the Peace Corps, and even the fall of the Berlin Wall that came to fruition in the years following the assassination.
Q: Does Matthews weigh in on the Warren Commission Report? Any smoking guns, like another shooter in the grassy knoll?
A: No. He does examine a question Kennedy put forth to Texas Governor John Connelly on the morning of November 22, 1963. Kennedy inquired why Fort Worth remained a Democratic stronghold, while Dallas had gone Republican.
(Note: Mathews talks about Connelly’s take on the difference between 1963 politics in Fort Worth and Dallas in this Hardball blog post.)
Q: What’s the lasting impression you take away from this book?
A: That Kennedy was a student of history since his childhood. His political policy decisions were based on his knowledge of history. I’m grateful for that. He understood appeasement, the growing threat of Communism, and yet understood what the Soviet Union had endured during World War II. If Richard Nixon had been president during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the outcome could have been devastating.
Q: Finally, do you think Kennedy could be a successful politician today?
Read an excerpt from the book online.
Anybody out there read this latest bio on Kennedy? Let us know what you think.
So… we’re starting a new feature here on the Okie Reads blog that is literally talking about books. We’re going to do short interviews with friends and colleagues about the books they have been reading, and share their thoughts with our readers.
First up: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone. Verghese is a doctor and academician who has written extensively about disease and its impact on individuals and cultures, as well as about medical ethics and the physician/patient relationship. Cutting for Stone is his first work of fiction.
I noticed fellow library staffer Rebecca Barker reading the book last fall. Since Verghese’s novel takes place in Ethiopia, where he grew up, and Rebecca had been to Ethiopia, I was intrigued to get her take on the work.
Q: What does the novel’s title, Cutting for Stone, refer to?
A: At first, I saw the title referring to the connection between the gall bladder surgeries performed on patients and the Hippocratic Oath’s inclusion of “do no harm.” Toward the end of the book, I related the cutting away of issues between the characters to establish relationships between father and sons.
Q: So, some cutting away needs to be done in order to find the connections?
A: Yes, to find the love. I think the theme of the book is love; love of brothers, man and woman, adoptive parents. Love of country, medicine and self.
Q: How does the author balance his interest in medicine with the format of a novel?
A: The book is full of stories about particular afflictions Ethiopians suffer and the medical procedures employed to help them. I could easily envision the surgical procedures since he describes them so well. At the same time, there is a theme in the book of keeping the patient’s welfare at the forefront. I was interested to learn that Verghese works at Stanford and interacts with patients regularly. He teaches interns to focus on the patient rather than the medical equipment for diagnosing disease. Sounds like a man with a heart for humanity.
Q: You’ve been to Ethiopia, and you have friends there. How well do you think the author captured this part of the world? Did you learn more about the country than you previously knew?
A: Verghese brought back vivid memories to my mind of the country and the people of Ethiopia as I saw on my trip. He included a historical perspective of which I knew only a little, but by and large, he refreshed my memory of beautiful people who live graciously in a stark and difficult environment.
Q: Sounds like this book gets a definite thumbs up from you.
A: I highly recommend this book, one of the best I’ve read in the past few years. The warmth and passion kept me engrossed from beginning to end.
And there you have it, an unqualified recommendation.
Have any of you out there in the blogosphere read Cutting for Stone? If so, what was your take on the work?