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The Irish Brotherhood: John F. Kennedy, His Inner Circle, and the Improbable Rise to the Presidency - Helen O'Donnell

This is the best book that I've read that makes plain how it was that John F. Kennedy, with the help of a dedicated, loyal and hard-working group of young men later known as "the Irish Brotherhood" (many of them, like himself, veterans of the Second World War) --- among others --- managed to establish, at times against heavy odds, one of the most remarkable political careers in American history that took him from the House of Representatives in 1946 to the White House in 1960.

One of the best attributes of this book is that it reads a lot like an epic novel. The many personalities who fill its pages come alive in bold, bright colors. The story begins in a Chicago bar shortly after JFK's failed bid to secure the vice-president slot with the Democratic candidate for President, Adlai Stevenson, in 1956. Kenneth "Kenny" O'Donnell (the author's father, who, at that time was JFK's "tough-talking , no bullshit, political aide") is savoring a beer while coming to terms with this setback in Kennedy's political career. "...the entire week --- had ended up with a loss. They got screwed. Thrown under the bus by the Democratic Party establishment, especially by the liberals, who had never liked Jack or his father. ... Adlai Stevenson, making his second run for the Democratic presidential nomination, along with Senator Carey Estes Kefauver, crime-fighting liberal from Tennessee, and the rest of the political establishment --- led the charge against the Kennedy brothers. They were men who saw Jack Kennedy and his Irish buddies as impossibly young, inexperienced, and arrogant. John F. Kennedy was, after all, the son of Ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy, a man who was loved by some but reviled by even more. John Fitzgerald Kennedy, or Jack, as his family called him, was the [second] child of Joe and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy of Boston. When their firstborn son, Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., died tragically, a hero in the war, it supposedly fell to second son Jack to pick up the fallen standard. Or so the story had been told around Boston."

Then, after the reader is given access to some of Kenny's O'Donnell's background (like JFK, a Massachusetts native, but from humbler working-class origins, who joined the U.S. Army Air Force at 17, saw action in Europe - where he was twice shot down over enemy territory and managed to make his way back both times to the Allied lines), the clock is rolled back to the 1945-46 school year at Harvard. Thanks to the GI Bill of Rights, Kenny has secured a place there, where he becomes renowned for his athletic prowess on the football field, becoming captain of the team. Here is where Kenny would have a fateful meeting with destiny when he met Robert ("Bobby") Kennedy. "Bobby had wanted to join the squad. He was then too small, a marginally talented athlete, but made up for it with sheer determination." Both men hit it off instantly and talked often about football and politics, subjects for which they shared a passion. For a time both Bobby and Kenny were roommates. It was Bobby who would introduce Kenny to his older brother John. JFK and Kenny didn't really hit it off at first. (Indeed, it would be a few more years before both men became fully comfortable with each other and developed a virtually unspoken bond of mutual trust and respect.)

Kennedy, not long out of the Navy, was set on running for Congress. But despite his father's wealth and longstanding political connections in Massachusetts, he wasn't regarded as a serious candidate for a solidly working-class district that looked down on people of his class. Notwithstanding that, Kennedy was determined to do his best to win and to that end, he slowly built up a coterie of dedicated people (including Kenny) who canvassed the district door-by-door and made the personal connections that would give him much needed visibility.

JFK would go on to win election to the House and maintain his seat until 1952, when he decided to run for the U.S. Senate against Republican Henry Cabot Lodge, who hailed from a powerful political family and was regarded as unbeatable. The state Democratic Party didn't take him seriously and when on Election Night --- Eisenhower was swept into the White House, carrying on his coattails large numbers of Republicans elected to Congress --- it looked as if JFK would lose, pressure was put on him by party leaders in the state to concede. But he wouldn't, because a majority of the votes had yet to be counted and he had confidence in the work Kenny and others had made over many months in setting up a statewide political network. Sure enough, in the wee hours of the morning, Kennedy would prevail over Lodge, one of the few bright spots in the fortunes of the Democratic Party in 1952.

Helen O'Donnell, who throughout the book, made judicious use of a series of taped interviews her father had with the journalist Sander Vanocur (who covered the Kennedy White House for NBC) in 1965 and 1966 --- in addition to oral histories from politicians (e.g. Hubert Humphrey who ran against JFK during the 1960 Democratic primaries) and people who worked closely with her father and President Kennedy, as well as interviews she carried out herself with her father's surviving siblings (who played parts in many Kennedy campaigns), Senator Edward Kennedy, Sander Vanocur, and Ben Bradlee (formerly Head Editor of The Washington Post) --- deserves full praise for a thoroughly engaging, poignant, and wonderful book.

Not too many people know that, while in the Senate, JFK's chronic back problems had become so severe that he had two surgeries on his spine in 1954. Complications set in and his temperature had gone up to 105 degrees F. Up to this time, Kenny had no idea of the various health problems with which JFK was afflicted. Only gradually, as he earned JFK's full trust and that of the Kennedy Family, would these details be shared with him. Twice the Catholic Church had administered JFK the last rites. Many in the Democratic Party reckoned that even were he to survive, JFK would emerge a cripple and much diminished in terms of his political prospects. Some in the Party leadership expected that his time in the Senate would be short-lived. This, for me, was one of the most touching chapters of the book. The reader will see a John F. Kennedy who seemed finished, at a very low ebb, who somehow, after a slow recovery, finds anew his passion for politics and public service and, like the phoenix, comes back stronger.

To sum up, I want to cite the high regard in which President Kennedy held his chief political aide and close friend: “I never doubt Kenny. His loyalty to me is absolute. I trust him completely. We may disagree at times over politics or people. He is not always right, nor am I. But I always know he has my back and always will. He always calls it like he sees it. I appreciate that.”