As a teenager and young man, I had the healthy interest in Camelot and the Kennedy mystique not uncommon to politically engaged and potentially ambitious youngsters. I read voraciously on the topic (some of the books will appear here as the year wears on), and while I've certainly adopted a more measured and mixed attitude toward our 35th president, I retain some admiration for his public elegance, his erudition, and his capacity to inspire. And I'll never be entirely weaned off an appreciation for the mythos - the enlarged photo that hangs behind my desk is JFK and RFK deep in conversation in a Los Angeles hotel room during the 1960 Democratic convention.
Because I'm equal parts amateur political scientist and failed politician, one of my favorite books on Kennedy is White's genre-spawning classic. One of the first journalistic, real-time behind-the-scenes examinations of a presidential election, from before the primaries to election night, White's work is magnificent for many reasons. Too much popular history manufactures a sense of predestination, of great men moving inexorably to a fated conclusion. This book, and subsequent installments, creates a more unsettled atmosphere, one in which anything could have happened, and what did happen was only one possibility that skated through a narrow path to reality. White explores the ebbing and flowing fortunes of also-rans, those candidates who never took the plunge and those who did but fell short.
Scoop Jackson, Stuart Symington, Lyndon Johnson, even Adlai Stevenson courted the Democratic nomination in 1960. Why the skinny kid from Massachusetts? Money, certainly, played a factor. But Kennedy and his team understood the appetite of the country, the politics of optics and the emerging technologies of television and electoral data, better than his rivals. His was the first modern campaign, a leap of punctuated equilibrium in political evolution. Truman's whistle-stops of eight years before belonged to the 19th century, whereas the Kennedy operation's attention to detail and professional organization presaged the 21st.