Book Reviews

JKF’s Last Hundred Days – Thurston Clarke – Book Review

JFK's last hundred days

JKF’s Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke – Review by Cormac Donnelly

When President Obama shook the hand of Raul Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in December 2013, international media barely registered the act. In Europe it was given moderately less coverage than President Obama’s “selfies” with Prime Minster Thorning-Schmidt of Denmark, or the antics of a sign language interpreter. In the US media, however, it caused some rumblings of interest following broadly predictable lines; Artura Lopes Levy in the Huffington Post wrote that “Barack Obama and Raul Castro were on the same side of the South African conflict, Mandela’s side … A gesture says more than a thousand words”[1]. Todd Gillman writing in the Dallas News noted that while to some it was a breakthrough in cold war tensions to ‘many’ it caused ‘outrage’. Not least of these, Senator Ted Cruz “… the Texas tea partier whose father fled Cuba as a teen…”[2]

50 years before this handshake, according to Thurston Clarke in his engrossing “JKF’s Last Hundred Days”, President John F. Kennedy had circulated a secret document amongst a few trusted aides wondering if a clandestine face to face meeting could be organised with Fidel Castro. With the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis and the embarrassment of the “Bay of Pigs” debacle here was the president of the United States mulling over extending an olive branch or at least a discussion about olives. Ultimately neither this meeting nor any other followed until President Clinton’s term. This small detail and many others litter Mr. Clarke’s book, as he uses a patchwork of vignettes to paint a portrait of the 35th US president.

Speaking in Washington bookstore Politics and Prose Mr. Clarke says “To discover the Essence of a secretive, elusive man that compartmentalises his life, you had to look into every compartment, to understand a […] prismatic president; you had to look at him through every prism.” The focus was to be “not who killed him, but who he was when he was killed”[3]

Recounting Elaine de Kooning’s struggles to paint a portrait of the president, Mr. Clarke begins his tapestry with a clear analogy; this most written about president is difficult to capture. Representations of him can sometimes ring false as he had so many contradictions and – the elephant in the room – his untimely end meant we never knew what he might have achieved. Mr. Clarke’s project is to take us day by day through these last 100 days. We are given diary like a synopsis of where the President was and what he was doing, what he saw, who he met.

This approach is most refreshing and what is striking is also the most obvious of observations – how a president has a very short timeframe to make decisions with huge consequences, and how human these decisions can be. Also the format fits nicely with whatever view you may hold of President Kennedy. Flitting from meetings with staff to phone calls with world leaders to dodging the vice president and always, of course, we know what’s coming. Mr. Clarke wisely resists the temptation to drop hints, there is no need, the chronological format moves only one way. When November in Dallas is dealt with, it is in the same diary like manner.

Critical reception of this book has been partisan, no surprises there. Right wing commentators accuse Mr. Clarke of wearing blinkers when looking at President Kennedy’s inconsistencies[4]. Certainly any biographer is on shaky ground when declaring what Kennedy might have done had he survived. There are moments where Mr. Clarke sails a bit close to the wind in this respect, the what if calls – Kennedy was putting philandering behind him or the civil rights bill would have passed under his watch.[5] If Mr. Clarke has a central thesis it is that John F. Kennedy was a different president in the last three months of his presidency than the preceding two and half years. With his changing utterances and behaviour towards civil rights, his marriage and his conversion from hawk to dove particularly with Khrushchev’s USSR being the pillars of evidence.

The enlightened reader can decide, but by including many examples of equivocal behaviour (The persistent presence of ‘advisors’ in Vietnam while expressing a desire to be out, cagey support of civil rights) it does seem that Mr. Clarke wants us to make up our own mind about President Kennedy. The historical form gives perspective and opportunity to consider the context, while from time to time Mr. Clarke nails his colours firmly to the mast; Not least of all in a final chapter, a roll call of the famous, the influential and the ordinary expressing grief over the passing of their leader.

“JKF’s Last Hundred Days” by Thurston Clarke is available now in hardback and ebook published by Penguin, a paperback edition will be available from August 2014.


[2] http://trailblazersblog.­­castro/?nclick_check=1


[4] http://www.washingtontimes.­com/news/2013/sep/3/book-­review-jfks-last-hundred-days/

[5] Robert Caro – biographer and champion of President Johnson quotes Richard Russell, Democrat Senator from Georgia and staunch anti-civil rights campaigner, in “The Passage of Power” ‘We could have beaten John Kennedy on civil rights, but not Lyndon Johnson.’


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