Let Every Nation Know: John F. Kennedy in His Own Words

Book by Robert Dallek and Terry Golway

Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at buzzflash.com on May 11, 2006.

On November 22, 1963, the day he was assassinated in Dallas, John F. Kennedy was scheduled to give a speech in which he would have said:

"We in this country, in this generation, are - by destiny rather than choice - the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of 'peace on earth, goodwill toward men.' That must always be our goal, and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago, 'except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.'"

It's probably the only one of JFK's truly brilliant speeches that you can't actually listen to when you buy "Let Every Nation Know," because the book comes with a CD with the audio files from 31 of JFK's most brilliant speeches, two of RFK's, and Ted Kennedy's tribute to RFK.

This book is extraordinary in how the audio is interleaved with the writing. Each chapter is a short vignette from the life of JFK, a biography that covers most of the arc of his presidency. And associated with each chapter is an audio clip, on the attached CD that comes in a plastic sleeve glued into the back cover of the book. Reading about JFK, about his positions and beliefs, about the events of a particular moment in time, and then hearing him talk about those very things, has a powerful effect. It brings to life this man, who was truly one of the 20th century's greatest presidents, in a way that no book I've ever read has done before.

The book is also a masterpiece in that it's not a polemic (unlike this review <g>). It's a solid, straightforward, and candid biography of JFK, without the artifice of "analysis" or the psychobabble "insight" so common these days in presidential biographies. Robert Dallek's "Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963" was a New York Times #1 bestseller, and he won the Bancroft Prize for his book "FDR and American Foreign Policy." Terry Golway is the author of "Washington's General" and writes for The New York Times, American Heritage, and the New York Observer. These two authors have put together a book that is as clean, clear, and concise as they get.

As JFK's youngest brother, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, said, Let Every Nation Know is "Perhaps the best of all the books on JFK. Jack speaks to us again across the years, in words still highly relevant to our times."

It's also a relatively short book, a quick and easy read, in large part because it's lacking in the padding and bullshit so common in nonfiction these days, and in part because it begins in 1960 and ends in 1963. It's a solid history. Just the facts.

And, in a way, that's what's so painful about this book. In its unvarnished and straightforward description of the major points of JFK's presidency, it's hard not to wince in nearly every chapter when thinking of the bumbling incompetents, preening egoists, and outright criminals who have followed in their occupancy of the Oval Office since 1963. Fortunately, the book itself spares us from such comparisons, although it's hard sometimes to not remember Vietnam, Watergate, the 1980 October Surprise, Iran-Contra, WTO/GATT/NAFTA, Iraq, the NSA spy scandal, and the Republican culture of corruption that have engulfed the White House in the years since JFK.

The years of Kennedy's presidency were truly the optimistic years of America. Reagan's phony rip-off of JFK's "city on a hill" speech (which is on the CD in this book) barely concealed the fact that he borrowed and dumped into the economy trillions of dollars to make the economy look good for his re-election, or that Bush Jr. has done the same. There are times when reading this book - and particularly when listening to JFK's speeches that come with it - that it's hard not to shed a tear for the idealism and hope we've lost in the Nixon/Reagan/Bush/Bush death cult that has clung like a pall to this nation in the years since JFK's death.

And yet the book also inspires optimism. It reminds us what it means to be an American. To be hopeful and forward looking. To believe that government really can be a force for good, and really can make a better world for all. And to act on that belief, whether in the Peace Corps or the voting booth, in the streets or in the newsrooms, in our daily lives and in our political lives.

By bringing forward the voice of a president who half the people alive in America today can't remember, this book and its attached CD may help introduce an entirely new generation to the ideals that once animated this nation, that took us to the moon and back, that took us to Africa and Asia to feed bodies and minds, that took us into the depths of our psyches and our ghettos to cleanse and to heal.

Like the burning lamps, the leafing trees, and the resurrection that most Americans celebrate in the springtime, this book brings a renewal of times past coupled with a hope for times future. It's an essential part of the healing from the crimes and filth of the current Administration. It reaches into our nation's soul and offers us hope for a new beginning.

Don't just get one copy for yourself. Get one for somebody under 40 as well, and introduce them to both the words and the voice of the man who inspired an entire generation to do and be more than any of us ever thought possible.

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