I’m currently putting the finishing touches on my new book which will be published later this year by Lyon’s Press. It’s titled, “JFK’S GHOST: Kennedy, Sorensen, and the Making of Profiles in Courage.”
My Dad gave me a copy of Profiles when I was a kid.
I still have it.
He also gave me my first history books. They were given away with a purchase of laundry soap each week at the A&P grocery store in Taylor, Michigan where I grew up.
John F. Kennedy, then the President of the United States, wrote the Foreword.
I’ve been interested in the Kennedy story ever since, and now I finally get the chance to write about it.
The story of the writing, publication, popular reception, of Senator John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, is in many ways a window into the era of all things Camelot to come. And as with so many legends, the myths had a superfluous quality to them, because so many of JFK’s accomplishments were significant on their own merit and in no real need of enhancement.
Kennedy’s rise to the pinnacle of political power after World War II is a compelling story of ambition, wealth, skill, and a measure of cunning. He was prone to sickness—near death on a few occasions—yet he won the White House in 1960 with an image of youthful and vibrant energy. He brought erudition, charm, wit, and charisma to the presidency in ways never before seen.
A few years later, Richard Nixon, Kennedy’s rival, would win the presidential prize. However, his pathway to it was mocked as contrived and image-laden. There was even a bestselling book written about it shortly after the Nixon family moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue called, The Selling of the President—a cynical look at how Roger Ailes (of future Fox News notoriety) and many others manipulated (in the book’s view) the political process and Nixon’s image en route to victory.1 But Nixon’s 1968 team simply borrowed from the Kennedy playbook from the 1960 campaign cycle.
Not that anyone noticed.
Like all successful politicians, Kennedy brought a tight-knit entourage with him wherever life and work took him—men and women who would do just about anything for him, and often did. They covered for him at times and worked as one to keep the flame of his image burning bright even long after he was gone.
They still do.
Winning the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957 was a vital piece of the puzzle in JFK’s ascendance to the presidency. And it is clear that to Kennedy himself the award was one of his proudest achievements. He would be hyper-sensitive to his dying day about any criticism or rumor that cast doubt on his authorship of Profiles in Courage.
John F. Kennedy was 39-years-old when he won the Pulitzer, and it was well-timed. He seemed to instinctively understand how beneficial it would be to have that kind of award on his political resume. After all, the man he hoped to succeed in less than three years was nearly three decades older and had a career of hands-on leadership and management experience on his side. Jack had never run anything more than a small crew on a PT boat and his office staff. Hardly a match for the commander of all things D-Day. It was understandable that Jack was afraid of being perceived as young and inexperienced, not all that ready for the responsibilities of the presidency. He needed to add a good measure of gravitas to his c.v., and the Pulitzer was a pathway to what biographer Robert Dallek described as the “the stamp of seriousness” he needed to win high office.2
With the publication of Profiles, Kennedy’s name recognition soared nationally. The book was an instant best-seller and received stellar reviews. Because of it, Jack would go on to receive several honorary college degrees. Profiles became a global publishing phenomenon, and was translated into dozens of languages, “from Persian to Gujrati.3” He was increasingly seen as an erudite man of letters. Much of the book was reprinted in mass circulation periodicals. He was uninvited with new speaking invitations from far and wide, and all this with the 1956 Democratic National Convention scheduled for that Summer in Chicago, where he already had his eyes on the possible vice presidential nomination on a ticket with Adlai Stevenson.
Of all honors he would receive throughout his life, none would make him happier than his receipt of the Pulitzer Prize. And all of the abuse he would receive throughout his life, none would make him more angry than the charge a few months later that he had not really written it.
But winning that prize put a spotlight on Jack Kennedy, one that, at times, resembled a target on his back. The attention carried with it scrutiny of the sort he had never really experienced before on the national stage. There was a measure of envy on the part of his political peers, who resented all the attention he was getting. Soon rumors began to circulate—rumors that Kennedy had not actually written the book, and that sales figures were being manipulated to ensure the book’s longevity on bestseller lists. The FBI even started a file, sensing that Kennedy could be vulnerable to a fraud charge.4
If the rumors were proven to be true, and there was a genuine charge of fraud, all of Kennedy’s hopes and dreams, as well as those of his diehard circle of admirers and boosters––not to mention his father––would come to nothing.
And there would never be that brief and shining moment in America remembered ever since as Camelot. — DRS
[David R. Stokes is a best-selling author, historian, broadcaster, and retired pastor. His forthcoming book, JFK’S GHOST: Kennedy, Sorensen, and the Making of PROFILES IN COURAGE, will be published by LYONS PRESS later this year]
1 a cynical look: The Selling of the President, Joe McGinness
2 “stamp of seriousness”: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, by Robert Dallek, p. 210
3 “from Persian to Gujrati”: Kennedy, Theodore Sorensen, p. 68
4 The FBI even started a file: An Unfinished Life, Dallek, p. 210