A Pivotal Year for Three Future Presidents
‘Best Year’ Focuses on Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon
In his new book, “The Best Year of Their Lives: Kennedy, Nixon, and Johnson in 1948: Learning the Secrets of Power,” Lance Morrow uses the seminal year to examine the psyches of the three polarizing, larger-than-life figures who occupied the White House in the 1960s.
“The whole tumble of the ’60s,” Morrow posited in an interview, including “the assassinations, and the riots and the war and all of that,” were in part a result of the events that transpired in 1948. The year was one of new beginnings for the country, including “television, the Cold War, the Kinsey Reports, the suburbs, the post-war conversion from a war time military economy to the immense consumer economy that became the driving engine of fortune.”
The year was also one of new beginnings for three future presidents. Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) won a hotly contested, and largely crooked, Senate campaign. Richard Nixon (R-Calif.) began the investigation into Alger Hiss, a former government official accused of spying for Communist Russia. John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), serving his first term in the House, was diagnosed with Addison’s Disease (a crippling affliction he would spend the rest of his short life hiding from the public for political reasons) the year before, and then lost his sister, Kathleen Kennedy, in a plane crash over the Atlantic.
While the three interacted with each other infrequently that year, their futures would be forever intertwined. Kennedy defeated Nixon for the presidency in 1960; LBJ ascended to chief executive after Kennedy’s assassination, then declined to run for a second term after the mounting pressure of the Vietnam War became too much to survive. Nixon replaced LBJ, only to be brought down by his own moral failings six years later.
Despite its title, Morrow does not limit himself to 1948. Instead, his book is a treatise on the psychological landscape that led each of these men to the forefront in that tumultuous year, as well as the psychological landscape of the country as a whole.
“They were dominant presences, and they were all three of them very complex men, complicated, difficult to understand,” Morrow said. “They tended to be polarizing figures.”
For Morrow, a professor at Boston University who previously worked as a journalist, it is as important to understand where these men came from in addition to what they did in the early years of their career. As such, he writes about the “origin myths” of these figures, as he describes them, and uses a number of popular culture references to help connect the reader to these legendary men.
In one extended comparison, Morrow links Nixon to Lana Turner, the sexpot actress most famous for her work in the 1940s. On the face of it, Morrow admits, the comparison is ridiculous. But upon closer review, Morrow sees a number of similarities between the two.
Turner was essentially objectified as a sexual object, even though she was not at all interested in sex, commenting, “All those years that my image on the screen was ‘sex goddess’ — well, that makes me laugh. Sex was never important to me.”
In the same way, Nixon’s involvement in politics is confusing, since the game of politics is typically one of people and Nixon “preferred to be alone. He preferred to work things out in notebooks.” Morrow neatly summarizes the metaphor in the first chapter of his book, “Sex was her act. Politics was his.”
Morrow also uses JFK’s fascination with the 1948 film “Red River” as a mirror into the president’s frame of mind, especially in relation to his father. As Morrow explained, “When I used ‘Red River’ … what I’m trying to get at is the myths that Americans are working with in their imaginations.”
Deconstructing the myths of these three men is the greatest strength of Morrow’s book. “Americans more than most other people need to know whether they are a good people or a bad people,” he said. As such, he continued, we build up our heroes in our own minds, to the point where they “become sort of gods.”
So instead of portraying Kennedy as a flawless hero brought down prematurely by an assassin’s bullet, Morrow presents the man behind the myth that has been created over the years. And instead of focusing on Nixon’s ruthless side, he looks at the man few have seen.
“I did not set out to look at ‘poor little Dicky’ and see if we could understand a child,” Morrow said. “I was trying to come to all three of these guys with fresh eyes and understand certain things about them.”
Morrow will appear at Politics and Prose at at 7 p.m. Wednesday to participate in book signing and question and answer session for “The Best Year of Their Lives.”