Author in Chief by Craig Fehrman Read Online (FREE)
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Jack Kennedy didn’t need to worry—not like this, at least. When the National Book Awards announced that the senator would deliver the keynote address at its 1956 ceremony, the book trade hummed with excitement. The awards had an aura of glamour: the Commodore Hotel in midtown Manhattan, the tables piled high with cocktails and canapés. But Kennedy was actually glamorous. He’d be easy to spot among the older, dowdier authors. In fact, John F. Kennedy, thirty-eight years old, hair brushed back, slim suit buttoned, would be the biggest star in the room. Besides, it was just a speech. The senator had given plenty of those.
And yet sitting there, looking at his draft, Kennedy continued to fret. He knew he had to deliver the keynote in front of America’s best writers. (The nominees that year included Flannery O’Connor, Richard Hofstadter, W. H. Auden, and Eudora Welty.) Then again, he was a writer himself—and, lately, a very successful one. His Profiles in Courage had just started its multiyear run on the best-seller lists. The book singled out eight senators who, at key times in American history, had demonstrated true courage, and reviewers were spotting that same quality—and that same historic potential—in its author. “That a United States Senator… produced this study,” the Christian Science Monitor marveled, “is as remarkable as it is hopeful.”
So there was no good reason for Kennedy to worry about this speech—finally, honestly, because as a US senator he had better things to worry about. That’s why he normally let his staff handle his speeches, after which he might skim them (sometimes) and tweak them (lightly). That process had produced Kennedy’s other recent addresses, at colleges and churches and the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation Convention.
To the senator, however, speaking at the National Book Awards mattered more. He picked up a pen and went to work, crossing out lines, toying with tenses, and considering the smallest word choices. He scratched out “political action” and replaced it with “political events.” He added an obscure historical allusion. He made changes in his tiny, tilted handwriting, then sent the text to his aides for further revision. By the time Kennedy and his staff had finished, there were edits all over the draft’s eleven pages. The only thing they hadn’t fussed with, it seemed, was the title: “The Politician and the Author: A Plea for Greater Understanding.”
On the day of the National Book Awards, the Commodore Hotel pulsed with cheery enthusiasm. About a thousand literary types filed in, past the famous lobby, with its functioning waterfall, to the Grand Ballroom. The editors wore red carnations, the authors wore white, and everyone was making predictions.
Once the awards were handed out—the big winner was Auden—it was time for the keynote. Kennedy had made even more edits, tightening his case for why authors and politicians could form a respectful alliance. The senator indulged in easy jokes. (“The only fiction to which many modern politicians turn their hand is the party platform.”) But he also spoke with an idealism that, four years later, would define his presidential campaign. In America, he pointed out, writers and elected officials shared a “common ancestry,” starting with polymaths like Thomas Jefferson and extending to politically vigilant scribes like Harriet Beecher Stowe. They shared similar goals—defending free speech, of course, but baser ones as well. “The politician and the author,” Kennedy said, “are motivated by a common incentive—public approval. ‘How many books will I sell?’ asks the author. ‘How many votes will I get?’ asks the politician.”