Sun, Mar 27, 2005 - Page 19 News List

The deadly sins and redeeming qualities of three presidents

'The Best Year of Their Lives' is a surprisingly original take on three well-covered US presidents

By Steve Weinberg  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon in 1948
By Lance Morrow
Basic Books
312 pages

Occasionally a nonfiction book comes along that renders the seemingly familiar in a brilliantly conceived new way.

So much has been published about John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon that a downright fresh new book about any of them -- much less all three of them -- seemed unlikely circa 2005.

Well, Lance Morrow has accomplished the unlikely. In an extended essay containing little new factual information but brimming with insights, Morrow examines how the personal histories of the three men, combined with national and international events occurring during 1948, set the stage for future presidents of the US.

Unlike many presidential biographers, Morrow does not focus on the trio because he thinks they are great men. He makes it clear that each suffered from at least one of the seven deadly sins cataloged in ancient times -- lust, gluttony, avarice, anger, pride, envy and sloth.

"Richard Nixon's defining deadly sin was surely anger -- or envy," Morrow writes, while demonstrating that hypothesis throughout the text. "Kennedy's deadly sin was lust. Johnson's deadly sin was greed -- for power, for money."

The sins eventually caused harm to each man during the 1960s, two decades after the focus of Morrow's book. On the escalator up to power, however, the men masked their sins well enough to achieve a home in the White House.

Morrow combines journalism and intellectualism about as skillfully as anybody writing in the US today. Evidence of that combination can be found in his previous books (a philosophical rumination on evil, plus two memoirs), his cover stories for Time magazine, and his in-depth features for other periodicals.

In this new book, Morrow's original thinking is given additional power by clear, compelling writing. His intellectualism allows him to define 1948 as the decision year for future presidential quests among men who seemingly had almost nothing in common.

What happened during 1948 to seed the presidential aspirations of Nixon and Johnson was exceedingly public. What happened during 1948 to Kennedy was exceedingly private.

Nixon, a first-term, socially inept, brainy congressman from California, became recognized as a Cold War Communist hunter, with a civil servant named Alger Hiss as his primary quarry. Johnson, a veteran but largely unknown congressman from Texas, ascended to the US Senate by defeating a popular down-home former governor in a nearly dead-even race -- 87 votes' difference -- that almost certainly involved ballot fraud.

Kennedy, a first-term congressman, spent 1948 doing damage control to his reputation by building a myth that few non-family outsiders penetrated until long after his assassination. One part of the myth assured voters that Kennedy enjoyed good health, when in fact he was suffering from a debilitating disease requiring heavy medication. Another part of the myth involved sexual predation rampant within the Kennedy clan. In 1948, Kennedy's beloved sister Kathleen died in an overseas plane crash while with her married lover. The Kennedy clan lied about the circumstances of Kathleen's death, and got away with the lie. John F. Kennedy learned that he could get away with lies about his own sexual improprieties -- and did so for the remaining 15 years of his life.

Morrow's extended essay would pack intellectual power if all he had done was chronicle the biographical turning points of Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon during 1948, then outline their divergent paths to the presidency in 1960, 1963 and 1968.

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