November 29, 1993 12:00 PM

by Richard Reeves

As insightful as a good political science treatise, as tense and eventful as a good spy thriller, this engrossing book is a healthy antidote to all the spurious gossiping about the private life of John F. Kennedy.

Reeves, the L.A.-based columnist and author, doesn’t lionize Kennedy; he stresses the 35th President’s cynicism, substantial ego and willingness to lie when necessary, such as his chronic dishonesty about the dismal state of his health and his constant use of prescription drugs. But Reeves focuses on the reasons everyone got interested in Kennedy in the first place: his political shrewdness, charm, humor and the fact that his truncated presidency was filled with incident—the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, his humiliating Vienna summit with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, the early days of the U.S. civil rights movement and the first serious U.S. involvement in Vietnam. (This, Reeves, like other writers, attributes to Kennedy’s tendency to do what was politically expedient.) All these events are set against the backdrop of the Cold War at its most threatening, when Kennedy along with many of his countrymen lived in palpable fear of a nuclear war that could destroy the world.

Picking up Kennedy’s life during the 1960 presidential campaign, Reeves doesn’t stoop to inventing dialogue or imagining what people were thinking. But then, he doesn’t need to, so voluminous is the documentary history of the period. Since he is relying on published information, Reeves, writing gracefully and without undue dramatization, cannot fill his book with revelations. But then The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire was not full of surprises either.

Miniseries aside, reading this book would be the ideal way for anyone to productively mark the 30th anniversary of Kennedy’s death, to recall a fascinating, promising era, not just the tragedy that ended it. (Simon & Schuster, $30)

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