Chris Matthews on Why JFK Was A Hero

Chris Matthews discusses his new book 'Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero'.

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Presidential hopefuls are facing off already for next year's election, but none of them stack up to John F. Kennedy, says Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC's Hardball and author of a new biography of the 35th president. Matthews says he spent decades talking with people who knew Kennedy to answer the question: What was he like? In matthews/jfkJack Kennedy: Elusive Hero, Matthews says he paints an unprecedented picture of the man behind the public persona. The talk show host recently spoke with U.S. News about his motivation for the book and what he learned about Kennedy that surprised him. Excerpts:

Why did you write this book?

I am fascinated with the man and I wanted to know as much as I could and try to figure him out. And so I began this as a personal quest, and that's what the book's about.

You call Kennedy an elusive hero. Can you explain that?

Well, Jacqueline Kennedy called him that elusive, unforgettable man. And I went back to the people who knew him best and I kept asking the question that he asked all the time. He said the reason people read biographies is to answer the question, what's he like or what's she like? And so what you'd normally do is what I did, which is to go to the people who'd spent quality time with him out in the South Pacific during the war and [asked], what was he like as company? What was he like to be in the room with? And how did he go from being the rich kid and Joe Kennedy's son to becoming the man who saved the country in the Cuban missile crisis? And it was quite a challenge to find that person.

[Read: Caroline Kennedy Talks JFK, Jackie, and Honesty in History]

Was there a particular event that shaped Kennedy?

Well, I bet it was World War II. I mean, growing up as the ambassador's son he saw how a country almost fell to Hitler and had to fight for its life. And I think being in the Navy and seeing how much those 10 crew members [that he saved] wanted to live. I think he knew that war wasn't a metaphor, that war was real, and that it killed people.

Did his war experience make him a hero?

He never talked about it, never bragged about it, but think about what he did. I mean, your boat's cut in half in the middle of the night. There's no moon, no stars, you can see nothing, and you dive in the water with a horrendously bad back you've had most of your life and [the boat has] been now almost destroyed by the collision and you still manage to swim way out in the ocean and you find the guys who are drifting away from the boat and against their own wishes you bring them back individually and save them. You save 10 crewmen.

Is it necessary for a president to know war firsthand?

Well, my hunch is once you've proven yourself in war as he did, you don't have to prove you're macho. And I think he, unlike other guys like [Lyndon B.] Johnson, never had the need to go out and prove that he was tougher than somebody else.

[See a slide show of the 10 youngest presidents.]

Should Kennedy be credited for the outcome of the Cuban missile crisis?

I fear that if he was a more emotional type of person it would have been pretty frightening. The scary thing about Jack [Kennedy] was that he didn't care about the feelings of the people around him. He didn't let them affect him. That incredible self-control. Like he didn't care that everyone around him was screaming and yelling for war. He says, fine, I'm not going to have a war and I'm not going to blow this world up because you guys are all upset. He didn't take it as personal, he just saw his way through it. He knew that [Soviet Premier Nikita] Khrushchev had his hawks behind him and he had his hawks behind him and if he made the wrong move, which would be the logical move, to attack Cuba, the chain reaction would begin.

[Washington Whispers: Kennedy's Flame Still Burns at Arlington Cemetery]

What surprised you most in your research?

That he was interested in politics as a young kid. I mean, here's a guy that was reading Winston Churchill's history of World War I when he was 14. He read the New York Times in high school every day and later laid on his bed and calculated what he'd learned from it. He ran for student council at Harvard first year, then sophomore year. In the military, in the South Pacific, all he does is talk politics. He clearly had the normal pattern of a political guy, and I never knew that before and I dug that up.