BOOKENDS: Lance Morrow’s Presidential Dream Team Falls Short

Book probes dirty details of White House occupants’ tactics—and sex lives

The title of Lance Morrow’s new book is remarkably fascinating: “The Best Year of Their Lives: Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in 1948.” Each of these three men indelibly shaped American politics, and now Morrow ties their lives together in one book. Think Superman and Batman together in the Justice League, or Allen Iverson and LeBron James as teammates on the Olympic team.

However, like with that underachieving basketball squad, the result was somewhat disappointing. The book never fulfills the potential that is boldly emblazoned on the front of the dustcover. Yet, this should not be taken as an insult to the “The Best Year,” because the book is really quite an enjoyable read with interesting, unconventional insights. Morrow, a professor at Boston University and a seasoned contributor to Time, writes in smooth, clear prose, although he sometimes shades toward the bombastic. For instance, in describing Nixon’s physical features, he writes, “On top, tense, Brillantined black hair ripples straight back from the forehead, like rapids.”

Despite Morrow’s long career as a journalist, there is no original research here. Rather, Morrow draws on other historians’ work to support his thesis: “It was in 1948 that the three committed themselves to a mature and focused political ruthlessness”—including the use of deceit.

Unfortunately, Morrow is not quite as focused as his subjects, and many of his tidbits about characters and events tangentially related to the three presidents feel out of place. For example, the book includes a glowing biographical sketch of former Secretary of State George C. Marshall that is only very loosely tied to the big three. Another chapter entitled “Brumidi’s Frescoes and Film Noir” seems similarly detached. Constantino Brumidi was an Italian artist who attempted to overthrow the pope in the early 1850s. He went into exile in the United States and designed patriotic murals at the Capitol—using a “real fresco” technique “in which paint is applied to [a] wet surface.” What relevance does “real fresco” have to this book? After seven pages on Brumidi, Morrow unconvincingly concludes: “Politics and government by the same process offered the wet fresh surface to which Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon brought versions of America that originated in different places, had different colorations, different stories to tell, different ideals and heroes.”

Despite these differences, Morrow goes to great length to find similarities among the three main characters. Both Kennedy and Nixon had siblings who died young, for example. JFK and Johnson both had voracious sexual appetites—as Morrow reminds us time and time again. Kennedy said he could not sleep without having had sex. While his wife Jacqueline was delivering their first child stillborn, JFK and a fellow senator were entertaining women on a yacht in the Mediterranean. Johnson too had many affairs, but he stands out more for his trademark crudeness. “[H]e liked to discomfit ‘the Harvards’… by forcing them to confer with him while he sat on the toilet, and he was a lifelong exhibitionist who in college had dubbed his penis ‘Jumbo,’” Morrow relates.

Nixon, like Johnson, had a habit for making those around him uncomfortable. While drinking cocktails with the owners of the Los Angeles Times in 1967, Nixon blurted: “I probably shouldn’t tell this…But…Why did the farmer keep a bucket of shit in his living room?”

The punch line: “Because he wanted to keep the flies out of the kitchen!” A shocked silence ensued. The hostess said: “You’re right, Dick, you shouldn’t have told that.”

Like Nixon, Morrow sometimes lets his own internal monologue loose. He spends five puzzling pages comparing Nixon to the actress and sex-symbol Lana Turner, of all people, arguing that they both “were isolated, manipulative, calculating, detached.” Even Morrow acknowledges that the overlong exercise is “on the face of it, a preposterous and frivolous comparison,” and the narrative flow, which is interrupted by a mini-biography of Turner, would have benefited from its absence. At times, the book feels more like a biographical pastiche of famous figures rather than a work specifically about Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.

To his credit, Morrow’s portraits of his three main characters are at times quite touching. Morrow vividly describes the Kennedy family, dominated by patriarch Joe and rocked by repeated tragedies. John’s older brother and younger sister were dead by 1948; these repeated reminders of mortality spurred JFK to make the most of every moment. Kennedy might have operated on the assumption that since the gods had mistakenly overlooked him, “then better to take advantage of it before the gods get wise and call in the debt,” Morrow writes with a flourish. But JFK himself was certainly not spared the gods’ wrath: he suffered from Addison’s disease, the treatments for which would painfully deteriorate his spine.

Johnson’s story is sobering as well. His once-rich father lost everything to the heat and floods that destroyed his cotton crop. As a result, LBJ vowed to amass a fortune big enough to withstand any disaster. This pursuit of money would lead to allegations that Johnson improperly used his congressional position for his personal gain—for instance, he tended to help companies that ran ads on his wife Lady Bird’s radio station. And finally, there is Nixon, who as a child was devastated by his younger brother’s death from tubercular encephalitis.

However, when it comes to focusing on 1948, which the book promotes as so important, Morrow stumbles. In that year, Kennedy’s sister Kathleen died in a plane crash. Kennedy, then a congressman, concealed the severity of his own illness from the public. These episodes clearly affected Kennedy, but so did many other setbacks—such as his brother Joe Jr.’s death and his sister Rosemary’s lobotomy. The lasting impact of 1948, for JFK at least, is not so clear.

The case is easier to make for Johnson and Nixon. Morrow argues that Johnson’s Senate primary race against Coke Stevenson that year began LBJ’s legacy of deceit. Morrow borrows heavily from Robert Caro’s excellent biography, “Means of Ascent,” to describe the shameless way Johnson misleadingly portrayed his more conservative opponent as a lackey of big labor. Johnson won the primary after a local political boss “corrected a mistake” in the ballots for one precinct.

The year 1948 was likewise a turning-point in Nixon’s career. As a freshman congressman from California, he hauled a former State Department official named Alger Hiss before the House Un-American Activities Committee on charges that Hiss was a spy. The committee hearings, which were televised, made Nixon a star.

Morrow spends 57 pages on Nixon’s year, versus 18 on Kennedy’s and only seven on Johnson’s. This clear imbalance contributes to the lack of fulfillment when the book ends. The title titillated with promise, but Morrow’s account—while intriguing—all too often veers off track. To stretch a metaphor as shamelessly as Morrow: U.S. basketball fans were disappointed when the Olympic team came home with the bronze, but—as is the case here—even the let-down is not so bad.

—Staff writer David Zhou can be reached at dzhou@fas.harvard.edu.