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Published: Sunday, 5/1/2005

The boys of 1948: JFK, LBJ, Nixon

BY BOB HOOVER
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

The Best Years Of Their Lives: Kennedy, Johnson And Nixon In 1948. By Lance Morrow. Basic Books. 312 pages. $26)

"Backward rolled sentences until reeled the mind," Woolcott Gibbs wrote in his brilliant 1930s satire on Timestyle, the peculiar writing of Henry Luce's news magazine.

While present-day Time writer Lance Morrow avoids the excesses of Luce language, he employs such an idiosyncratic style himself that his new book borders on the incomprehensible.

If pressed to describe Morrow-style, the best I can do is "breezy sloppiness." Try this brain-twister:

"As the baby boom grew up, they would become shoppers. As they reached the age of financial discretion, many of them would conceive of themselves, at first, in the sixties, as idealists."

To rework Gibbs, "What it all means, knows God?"

That pearl of a paragraph is one of many contained in Morrow's clumsily contrived project linking the careers of Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, and Richard Nixon in 1948, the year, flatly insists the author, that America discovered conformity.

What does that all have to do with the three presidents-in-waiting?

Very little, actually, but neither does the Kinsey Report, the life of Gen. George Marshall, the invention of the jukebox, and the career of Lana Turner, which, by the way, resembled Nixon's, Morrow tells us. Don't ask.

Those topics are used as padding, a sort of Morrow primer of American history, post-war. When he returns from time to time to his three heroes, he repeats and reworks biographical details told long ago by others.

In journalism parlance, that technique is called a "clip job."

The ostensible theme of the book, however, is seldom heard. Morrow's pile of well-worn anecdotes never produces a common thread running among the trio. What happened to Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in that year?

LBJ was elected - wrongly, thanks to friends in high places, including the U.S. Supreme Court (sound familiar?) - to the U.S. Senate, thus ensuring his political future.

Nixon, then a U.S. representative from California, saw his career boosted by his - and Whittaker Chambers' - performances accusing former State Department official Alger Hiss of spying for the Soviet Union.

Kennedy, then a U.S. representative from Boston, lost his sister, Kathleen, in a plane crash, just four years after his older brother, Joseph, Jr., died in a wartime bomber explosion.

Little else occurred in his political life that year, and he would not join the Senate until 1952, the year Nixon was Dwight Eisenhower's running mate.

So, it was a very good year for Johnson and Nixon, but a tragic yet unremarkable one for JFK. There were lots of women, of course, as Morrow repeatedly reminds us.

The Best Year is unbalanced, weighed the heaviest on Nixon, particularly the three-ring circus of the Hiss-Chambers business.

Three future presidents, three distinct lives, very little in common. By the way, the title comes from the Oscar-winning film The Best Years of Our Lives, which appeared, unfortunately, in 1946.

I have ignored mentioning much of Morrow's cockeyed logic, but I must protest his comparison of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire to Yeats' "rough beast waiting to be born" in his poem "The Second Coming."

Stanley was a bit of a slob, but he's not the Antichrist.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bob Hoover is book editor of the Post-Gazette.



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