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An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963

4.05  ·  Rating Details  ·  6,273 Ratings  ·  237 Reviews
Everywhere acclaimed for its compelling narrative, its fresh insights, and its dispassionate appraisal of John F. Kennedy's presidency, this #1 national bestseller is the first full-scale single-volume biography of JFK to be written by a historian in nearly four decades. Drawing on previously unavailable material and never-before-opened archives, An Unfinished Life is pack ...more
Kindle Edition, 822 pages
Published (first published April 15th 2003)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Andrew Smith
I’m too young (though not by much) to remember, real time, JFK’s assassination, but I’ve been all too aware of the whodunit debate that’s raged ever since his tragic and untimely death. That said, I really didn’t know very much about the man until I read this book. It’s a thoughtful and thoroughly researched piece of work that draws on the input of many people who served with Kennedy and tapes of White House conversations, by virtue of a recording system instigated by JFK himself.

The son of a pu
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Mara
Jack Kennedy was the mythological front man for a particularly juicy slice of our history. He called a slick line and wore a world-class haircut. He was Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab. - James Ellroy, American Tabloid

Mitigating circumstances: This is the ninth among my presidential bio(ish) reads over the past month and change. I’ve been concurrently reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, which is an amazing book about an amazing pre
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Jim
Jan 15, 2016 Jim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an extraordinarily clear and detailed biography of the legendary yet all too human American president, John F. Kennedy. Robert Dallek, author of an acclaimed two-volume biography of Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson, has found, remarkably, untapped sources to bring additional life and light to Kennedy's story. Chief among these new resources are vast elements of Kennedy's medical records, which indicate both the excruciating pain and personal contortions JFK went through in an effort t ...more
James Thane
Sep 10, 2012 James Thane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography
This is a very good biography of JFK, focusing principally on his presidency. Dallek obviously admires Kennedy, but that does not prevent him from being critical of his subject when he believes that the criticism is warranted.

Dallek's principal contribution is to document more thoroughly than any previous biographer Kennedy's many medical problems, the treatment he received and the extent to which the President, his family, his doctors and others conspired to conceal those problems from public v
...more
Diane
Oct 29, 2013 Diane marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
In a New York Times Book Review article on the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, Dallek's book was described as the best biography about the president. "Dallek, who spent five years researching and writing, has a deep appreciation of Kennedy's operatic story. The book has rich detail about the president's persistent and serious health problems, which serve to make the life seem genuinely heroic as well as swaddled in troubling cover-ups."
Dana
Oct 08, 2013 Dana rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I understand that one can debate whether JFK was an effective President, but can't most of us agree that he led one of the most fascinating lives of any 20th century American? Robert Dallek's biography also believes he was an effective President and I have to agree on many issues. Dallek outlines the decisions Kennedy made during his 1000 days along with reasons why.... His first challenge - the Bay of Pigs- was set up during Eisenhower, but Kennedy accepted blame for his incorrect decision to e ...more
Judith
Sep 17, 2009 Judith rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One must wonder what there is that we don't already know about Kennedy. For me, this was an eye opener because I hadn't realized how ill the man was, not just during his presidency, but for his whole life. From early childhood until his death he was plagued like Job with constant pain and a host of diseases and injuries that it is mind-boggling that he was able to function, much less take the highest office in the country. He was in such bad shape that the Navy wouldn't take him until he had his ...more
Judy
Dec 12, 2014 Judy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
I have now completed the third biography on my list of US Presidents who have been in office during my lifetime: Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. It appears that to be taken seriously a presidential biography must be a door-stopper no matter how long their lives or how many terms they served. John F Kennedy only lived for 46 years and only held the Presidency for 1000 days but he still got 711 pages of text from Robert Dallek.

This reading about presidents' lives is probably the most difficult o
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Shane Haggerty
Dec 25, 2008 Shane Haggerty rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I admit to an obsession with the Kennedy Family. I remember being a kid and looking through my mom's boxes of stuff from her childhood and finding an autographed picture from JFK and Jacqueline from like 1962 or something. I was fascinated. Then, I was enamored and fascinated with the idea that this young and against-type President was shot down in the prime of life. I remember seeing JFK, the Oliver Stone movie, and loving it, and I was convinced that there was a conspiracy. I remember just alw ...more
Judy
May 17, 2009 Judy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really had to think before I started this book because the nearly 1,000 pages were a tad daunting. But it's a really good read. This is one of the third generation books about John F. Kennedy. Following his assassination, there were countless books that romanticized him and his presidency. Then years later, the highly critical books began to be published. This look at Kennedy by Robert Dallek, a professor of history at Boston University, looks at Kennedy from childhood through his assassinatio ...more
Jason Russell
Mar 12, 2012 Jason Russell rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
(Posted on my blog)

As I watch Jimmer and BYU take on Gonzaga in the "third round" of the NCAA tournament, I'm using an iPad from my company's IT department to write this post. It's pretty cool, I guess.

I recently finished a very compelling biography of JFK (An Unfinished Life). Being too young to have any experience with his presidency (or life, for that matter), I learned a lot from this book. I know a number of my "conservative" friends would automatically say JFK was a liberal. I suppose he d
...more
Riley
Dec 21, 2011 Riley rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The health problems that John F. Kennedy had were quite incredible, and it is hard to read them without having sympathy and awe for Kennedy's perseverance. Historian Robert Dallek was the first to have access to Kennedy's health records, though Seymour Hersh detailed many of Kennedy's ailments through anonymous sourcing in a book he wrote.

Dallek is a good writer and presents Kennedy well. That said, this biography didn't change my own view that JFK is perhaps the most overrated president in U.S.
...more
Tom
Mar 01, 2015 Tom rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Thomas
Apr 14, 2015 Thomas rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Kennedy's were the closest America has ever had to royalty, and it is a family filled with tragedy. JFK was pretty amazing in the fact that his presidency was only a thousand days. He had so many hidden health issues and his womanizing was notorious -- I don't believe in the current age of constant tweeting that he would have been able to hide any of it from the masses. Yet with all the underlying issues or baggage he had as our country's leader -- he was the leader at one of the most incred ...more
Rhona Arthur
Jul 04, 2012 Rhona Arthur rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition


I really enjoyed this single volume biography of JFK. Over the years myths have grown up around the man, family and legacy and it was great to have an overview of his contribution to global politics. I was a little surprised that there was light touch in some areas, like the Bay of Pigs, which I expected a filler analysis of and there was a great emphasis on his physical debilities. There is no evidence that any of the physical weaknesses or sexual predilections affected his judgement or events
...more
Brian Eshleman
Didn't learn that much. Fairly cursory treatment of a generally fascinating subject.
Brock
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, known as JFK, was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 29, 1917. His father, Joseph Kennedy, Sr., was a wealthy investor and a demanding father who expected his sons to be politically ambitious. When JFK was ten, his family moved to New York, and when it came time to enter high school, he was sent to Choate, a Connecticut boarding school. He became very popular, but managed only mediocre grades. He had a similar experience at Harvard, which he attended between 1936 an ...more
Kate
These are just a few of the aspects of this book that I valued. If you were not a teenager (a not-very-aware teenager) during Kennedy's career, "your results may differ."

"An Unfinished Life" informed me in clear detail about everything that was happening in American and international politics during my own lifetime! (I do remember being very frightened about Cuba in 7th grade-- and this book showed me that there were good reasons that adults and children were frightened during the missile crisis
...more
Louis
Dec 28, 2015 Louis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I owned this book for several years before reading it, inspired in part by the (then upcoming) 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. After finishing it I can honestly say I'm sorry it took me so long to get to it. Dallek obviously admires JFK but does not shy away from detailing his personal flaws. He has a full discussion of Kennedy's womanizing and does not excuse it; he comes to the conclusion that while not admirable it had no impact on JFK's ability to do his job as president ...more
Larry
Jan 04, 2012 Larry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dallek's book is a satisfying biography (though its treatment of JFK's assassination is rather uncritical of the explanation arrived at by the US government). He deals forthrightly with Kennedy's strengths (his first-rate mind, his charm, his grit), his failings (his serial philandering and his father's machinations), and with the undecided areas (his rating as a president).
Jennifer
Apr 21, 2014 Jennifer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is the most balanced treatment of Kennedy's presidency I have read to date. Dallek does an excellent job telling the story of a very complex man whom most either idolize or demonize. Yes, JFK had health problems. Yes, he was a philanderer. Yes, he was a politician. But, he also was incredibly smart, compassionate, and dedicated to service. Or, as the author puts it: "Kennedy's presidency is better understood as a patchwork of stumbles and significant achievements." JFK was a strong man. He ...more
Marc Pugh
Honestly, I only made it through 300 pages or so...lost interest with all the minutia that clogged the pages. How in the "h" did this author find out so much detail? More importantly, what made him think we cared? Perhaps I'll return to finish when I have read EVERYTHING else on my shelf. That'll be about 5 to 6 years.
Scott
Feb 08, 2014 Scott rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The first generation of JFK bios, coming out shortly after his death, were appreciative that this young demigod had chosen to grace this world with his presence for the brief time that he did. Then there was a second generation which revealed how this steaming cauldron of lust degraded his position, his long suffering wife, and every female he could get his hands on in his insatiable quest for recreational sex. Dallek's book, while still sharing some elements with both of the previous generation ...more
Amanda
Dec 23, 2015 Amanda rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I've read quite a few Kennedy bios, but this one I thought was good because it primarily focused on his actual record in public service. Of course there was the runup to his Senate race with the heroic rescue of his PT-109 crew and the usual retelling of his college time and establishment of his inner circle of friends. But the vast majority of the book was actually what he did while in public service - very little focus on his personal life, his marriage, his affairs, etc. Those topics were onl ...more
Virginia Albanese
Feb 18, 2015 Virginia Albanese rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Voluminous detailed exploration of JFK's presidency with all his warts and short comings of which there seemed a lot. Impressed of his total commitment to avoid nuclear war with Russia and then the stand off with Cuba along with his big mistake of Bay of Pigs. He appeared to be a reluctant participate in Vietnam. Talk about a political machine behind him and the money. Then the hiding of his multiple medical problems. I knew he was a womanizer, but never to what a great extent and his disregard ...more
Mduduzi Maphanga
Aug 11, 2014 Mduduzi Maphanga rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The book was well written. Robert gives readers a rather balanced view of JFK. He indicates why the president is such an iconic American figure, while also showing his less saintly side specifically philandering behavior.One appreciates the toughness of the man and his crises decision making skills, but also disappointed with the way he put his own l(and potentially America's) political security risk by struggling to control his sexual behavior. Perhaps the take away from this book is the unsung ...more
Jake Danishevsky
Sep 03, 2015 Jake Danishevsky rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Anyone who likes politics and history
Shelves: read-politics, own
A very good read or, in my case, listen. JFK, even though some of the policies might have been flowed and let to dire consequences, is arguably, one of the top American presidents. I still question whether or not he actually believed in his civil rights stance or only did it eventually out of political pressure and political climate that was around him, but nevertheless a man of high character and high morals in political life. If we do not discuss his personal escapades, here is man who could a ...more
Vivian Valvano
Disclosure: I loved JFK and admired his presidency and still weep over his assassination. I am no fool about his errant womanizing. That said, I commend Dallek for his meticulous research into JFK's medical history. He was a far sicker man than anyone except very few people very close to him knew, and he hid it very deliberately. My conclusion is that he really did want to do public service, do something for his country. Most fabulously wealthy men who were as ill as he was would have done absol ...more
Aaron Million
Jul 01, 2012 Aaron Million rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dallek presents a balanced and solid biography of JFK. He is especially good at fleshing out the myths purporting to JFK's WWII command of PT-109 in the Pacific, his lifelong penchant for womanizing, and his myriad and never-ending medical difficulties. He presents JFK as both a foreign policy realist and an idealist - and how he straddled the line between both views.

Dallek does not delve deeply into the close relationship between JFK and RFK, which began in the 1950s. While certainly alluding
...more
Steve
Jul 26, 2011 Steve rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, biography
I picked up the book at a Borders book sale and started this read a few weeks ago. As some of the other reviewers have commented, it goes back to a lot of material I already knew regarding the hige influence that Joe Sr. had in this country and how that Kennedy family influence propelled the Kennedy kids to a path of glory...and tragedy.



I was extremely surprised of the medical issues JFK went through in his life. I knew he had health issues while in the White House, but this is the first book I'
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Dallek on Kennedy 2 39 Feb 08, 2013 02:35PM  
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Robert Dallek is the author of 'Nixon and Kissinger', a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and 'An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963', among other books. His writing has appeared in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Society of American Historians, for which he served as preside ...more
More about Robert Dallek...

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