This book, A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy, is long overdue. For years unpleasant information about John F. Kennedy has surfaced, only to be discounted as the work of ideologues or cranks. And even when stories of the ''bad'' JFK have been believed, they have failed to shake the myth of the handsome prince in the American version of Camelot.
Now comes Thomas C. Reeves, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin and the author of books on Joseph McCarthy and Chester A. Arthur, to put the Kennedy story together carefully, accurately, and completely. And it appears that earlier exposés of the real JFK by people like Victor Lasky (JFK: The Man and the Myth), Herbert S. Parmet (Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy and JFK: The Presidency of John F. Kennedy), and even ex-girlfriend Judith Campbell Exner (My Story) were more accurate than not.
From start to finish, the real John Fitzgerald Kennedy had little in common with the fictional man smuggled into history books by official Kennedy historians like Arthur Schlesinger. In place of the sympathetic and courageously high-minded young President constructed by his publicists, the subject of Reeves' book was a self-centered, sociopathic satyr, a man incapable of internalizing the feelings of others and one also incapable of believing that the rules he understood also applied to him, a man so driven by his sexual demands that he had to be continually supplied with women, or ''poon,'' as he liked to refer to them.
Most of this information has been reported before, but Reeves has gone through the Kennedy gossip, weeded out the apocryphal stuff, established the veracity of the rest, and put it all between two covers. We learn, for instance, that Kennedy seriously distorted his war record. The commander of PT 109 was not the hero he and others have described. Instead, as Reeves shows, he was seriously derelict. We learn also that Profiles in Courage, the book for which Kennedy accepted a 1957 Pulitzer Prize, was written by somebody else; that as a candidate for the presidency, JFK met repeatedly with and solicited money from gangsters, who helped him win the crucial West Virginia primary; that he continued his alliance with mobsters in the White House, using Judith Exner, a girlfriend he shared with Sam (Momo) Giancana, as their courier; that he was often so physically incapacitated by Addison's disease that he was unfit to perform his duties.
That's for openers. We learn that in the middle of the Cold War the man with his hand on the doomsday button was getting regular injections of speed from the notorious ''Dr. Feelgood.'' In the course of taking his various pleasures, Kennedy was often out of touch with the Pentagon, leaving the nation without a commander in chief in the event of a surprise attack.
Many of those who covered for Kennedy when he was alive and have kept his secrets for these 30 years people like Schlesinger, Walt Rostow, and Theodore Sorensen are still around occupying high places in government, foundations, universities, and the media. Kennedy is dead, but perhaps this book will prompt his eminent apologists to account for their distortions of the historical record. A-