As Peacefield readers may know, I taught for years at the Naval War College, a military graduate school in Newport, R.I., that educates officers on national security and strategic affairs. It’s an eclectic place that brings together people from many academic backgrounds. That’s how I met my friend Steve Knott, whose specialty is presidential history. Steve, who is about to retire, was my hallway neighbor in Newport, and I learned a lot from talking with him and reading his books on the presidency.
Steve’s latest book, about the life of John F. Kennedy, is not only a work of history but a personal journey. Steve went from a child of Camelot to Kennedy skeptic and back again. After his years of writing about presidents from Washington to Trump, I was curious why he came back to JFK.
Tom Nichols: Steve, we both grew up in Massachusetts having, shall we say, complicated feelings about the Kennedys. As you know, my parents were the classic case of Democrats-turned-Republicans after the late 1960s. But what made you decide to engage with JFK after so many years?
Steve Knott: My experience was somewhat different from yours in that I grew up in a Kennedy-worshipping household in Massachusetts, and as a young man I bought into the Camelot myth. That myth animated so many aspects of my early life: JFK is the first president I remember; my first memory is of the Cuban missile crisis; the first time I saw my mother cry was when JFK was assassinated; my first job out of college was at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
My mother was Irish-Catholic, and when JFK broke the glass ceiling that kept Catholics out of the White House, he became a candidate for sainthood in my mother’s eyes. When I landed an early job training tour guides at the JFK Library in Boston, my mother was ecstatic, and when I was introduced to Jackie Kennedy, I immediately became her favorite son.
I should add that my late mother got tired of me writing about conservative presidents, and would always ask me, “When are you going to write a book about a good president, like John F. Kennedy?” I’ve finally done it.
Nichols: Well, wait. Our experiences weren’t that much different. My mother, too, was Irish-Catholic and venerated JFK. We had a picture of Jack in the dining room, and my grandmother even had a picture of Jack and Bobby in heaven with the Holy Spirit. Like, literally, floating in the clouds with a dove! But I’m a few years younger than you, so my first “Kennedy memory” in Massachusetts was Teddy and Chappaquiddick, and as a working-class kid, I just instinctively rejected the Kennedy claim on permanent power.
Knott: Well, ironically, it was my time at the JFK Library that soured me on all things Kennedy. While I worshipped JFK at the time, I was also devoted to the study of history, and I saw up close and personal the family’s efforts to deny “hostile” historians access to materials that were nonetheless open to courtiers like Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Nichols: By “hostile” historians, you mean “objective,” yes?