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Author Biography: Evan Cornog is the associate dean for policy and planning at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. He was educated at Harvard and Columbia and has taught American history at Columbia, CUNY, and Lafayette College. He also worked as press secretary for former Mayor Edward I. Koch of New York City. Cornog is the author of The Birth of Empire: DeWitt Clinton and the American Experience, 1769-1828 and coauthor of Hats in the Ring: An Illustrated History of American Presidential Campaigns.
In the early morning hours of August 1, 1943, the Japanese destroyer Amagiri ("Heavenly Mist") rammed PT-109, the patrol torpedo boat Kennedy commanded in the Solomon Islands during the Second World War. One member of Kennedy's crew was crushed to death instantly, and the Amigiri's prow sliced through the boat only a few feet from Kennedy's spot in the cockpit. Kennedy succeeded in gathering together the surviving members of his crew on the still-floating prow of the PT-109, but it was apparent that the hulk would either sink or, failing that, be conspicuous enough to attract the attention of the Japanese. So Kennedy decided to lead his men to Plum Pudding Island, a tiny speck, a hundred yards long by seventy wide, which JFK chose as the destination because it was both large enough to conceal his ten surviving men and small enough not to have a Japanese garrison stationed there. But rescue from the immediate peril of drowning or capture by the Japanese did not end the plight of the crew.
Kennedy soon decided that the island was too far away from the normal path of American PT boats in the area to be able to signal for rescue, so he led his men on another swim to the larger island of Naru (or, as Kennedy thought, Nauro). There they were fortunate to encounter two natives who were providing intelligence to the Allies about Japanese activities. On the husk of a coconut Kennedy carved the message NAURO ISL NATIVE KNOWS POSIT HE CAN PILOT 11 ALIVE NEED SMALL BOAT KENNEDY and asked the natives to take it to their Allied contact. His message had its intended effect: Rescuers were dispatched, and on August 8, 1943, a week after the sinking of PT-109, Kennedy and his crew returned to their base.
The story of Kennedy's heroism following the sinking of PT-109 formed a crucial part of his biography when he ran for president in 1960. Survivors of the action campaigned with Kennedy in the fall, and then rode on a PT-109 float in the inaugural parade. Kennedy's story had become widely known long before the campaign, because he came from a prominent family (his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, had been chosen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 to be ambassador to Great Britain).
After the rescue was complete the story appeared in papers like the Boston Herald and the New York Times, and in 1944, Kennedy's PT-109 exploits were chronicled in The New Yorker by John Hersey, who two years later wrote Hiroshima, the classic account of the first atomic bomb attack. Hersey's 1944 piece opens casually, saying that Kennedy (identified tersely as "the ex-Ambassador's son") "came through town the other day and told me the story of his survival in the South Pacific. I asked Kennedy if I might write the story down." Kennedy urged Hersey to talk to his crew, which the reporter did. The resulting article portrays Kennedy in heroic terms, describing his physical sufferings and making clear his leadership qualities. With his men despairing that they would never be rescued, "Kennedy was still unwilling to admit that things were hopeless." It was a glowing portrait and a useful asset for a young man headed toward a career in politics.
For the presidential aspirant to have a chance, he must first be noticed. There must be a point of entry onto the national stage, an event that separates him from others and brings him to prominence. Such stories of emergence are not self-creating. They arise out of the way a person structures his life and circumstances, the way credit is given and taken, and the way the press plays the story. As the narrative develops, there are moments of risk, and those who are not willing to take the risk or who muff their chances do not remain in the game.
Not all presidential contenders have dramatic moments of emergence. Few are given the sort of opportunity for heroism that Kennedy encountered, and fewer still take advantage of their opportunity. But when a man makes a grand first impression on the public stage, it helps mark him as a certain kind of man and a certain kind of leader. It can also, if the circumstances are right, provide a vivid first chapter of a life that eventually seems to fit the role of president. A good origin myth takes a contender a long way.
Excerpted from The Power and the Story by Evan Cornog Copyright © 2004 by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
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|Ch. 1||American heroes, American myths||9|
|Ch. 2||Families matter||28|
|Ch. 3||Finding a story, choosing a character||49|
|Ch. 4||Fashioning the story||67|
|Ch. 5||When stories collide : campaigning for president||91|
|Ch. 6||A brand-new story : election and inauguration||118|
|Ch. 7||The White House as movie set||141|
|Ch. 8||Winners and losers||161|
|Ch. 9||Good and evil||179|
|Ch. 11||Memoirs and second acts||218|
|Ch. 12||The judgment of history||231|
|Ch. 13||A story in progress : George W. Bush||250|