By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON – The art of modern politics involves creating the illusion of intimacy with our leaders. But two new biographies remind me that even the most famous personalities remain elusive and, in some ways, unknowable.
This combination of closeness and distance will be on display in the 2012 presidential election, where I’m guessing the candidates will be Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. These two politicians have worked overtime to seem relaxed and accessible.
And yet, for all this seeming self-revelation, Obama and Romney remain two supremely mysterious people.
For a searching examination of the mysteries that are hiding in plain sight with our leaders, I commend two new works. They ultimately are about this paradox of public figures whose motivations remain, to the end, intensely private.
Take a look, first, at Chris Matthews’ thoughtful new book, “Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero.” As a prominent television personality himself, Matthews understands the riddle of being constantly in the public eye, but also in another space the public doesn’t see. And he has brought this intuition to a re-examination of JFK.
Drawing on interviews with people in Kennedy’s inner circle, Matthews paints a portrait of a man who was more wounded, physically and emotionally, than is generally understood.
JFK, the American prince, was also a frail man psychologically. Raised by nannies and nurses, he had a deep fear of being alone, which was one reason he surrounded himself in later life with his personal retinue.
The abiding insight in Matthews’ book is that it was the very traits JFK concealed that allowed him to resolve the Cuban missile crisis, his greatest test. His advisers were pushing toward war, but Kennedy escaped this conventional and potentially fatal analysis. “It was his detachment that saved us,” Matthews writes.
It may be a bit harder to find my second recommendation, which opened this weekend at theaters in four cities and will enjoy a wider release later this fall. It’s a new documentary film about former CIA director William Colby, made by his son Carl. It has the haunting title, “The Man Nobody Knew: In Search of My Father, CIA Spymaster William Colby.”
Colby was among the very best spies the CIA produced. Though his career was in the shadows, he shared some attributes with JFK: He was a Catholic, a war hero, and a man who led others partly by concealing his innermost feelings. Colby also exemplified what JFK never lived to see, which was how his “best and brightest” ran headlong into the shattering disaster of Vietnam.
The film converges on the true riddle of Colby’s life – which is why this lifelong denizen of the secret world decided to go public with the agency’s “Family Jewels” in 1975, beginning an era of investigation from which the CIA has arguably never recovered.
Colby died in a boating accident in 1996. He left a behind a mystery that even his son’s diligent and loving reconstruction cannot resolve. That’s so with most of our public personalities: The closer we get, the further they seem to recede.
David Ignatius’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.