Debunkery—and Plain Bunk

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In November of 1962, I was living on Pinckney Street at the top of Beacon Hill in Boston, and when, on election day, I learned that John F. Kennedy and his wife were to cast their votes at the polls just around the corner, I decided to join the cheerful throng waiting there to have a look at them.

It was a predominantly Irish crowd—elderly women, some clasping cameras; hangers-on from the nearby State House; small children and their mothers; red-faced policemen—all as eager as I to see the local boy who had made good so spectacularly.

The street on which we waited was narrow, the sidewalks were tightly packed, and here and there in the crowd a tall, well-tailored man with an earplug impassively scanned the roofs and windows overhead. The presidential party was well over an hour late, so late that my pregnant wife got tired of waiting and went home. I stayed on, and as I waited, I noticed a strange, skinny man near the door to the polling station. His matted hair stood on end. He wore a dark suit, shiny with dirt, and a stained shirt several sizes too big. But it was his manner that alarmed me: He was mumbling to himself, sometimes chuckling at jokes only he could hear, always smirking with the secret knowledge of the mad. He looked dangerous, and I vowed to keep my eye on him.

I forgot my melodramatic vow, of course, the moment I heard the sirens. The President was coming at last. A Secret Service limousine rounded the corner and slid to a stop, more agents boiling out of its doors as the President’s car pulled in behind it. The doors of the second car opened, and there they were: Kennedy, tanned and apparently fit, tucking his tie into his jacket, smiling and nodding at the cheering crowd; his wife smiling more shyly, one hand to her hair, then following him inside.

The crowd talked of how wonderful they looked. “Bless him,” one older woman said. “She’s just beautiful, too beautiful,” said another. Everyone laughed fondly at a third woman who said she’d simply been too overwhelmed to take a picture. “Get ready, get ready, now,” her husband said as the Kennedys appeared again in the doorway and another cheer went up, but the woman was still so transfixed that she could not raise her camera.

The Kennedys stepped into their car.

As they did so, the smirking man lunged out of the crowd, shouting something with such violence that spittle flew from his mouth. He hurled himself onto the car and managed to get his head all the way into the rear window before a beefy policeman pulled him off and the car pulled away. The policeman shoved him along the sidewalk. Still smiling and talking to himself, the man lurched toward the corner and disappeared.

It’s a little embarrassing now to remember the avidity with which I insisted on simply seeing a President almost thirty years ago; certainly no President since has ever stirred in me the same excitement, the same sense that anything was possible, that America might really be as good a place as Americans had always said it was. And Kennedy’s murder at the hands of another madman the following November froze that feeling for and for millions of other Americans for years.

But time and history have worked their inevitable will on Kennedy’s reputation. We know now that much of the rhetoric that stirred us then was hollow; that even the relatively few triumphs granted to Kennedy before his death—most notably the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba—were less clear-cut than we’d been led to believe; and that there was a squalid underside, both to his administration and to his own private life.

In A Question of Character (Free Press, $24.95), Professor Thomas C. Reeves focuses his censorious eye on that private life to the exclusion of almost everything else. In his bestknown earlier book, The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy (Stein and Day, 1982), Reeves evinced a good deal of sympathy for his subject. McCarthy was “extraordinary and tragic,” he wrote then; he was not “the grave threat to the Constitution and the nation he has seemed to some to be.” But he has precious little sympathy for John Kennedy. Although he claims to have read “deeply in the primary as well as secondary sources,” his new study is primarily a snip-and-paste job; apart from a smattering of interviews and excerpts from oral histories, it is a compilation of the most unsavory stories about the Kennedys he could glean from books and magazine articles whose truth or falsity he has evidently made no independent effort to assess. There is not a single revelation in it, and after a time the unrelenting piling on of character flaws fails to convince. According to Professor Reeves, John Kennedy was simultaneously reckless and overcautious; indolent and driven to succeed; the helpless instrument of his father’s driven ambition and a tireless, conscienceless self-promoter. He was a compulsive womanizer, an inept commander, an amphetamine addict, a hypocrite, a liar, “pragmatic to the point of amorality; his sole standard seemed to be political expendiency,” the author writes; he “lacked a moral center, a reference point beyond self-aggrandizement.”