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JFK The Stained-Glass Image
As with Lincoln, assassination lifted John F. Kennedy to a beatified myth, in large part because of the guidelines set for books about him.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
During Kennedy’s term of office his staff was accused of trying to manage the news. Now, of course, the charge on several fronts is that of managing history. Kennedy himself during his drive for the Presidency had no qualms about attempting to control what appeared in books written about him. In the late fifties he saw to it that some of his father’s anti-Semitic remarks were removed from a biography of the family, and at about the same time, according to Sorensen, he “waged an intensive effort with his contacts in the publishing world to prevent a projected biography by a writer inaccurately representing himself to potential publishers as a Kennedy intimate—a man whom Senator Kennedy in fact regarded as uninformed, unobjective and unsound.”
The authors of the certified chronicles do not pretend to be objective. Salinger notes that his inability to continue to work for Lyndon Johnson was no fault of Johnson’s, whom he liked. He simply came to realize that “the memory of J.F.K. was too overpowering.” “Our faith in him and in what he was trying to do was absolute,” he writes of Kennedy’s cadre of White House assistants, and, in retrospect, Sorenson is moved by their sense of common challenge and dedication to their leader’s cause to quote Henry V at Agincourt:
Kennedy once joked with his staff about Evelyn Lincoln’s blind devotion to him. “If I had said just now, ‘Mrs. Lincoln, I have cut off Jackie’s head, would you please send over a box?’ she still would have replied, “That’s wonderful, Mr. President, I’ll send it right away. … Did you get your nap?’ ” Often, in these approved histories, when a head has been cut off, Schlesinger and company, though they don’t run for a box, seem to suggest that somebody else did the dirty deed or anyhow talked Kennedy into it. or that, even if their leader did it himself, it was all, in the long run, for the best—especially if he got his nap. For example, they cite every pragmatic political excuse for Kennedy’s trepid record on McCarthyism, and Sorensen himself takes full blame for not pairing him against McCarthy in the Senate vote on censure. (Since Kennedy was incommunicado in the hospital and had not heard the final debate, says his loyal assistant, Sorensen felt it would be in violation of due process to record his vote.) Kennedy, having assailed Eisenhower for failing to issue an executive order forbidding racial discrimination in federally financed housing, then sat on the same order for nearly two years after he took office, but his delay is treated as an instance of his shrewd sense of values—even grace under pressure--since the controversial edict would have endangered the rest of his legislative program. The excuse is not extended retroactively to his predecessor.
The band of brothers combines to portray Mrs. Roosevelt as a villainess, as indeed she appeared to Kennedy in the pre-nomination days when she held him in deep distrust and maneuvered her forces in favor of Stevenson and Humphrey. And although Kennedy did once telephone the New York Times and suggest a vacation for David Halberstam, whose Vietnam dispatches were rankling, he made the call, argues Salinger, knowing full well that its effect would be to insure Halberstam’s continued presence in Southeast Asia. As for the Cuban invasion, some of the press at the time noted that while Kennedy at his own desk was manfully taking entire responsibility for the disaster, his staff in the outer office was plying newspapermen with evidence that the debacle was really the fault of the C.I.A., the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the previous administration. In their books they are still at it. But then, as Sorensen writes: “This is not … a neutral account. An impassioned participant cannot be an objective observer.”
Still, if we should not be surprised to find Kennedy’s friends giving him the best of it, it’s all right, perhaps, to be taken aback when Schlesinger in the Life serialization of A Thousand Days has the President crying in his wife’s arms after the Cuban setback and then removes the scene from his published book, announcing that “it sounded sob-sisterish” and “didn’t come off.” Apparently where John Kennedy is concerned, the previous winner of the Bancroft, Parkman, and Pulitzer prizes for history thinks of historic material as something that may be tried this way, turned around and tried that way, and balled up and discarded if it doesn’t seem entirely becoming to the subject. And then there is the matter of the style sheet that probably didn’t need to be sent to these prospective authors since they knew the house rules. Among its apparent proscriptions: