JFK The Stained-Glass Image

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Lincoln once found a life of Edmund Burke “so lavish in praise of his every act that one is almost driven to believe that Burke never made a mistake or a failure in his life.” Most biographies, he grumbled, “commemorate a lie, and cheat posterity out of the truth.” Kennedy had a similar complaint after reading the first volume of Eisenhower’s autobiography. “Apparently Ike never did anything wrong,” he said. “When we come to writing the memoirs of this administration, we’ll do it differently.” Whatever blocking tactics Kennedy tried to use on books about himself during his long campaign for the Presidency, once that was won and then irrevocably lost, it was his remark about biography and infallibility that his personal historians tried to keep in mind. Despite all their excuses for him vis-à-vis McCarthy, they felt free to conclude that in many respects he was “insensitive” and “wrong” on this issue. After all the many alibis for the Bay of Pigs, his performance there is labelled essentially “stupid”—and, as is often the case in these books, the harsh judgment is his own.

Kennedy’s part in the Vietnam war is not glossed over: it was “his great failure in foreign policy.” The influence of his humor and instinct for self-mockery is consistently present, as when Sorensen points out that in his chapter on the 1960 fight for the nomination he finds that he has referred to powerful Kennedy supporters as “political leaders” while those in the opposition camp are “bosses,” who are then converted to “political leaders” when they come over to the right side. And though Ambassador Kennedy gets the specified respectful treatment, his son Jack made a telling remark that is also available for balance. It came after a Georgia court had sent Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to jail and Kennedy had made a sympathy call to King’s pregnant wife. On learning of the call, King’s father announced that it had persuaded him to support Kennedy, whom he had planned to vote against on strictly religious grounds. The candidate’s comment was, “Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father. … Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?”

Soon after he took office, Kennedy directed the Voice of America to broadcast the nation’s story “with all our blemishes and warts, all those things about us that may not be so immediately attractive.” If certain of his own blemishes are still considered unmentionable, the authorized accounts are not without authorized warts. They don’t hesitate to mention his crankiness, his scorching sarcasm and quick temper, his lack of consideration for those working for him, and his impatience with anyone, no matter how worthy, who bored him. Although only an infrequent “son of a bitch” or “kicked in the can” is quoted, there is no pretense that his language in private was in keeping with his posthumous saintlike image. Even the White House nannie tells of an occasion when Caroline left behind in Kennedy’s office a large doll whose special accomplishment was that it would repeat whatever was said to it. The feat involved a tape recorder, and the next day when Caroline retrieved the doll and pressed the proper button, there emerged from its rosebud plastic lips Daddy’s angriest voice, using, said Miss Shaw, “a very naughty word.” Not knowing how to erase the tape, she hastily called a Secret Service agent to perform a disembowelment.

(Curiously, Miss Shaw’s account of the day of the assassination omits Caroline’s harrowing ride through the Washington streets with a Secret Service man just after the news from Dallas began to come in, the episode that Death of a President relates in such detail. Caroline and John, she says, had just had lunch at the White House with Teddy Kennedy’s children and were about to be put down for their naps when the word came. Thus, as in so many aspects of the Kennedy saga, historians are reminded of how variable is the human memory of events even so soon after the fact.)

The books by Kennedy’s three White House assistants are, of course, the memoirs that will be of serious interest to future historians. Of these the gracefully written A Thousand Days is much the best job. After all, Schlesinger has been arranging presidential crises into orderly chapters for two decades. Moreover, most of his White House years were spent not in Kennedy’s West Wing wheelhouse but in the East Wing writing voluminous memos, from which task he would be summoned now and then for advice or for a bit of political legwork. His engagement in Kennedy’s program was not the roll-call-by-roll-call affair that it was to Sorensen and Salinger, and he was able to view it with some perspective against a background of what had gone before and what was happening elsewhere and was thus able to write a book that is more the history of an exhilarating national interval than the biography of one man. Sorensen’s Kennedy is shorter than the Schlesinger book (758 pages vs. 1,031) but it gives the impression of being far longer, since it covers in dense detail the last eleven years of Kennedy’s life (Schlesinger was involved only in the last four) from a vantage point rarely more than a centimeter from Kennedy’s elbow. Salinger’s With Kennedy is a slighter book than either of these; yet it has a certain long-range interest, especially in its accounts of the vast preparations for total war in October, 1962, the problems confronting the American press during the two Cuban crises, and his own comparative intimacy with individual Russians, including Khrushchev.