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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
Before joining Kennedy’s staff, reports Schlesinger, he was warned that he would be plunging into “a ruthless scramble for access and power.” He found instead that “the Kennedy White House remained to the end remarkably free of the rancor which has so often welled up in Presidential households.” Although the three members of the brotherhood whose memories of Kennedy are now in print often deal with the same event, in which each played some part, little jockeying for historical position clutters their books. Their putdowns and waspish digs are generally reserved for others, usually those not wearing a PT-boat tie clasp. Here also the influence of Kennedy as editor-in-absentia is apparent. “Nor would he tolerate from his staff the slightest disparagement of the Vice President,” notes Schlesinger, and although it may have taken some self-control, there are no swipes at the Vice President by these witnesses. All three, in fact, write with sympathy of Johnson’s understandable discomfort in his diminished role. Kennedy’s biographers feel freer to let their disparagement show, however, in reporting the 1960 convention when the two politicians were sworn enemies and, as Schlesinger puts it with historical detachment, Johnson was “laying about with heavy saber strokes, Kennedy mastering him with an urbane and deadly rapier.” As for Rusk, since Kennedy’s commitment to him was no longer total by 1963, Sorensen and Schlesinger permit themselves to write of him with less than total Saint Crispin’s Day loyalty. He was “almost too amiably cautious,” “bland,” “colorless,” “Buddha-like,” and so circumspect that during any given crisis “no one knew quite where he stood.”
There have been complaints, of course, that it was unseemly for Kennedy confidants to rush into print—and then off to the bank—with their versions of events that were so recent and that in some cases involved men still in office. But some historians will presumably be grateful that these reports were published while the memories of the impassioned participants were fresh and feisty rather than, like the biography by Lincoln’s secretaries, written decades later when the excitements of the age were measured from a stately distance. As for their lack of neutrality and occasional discreet excision, perhaps their degree of candor should be compared to that of accounts of the Eisenhower administration that Sherman Adams or George Humphrey might have written if their President had died in office—whether or not the testimonials had been cleared with his survivors.
History, like the news, has always been subject to some management, but the stage directions should be out of earshot. The question is how far the Kennedys and company propose to carry their by now conspicuous presumption. Only three of Kennedy’s ten White House assistants and none of his Cabinet have so far been heard from. But nearly all of them, it now appears, scurried directly home from the West Wing each night to write in their diaries, and the next wave of memoirs should start rolling from the typewriters soon. The planned collaboration by the Irish Mafia—Ken O’Donnell, Dave Powers, and Larry O’Brien—will apparently be a mere tandem affair. O’Brien, unlike the rest of the old gang, is still welcome in the redecorated West Wing where augmenting the J.F.K. mythology is not politically healthy. But doubtless O’Brien’s version will not be permanently withheld from us.
Will the heirs and tenders of the Kennedy mystique continue to assert editorial rights over each new volume, and will the authors acknowledge their eminent domain? No doubt it will depend on whether the authors firmly believe that a new Saint Crispin’s Day lies ahead and care to keep their place among the happy brotherhood around the new Henry V. If so, they will probably see the merit of not tampering with the legend. After all, the saintly-Lincoln myth that nourished after 1865 was of prodigious value to the then-new Republican party, whose dubious political caracoles in the next decades often took place behind a blown-up poster image of a much-loved President dead by an assassin’s hand.