- Historic Sites
My Six Years with JFK
Living with an endlessly vexing and compelling President thirty years after Dallas
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
In year five of the six years I spent working on President Kennedy: Profile of Power , I ran into an old friend, Thomas Rees, a former congressman from California, who had campaigned with Kennedy in 1960. He asked what I was doing and then he said: “I’ve read all the books, and they get everything down but the most important thing: the magic. The man was magic. He lit up a room. He walked in, and the air was lighter, the light was brighter.”
Yes, I had heard that. I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much when I say that half the people I interviewed began with this sentence about John F. Kennedy: “He was the most charming man I ever met.”
It’s an elusive word, charm. It is in the eyes and mind of the beholder. “A trait that fascinates, allures, or delights … a physical grace or attraction,” says Webster’s Collegiate . It meant, I concluded, that Kennedy was interested in other people, powerfully interested to the point that he could sometimes drain their essence in minutes. He listened with a certain physical intensity, which showed most when he was amused.
He was the most impatient of men, living life as a race against boredom, not interested in small talk, asking questions because he wanted to know the answers. Men and women described smiles that began in his eyes or the muscles of his face before reaching his mouth. Katharine Graham, the president of the Washington Post , told me that she still felt how nervous he made her because she thought she could never be smart enough or amusing enough to match his readiness to be informed or entertained. And truth be told, he did turn off and away if he was not amused. He loved movies but rarely saw how they ended. His friends, or his entourage, had to be ready for the moment he lost interest and said in Navy language, “Let’s haul ass out of here.”
They fell in love with him, both women and men, which often was the whole idea. Kennedy lived along a line where charm became power. And he chose a business that institutionalizes charm, seducing a nation, which is what a presidential campaign is all about.
Tom Rees’s enthusiasm was lost on me at that moment early in 1992.1 happened to be writing a scene on April 27, 1961, in which the President, as he often did, was letting his brother Robert Kennedy do the dirty work. “You’re a gutless bastard,” Bobby shouted at Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles at a National Security Council meeting on Cuba as the President calmly watched. “You people are so anxious to protect your own asses that you’re afraid to do anything. All you want to do is dump the whole thing on the President. We’d be better off if you just quit and left foreign policy to someone else.”
That done, the President moved on as if nothing had happened.
I had also just interviewed D. E. Pennebaker, the filmmaker, who remembered shooting in the Oval Office, not listening to the conversation, when he realized the room had gotten quiet as the President said something softly. Men were leaning forward, and Kennedy repeated himself: “I said.‘Hurt him.’”
He was a hard man, casually cruel. That shows often in what I thought of as the “peripheral Kennedy books”- the reminiscences of Pierre Salinger, Lawrence O’Brien, Paul Fay, Evelyn Lincoln, and Kenneth O’Donnell and David Powers—all of which, often unintentionally, revealed the Daisy Buchanan carelessness of the rich that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about in The Great Gatsby . The rich boy at the center of their existence was an arrogant artist who painted with other people’s lives and feelings, squeezing them like tubes of paint when it pleased him or served his purposes.
I did not like the man who jabbed a needle into his buddy Red Fay’s leg to show the pain of his own daily medical regimen or who turned over checker and backgammon boards when he realized he might lose a game. (The Kennedys edited both those incidents out of the original manuscript of Fay’s book The Pleasure of His Company .)
I did not like the man who refused to talk to his friend Ben Bradlee for months to punish him for a small criticism —and who refused to talk to Robert Frost on his deathbed because the poet had said something else Kennedy did not like. And I did not like the man who ran meetings from the bathtub, giving the orders of the day to assistants sitting on toilets and leaning on sinks. Nor was I charmed by his use of both friends and staff right up to Secretary of State Dean Rusk to pimp for him and handle the complicated logistics of his sex life. Most of all, I was put off by the fact that most of them considered humiliation an honor, a sign that they were close to the center.
The book I wanted to write began as an attempt to figure out what it was like to be President. I had been impressed by the opening pages of Ryszard Kupscinski’s book The Emperor , about the fall of Haile Selassie’s court. One by one each tells his story of life around the King of Kings, the man at the center of their world, the man who could make or break each of them with a glance or the hint of a frown. I found myself wondering what all this looked like to Selassie.