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My Six Years with JFK
Living with an endlessly vexing and compelling President thirty years after Dallas
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
Knowing almost nothing about emperors or Ethiopia, I decided to try to figure out what it was like to be President of the United States. The idea was to try to re-create days and parts of the life of one of the forty-two men who have been at the center: what the President knew and when he knew it, what he heard, what he read, what he saw, what he said, what he did. I chose Kennedy because I needed the density of modern note taking, photocopying, taping, and filming, because I knew many of the men and women of his court—and because I had already written less ambitious books about three other modern Presidents, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan.
He was intelligent, curious, funny, positive, humble— astonishingly cruel.
Though I was generally symphathetic to his politics, I did not have strong feelings either way about the man. I never met John Kennedy, though I traveled with his brother Sen. Robert Kennedy as a correspondent for The New York Times and interviewed Sen. Edward Kennedy a number of times. To a certain extent I thought at the beginning that I did not need to know Jack Kennedy all that well. If I began with a single strong preconception, it was that his being a professional politician, and a very good one, was more important than what his daddy thought. I began by taking Kennedy’s word when he said, “My father wouldn’t care if I were a Communist as long as I win.”
(In fact, President Kennedy might have done better if he had listened to his father on communism. The old man, like President Charles de Gaulle of France, told President Kennedy that communism would fall of its own weight if he left it alone. But he decided it had to be confronted somewhree, and he chose Vietnam as the place.)
I also began with what seemed to me a necessary bias against the two essential eyewitness books on the Kennedy Presidency, Arthur Schlesinger’s A Thousand Days and Theodore Sorensen’s Kennedy . It is rare that two such brilliant men have been so close to a President; their works reflect both their own talents and their devotion to the man whom each accepted unquestioningly as his leader. The Presidency looked like Leonardo’s Last Supper —without Judas at the end of the table. Kennedy described his staff system as the spokes of wheel, and that it was: all relationships were bilateral, all lines began or ended with the man at the center.
I think I retained that skepticism through most of the writing, concluding that both Schlesinger and Sorensen had gone quite a bit too far in casting their stories of the growht of Kennedy in the job, of a gifted man learning from early mistakes. The President I got to know was certainly gifted, but he repeated his mistakes, perhaps because he usually judged domestic issues, civil rights the most important of them, in terms of their effects on foreign policy, and he judged national-security issues, a massive arms buildup and Vietnam among them, in terms of their impact on domestic attitudes and his own re-election prospects.
So he was surprised again and again—if I had titled the book by the quote most often heard, it would be called “Why the Hell Didn’t I Know About This?"—by the positive reaction of Americans to black demonstrations, by the failure of Cubans to rise up against Fidel Castro during the Bay of Pigs invasion, by West Berliners’ readiness to abandon the city when he did not respond to the building of the Berlin Wall, by the stubborn unwillingness of the South Vietnamese to respond effectively to U.S. military and political dictation. In the end I thought Kennedy’s Vietnam was just the Bay of Pigs in slow motion.
He also had an unforgivable innocence—or that Daisy Buchanan carelessness—about the effects and resonance of his own words and actions in the most powerful job in the world. His entire being was about not waiting for his turn, but he expected American blacks to do just that while he rattled on about freedom around the world. He went pale and silent when he learned South Vietnamese President Diem had been assassinated in the military coup he had personally signed off on, leaving the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, next to him mumbling, “What did he expect?”
Most of that sounds as if I didn’t much like Kennedy. Actually I had not thought about it. I saw him as “The President,” and I knew that his feelings—or even his “character,” to use the word of current fashion—may have had something to do with his decisions. When the economist Paul Samuelson urged him to propose an income-tax decrease in 1961, Kennedy said there was no point, it would not pass the Congress. “But then you’ve fought the good fight,” Samuelson said. Kennedy’s answer to that was: “That’s vanity, Paul, not politics.”
So I was taken aback when I was asked the question about liking Kennedy by Richard Snow, the editor of this magazine, who told me that David McCullough had quit work on a biography of Pablo Picasso when he realized that he despised the guy. By coincidence, a few hours later, one of the first people to read the manuscript of President Kennedy , Ken Auletta, the writer, called and said, “So, in the end you really like the guy.”
“You think so?” I said.
“Yes. You have empathy for him, for politics, for the job, for his problems.”