- 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.
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.”
I suppose that’s right. John F. Kennedy was intelligent, curious, funny, positive, humble at heart on the big things—life-enhancing. He lived in pain most of his life and had always expected to die young, talked about it occasionally as a fact of the life he lived as fully as time and energy and willing friends allowed. “I think about him, more than I should,” his brother-in-law Stephen Smith told me. “One of life’s great pleasures was spending time with that man.”
He could surprise me. When he was cut, he bled. There were political things he could not do. Going to Ireland in the spring of 1963, he remembered still the hurt more than fifteen years before when a friend, Pamela Digby Churchill (later Pamela Harriman), compared the village of his ancestors to Tobacco Road. That same year, when he desperately needed every vote he could get in Congress, he lost one when the California representative Clem Miller was killed in a plane crash. His men came to tell him that the only Democrat who could hold the seat in that conservative district was Miller’s widow, and she would run only if he asked her himself. “She’s got five children, doesn’t she?” Kennedy said. “I can’t ask that. We’ll just have to give up the seat.”
But then he was astonishingly cruel to his own wife, as all the world knows —or thinks it does. I am old enough to think that no one ever knows what really goes on between one man and one woman except the two of them- maybe. Jacqueline Kennedy, who was only thirty-one years old when her husband became President, could be, as he would say, “one tough cookie.”
His marriage was a subject of negotiation, often by third parties, one of them Angier Biddle Duke, the White House’s chief of protocol. Early in the administration the President sent Duke to talk to Mrs. Kennedy about the role of First Lady. “Tell her,” the President said, “the responsibility of the wife of the President in regards to visitors and things.”
“What do you want to do, Mrs. Kennedy?” Duke began.
“As little as possible,” she said. “I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m not a public official.”
Later Kennedy asked Duke to tell her that she was hurting him politically by accepting expensive gifts from other world leaders. The issue of the moment was horses offered by the King of Saudi Arabia and the Prime Minister of Ireland. “The Arabs give her these horses and then the Israelis come along with an old Bible worth about twelve dollars.”
“I understand what you’re saying, Angie,” Mrs. Kennedy said after hearing Duke out. “But there’s a problem.”
“I want the horses,” she said.
Another time, Pierre Salinger, his press secretary, told the President his wife was not coming down to greet a delegation of Girl Scouts in the Rose Garden. “She said,” Salinger reported, “she thought this was not her problem, it was yours.”
“Just give me a minute,” said the President. “I’ll straighten this out.”
He was gone for fifteen minutes but came back smiling. “Mrs. Kennedy is going to do it,” he said. “Set it up.”
“A new dress?” the press secretary said.
“No,” Kennedy said. “Worse than that: two symphonies.”
The man could laugh at himself. He liked to quote an Indian proverb, which he thought was an old Irish saying: “there are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension. So we must do what we can with the third.”
It was hard, for me at least, to resist a man whose real ideology was irony. “Life is unfair,” he said in answer to a news-conference question about the complaints of mobilized reservists spending winter on distant military bases to demonstrate American resolve to the Soviets. “Some men are killed in a war and some men are wounded, and some men never leave the country. … Some people are sick and others are well.”
So, yes, I liked the John Kennedy I spent time with the last six years. At a bit of a distance. I would not have liked to be his friend, though. The price was too high. His friends had to give up too much of themselves to make him larger than life.