Backstairs at Court

Conversations with Kennedy

by Benjamin C. Bradlee
Norton, 251 pp., $7.95

Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House

by William Safire
Doubleday, 704 pp., $12.50
Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy
Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

I think the conversation which in every way the Courtier must try to make pleasing is that which he has with his prince; and, although this term “conversation” implies a certain equality which would not seem possible between a lord and a servant, still we will so name it for the present. Therefore, in addition to making it evident at all times and to all persons that he is as worthy as we have said, I would have the Courtier devote all his thought and strength of spirit to loving and almost adoring the prince he serves above all else, devoting his every desire and habit and manner to pleasing him.


Safire and Bradlee—two courtiers, serving unfortunate princes; and each learned his lesson early on. Mr. Safire displeased by congratulating his prince on being more open with the press—which implied that he had not been open before. “That was a boo boo,” Haldeman told Safire immediately afterward—and the prince meted out the worst of all punishments for a courtier: denial of the Presence. “For three solid months I did not receive a speech assignment from the President, or a phone call, or a memo, or a nod in the hall as he was passing by.” Mrs. Safire felt the sting when she was kept from Princess Tricia’s wedding. It is the dark night for little souls.

Mr. Bradlee made the mistake of telling Fletcher Knebel that the Kennedys were sensitive to criticism. The punishment confirmed the complaint, as in Safire’s case. Withdrawal, again for three months. Once again, humiliation in the hallways. After letting Kennedy check a story he was doing for Newsweek, Bradlee had to suffer through an invitation from Ambassador Ormsby-Gore to go watch the America’s Cup races, only to have the President cut in: “‘No,’ Kennedy answered quickly. ‘He’s not coming.’ And he meant it.”

The two learned their lesson—don’t cross the Boss; and never offended either of their princes again. Not that these courtiers are similar in most other ways. It is the likeness between the princes that is most noticeable. American politics is a rigorous process, and it does certain kinds of damage to those who survive the hard struggle to its pinnacle. They are not likely to remain nice people—as all our recent examples prove. The same process leads to similar products, however much we try to glamorize them with separate virtues after their annointment. Nixon and Kennedy may look very different at first glance—but only because it was difficult to invent virtues for Nixon (though Safire is still trying) and unfortunately easy to invent them for Kennedy (Bradlee barely needs to try).

We know Nixon hated the press, used intemperate language, kept enemy lists, and was vindictive. But time after time scraps of Kennedy’s conversation innocently relayed by an admiring Bradlee could have…

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