When I met John F. Kennedy in 1956, at a symposium sponsored by the American Friends of Vietnam, I tried to size up the man and was baffled. What, if anything, I wondered, was behind that bland, slick, polished façade, with words and gestures moving with almost mechanical precision? Fate has allowed history to answer that question only in part. There was indeed something of substance behind the façade. But what was it? Messrs. Schlesinger and Sorensen say it was greatness, and their books are monuments to it. However, it is a greatness assumed but not proven. I am not saying that Kennedy could not have become a great President if fate had allowed him to test his inner resources against a series of momentous challenges. I am saying only that the record is inconclusive. The record was not without promise. That promise rested on three qualities of which these books provide abundant evidence.
First, Kennedy had the ability to make fun of himself. To be able to regard oneself from a distance without being overly impressed is indeed, in a statesman, an attribute of greatness. It allows a man to look at the world as it is, undistorted by the involvement of his ego. Of recent contemporaries, Eleanor Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson had that gift. I remember a conversation I had with Eleanor Roosevelt in which she related how her husband had once used her for his political purposes without the slightest concern for her feelings, let alone for her value as a human being. She spoke with complete detachment, with an objectivity suggesting that it was not she who had suffered, but somebody else; she permitted herself no display of emotion but only the desire to understand. Kennedy’s detachment was more ironic, closer to the mocking self-deprecation of Stevenson. Capable of regarding himself with ironic detachment, he could be objective about the situation he had to master. He lived up to Goethe’s saying: “Wer sich nich selbst zum Besten haben kann, gehoert gewiss nicht zu den Besten.” (The pun cannot be translated; literally it means: he who is unable to make fun of himself is not among the best.) When Kennedy was reminded that Schlesinger had written a memorandum opposing the Bay of Pigs invasion, Schlesinger reports that he said, ” ‘Arthur wrote me a memorandum that will look pretty good when he gets around to writing his book on my administration.’ Then, with a characteristic flash of sardonic humor: ‘Only he better not publish that memorandum while I’m still alive…. And I have a title for his book—Kennedy: The Only Years.’ ” Again, according to Schlesinger, “When the first volume of Eisenhower’s presidential reminiscenses came out, he said drily to me, ‘Apparently Ike never did anything wrong…. When we come to writing the memoirs of this administration, we’ll do it differently.”’
The second element of Kennedy’s personality that held the promise of greatness is related to the first: a keen and open …