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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

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.

Castiglione

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 come off the Watergate tapes. Bradlee unnecessarily “explains” Kennedy’s profanity as the result of service in World War II—as if politicians of an earlier or later period spoke in convent phrases. But Kennedy not only swore; he whined—as when he called columnist Richard Wilson a C-U-N-T in naval code. Or blew up at Newsweek for failing to cover a lapse on the ground that they were rare: “When I was elected, you all said that my old man would run the country in consultation with the pope. Now here’s the only thing he’s ever asked me to do for him [i.e., appoint an incompetent judge], and you guys piss all over me.” Even when he knows he is wrong, he thinks it unfair for the press to notice the same thing.

Arthur Krock was an early Kennedy courtier who tried (as Castiglione’s fourth book advises) to be a mentor as well. Three months in Coventry was not enough for him—Kennedy egged on Bradlee, his Newsweek friend, to have the magazine “tuck it to” Krock, and was critical when it did so with restraint. He kept urging his own harder kind of treatment—“Bust it off in old Arthur. He can’t take it, and when you go after him he folds.” Kennedy admires those who are tough and get their way—even Francis Gary Powers: “Whatever else you can say about him, and he’s apparently a strange man, he’s got guts.” It is perfect Nixon, reluctantly admiring Gordon Liddy. The prince asks first for total loyalty to himself, and then for total ruthlessness toward others.

When a guest did not succumb to the sparkle of one of Camelot’s boozier parties, Kennedy said, “Tell him he’s on the list and not to worry: he won’t be asked again.” After Kennedy got the soft treatment from three TV network interviewers (two of whom were friends), he needled his man at Newsweek: “I always said that when we don’t have to go through you bastards, we can really get our story over to the American people.” Getting the story out—it is the plaint of Watergate turned to a victory cry.

Kennedy delighted Bradlee with gossip about how much certain people were paying the IRS—“then he said that all this tax information was secret, and it was probably illegal for him to know it or at least for him to tell me.” Kennedy felt that any criticism, of even the most obvious faults in his administration, simply proved the viciousness of those doing the criticizing. Asked how he thought people would take the revelation that his brother had cheated on an examination at Harvard, he said: “It won’t go over with the WASPs. They take a very dim view of looking over your shoulder at someone else’s exam paper. They go in more for stealing from stockholders and banks.” (Ted Kennedy did not casually look over his shoulder, like any commoner; he paid money out of his own father’s banked and stock-inflated money to have a commoner take the test for him.)

I have said the courtiers differ more than their princes. Of two essentially trivial and admiring records, I find Safire’s the more trivial, despite its higher pretensions—yet, ultimately, more honorable as well. He, after all, was a courtier by profession, a PR man hired to work on the Nixon “image.” Asked to sculpt a new face on Mount Rushmore, he found that his assigned area of cliff was made of mud; and got swept down with it when it crumbled—yet here he is, hip-deep, still trying to sculpt noble features out of the ooze and slime.

Despite Safire’s natural attempts at self-inflation, it is clear that his job at the White House was cosmetics, not policy. His fellow speech writers, Price and Buchanan, were expected to think; Safire was there to rephrase. But he is comfortable with such tasks. His book is really one of the backstairs items we normally get from a maid or butler at the White House—“revealing,” in a protective way, but peripheral. It is fitting that Safire represents himself as snooping around amid the socks in Nixon’s bedroom, taking notes on the color of his pajamas (blue and white striped), and noting that he forgot to wear his watch that day (“with ‘To VP RN NAWSS May 20, 1955’ inscribed on the back”). Shallow calls to shallow.

Mr. Bradlee, too, presents himself as a chronicler of slight events and chitchat. As a friend of Jack Kennedy, he felt it his duty to give the off-hours President a way of relaxing and gossiping (often about women, with special emphasis on breasts). Castiglione would have approved: “But if a Courtier who is accustomed to handling affairs of importance should happen to be in private with his lord, he must become another person, and lay aside grave matters for another time and place, and engage in conversation that will be amusing and pleasant to his lord, so as not to prevent him from gaining such relaxation. But in this, as in all things, above all let him take care not to cause his lord any annoyance.”

But it is clear Kennedy got more than the latest jokes from his sessions with Bradlee, who was Washington bureau chief for Newsweek at the time. The president called Bradlee on Saturday morning to find out what Newsweek would be running in its Periscope feature next week; and—from other, similar sources—to inform Bradlee what Time would be carrying on its cover. Bradlee cleared stories with Kennedy (a cover treatment of the family) and warned him of breaking features (the use of “flechettes” in Vietnam). Bradlee got the exclusive White House story on rumors of an earlier Kennedy marriage—but only by agreeing to let the President approve the final version. The problem of journalistic ethics seems not to have bothered Bradlee (or anybody else) at the time; and even in retrospect his soul-searching seems limited to a surmise that he would not, any more, call up a president just to congratulate him on his performance over the TV screen.

Kennedy liked to tease, discomfit, and play jokes on those around him. There is an ugly little flicker of reversed status all through his relationship with Bradlee. Several times we are told that Kennedy liked to hear stories about the humiliation of Bradlee’s WASP Massachusetts family, and that the President often repeated the tales to his Boston Irish pals. Bradlee’s father was a prominent man, who donated a Daniel Webster sideboard (with DW carved in it) to Jackie’s White House. Bradlee’s wife, Tony, was from the Pennsylvania Pinchots—and the Pinchots had been relied on when the Bradlee family was set back socially. Kennedy took time to go to Milford, Pennsylvania, and personally receive a Pinchot mansion donated to the nation.

When Bradlee could not get his daughter into a posh dancing school, Kennedy was particularly amused, and said his father would never have put up with such an affront back in Boston (where the Bradlees would have done the excluding). He challenged Bradlee to get invited to a particularly exclusive dance, and bet him a hundred dollars he would not make it. When Bradlee had Kennedy over to meet his father, the President demanded a repeat of the dancing school story, and then told Bradlee père: “If that had happened to Dad, he would have moved the whole family out of Boston.” It pleased Kennedy to have a courtier from a class that once looked princely to immigrant Kennedys—and for the same reason it openly displeased him when Bradlee spoke French or shot a better golf ball than his. Courtiers should not outshine their patrons, especially if the joy of having them around derives precisely from their social dimming.

Bradlee professes to find nothing but charm in Jack despite his vindictiveness and crudity (he judged movies by the amount of sex and violence served up). He gushes over Jackie despite her greed (when she learned that the President had donated his White House salary to charity, she said she needed that money). Bradlee claims he never heard the President being “corny” or “square”—and the choice of words is important. Even cruelty can have a certain grace. Yet Bradlee did hear this man walk over to two nuns, gossip about their order, and then claim—to Bradlee’s amazement—that Jackie almost joined the order once. In Nixon that would be not only square and corny, but demeaning to the presidency and insulting to the credulous nuns. But Kennedy was allowed to gull innocents with the most blatant lie (passed around, no doubt, with awe back at the convent); and his courtier just laughs. Washington critics rightly denounced the way Nixon put religion to political uses (e.g., at his prayer breakfasts), yet nothing he did was so callously exploitative as that one Kennedy remark.

Nixon himself was always astonished—and bitter—at what Kennedy got away with. It was his deepest and most justified count against the press. Safire confirms the White House obsession with the Kennedys, a fear and admiration, a desire to be like them while denouncing them. It galled Nixon that he was allowed no slightest display of gall because he lacked a camouflaging grace. He was like a baffled rival of Don Juan, hating, and trying to imitate, and hating more as the imitation failed. Watergate itself grew in large measure from the lackeying press that had been accorded Kennedy. Haldeman came to think all social graces a defection to Kennedyism. The gumshoes first went to work on Ted Kennedy—Tony Ulasewicz at Chappaquiddick, Howard Hunt faking cables to smear JFK, Chuck Colson rising to a position of eminence by matching his Kennedy obsession with Nixon’s. Safire sees a little bit of this corrosion at work within Nixon—as who, after Watergate, could not? But Bradlee seems to find no faults in his own prince; he is a Leporello still enchanted with the Don, still serving him clumsily but too well.

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