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Elephant Man

The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power

by Garry Wills
Atlantic/Little, Brown, 310 pp., $14.95

There are no new facts about the Kennedys, only new attitudes, a literature that, like the automobile industry, puts new bodies on old chassis. First there were those huge, polluting gas guzzlers, the Sorensen and the Schlesinger, like Chrysler and Ford, now discredited and nearly bankrupt: useful only insofar as their parts can be cannibalized for nuts and bolts, their gushy excesses, like tailfins, always good for sport. Conspiracy is a small but durable seller, retooled every year or so. And these days revisionism is the hottest item off the assembly line, each model sleek and economical, with a racy name, “Destroyer,” say, or “Marauder.”

In The Kennedy Imprisonment, Garry Wills flashes his Marauder across the high plains of Camelot like a night rider—burn the barn, destroy the crops, take no prisoners, scorch the myth as if it were the earth itself. The myth of the Kennedys—and the hold—was always the hold of the renegade rich, out there on the frontier beyond accountability. There are no legends about the Duponts; the legends are about Howard Hughes. Nor do the Rockefellers quicken the pulse the way the Kennedys did, and do. The Rockefellers only have money and a foundation and a museum and a bank and suits with vests. Nelson Rockefeller supervised Diego Rivera at the beginning of his working life and at the end was supervising expensive reproductions; ironic but not the stuff of legend.

The Kennedys shared only one attitude with the traditional American rich: they assumed that the possessors of great wealth constituted a real if unacknowledged—this is a republic, after all—nobility. With the aid of the “cool media” and a gut understanding of the power that media could wield, they pushed this proposition one step further: the Kennedys were not merely noble, they were regal, and by shrewd manipulation of the media, the divine right of their sovereignty was acknowledged. They knighted what Wills calls “honorary Kennedys,” and we remember the names and MOSs of these troops as we remember second cousins and family retainers—Red Fay and Kenny O’Donnell and Larry O’Brien and Dave Powers and Joe Gargan and Paul Markham, the gutter Irish NCOs who told the jokes and kept the grunts in step and did the dirty work and cleaned up afterward. The officers’ mess was positively Dickensian in the breadth of its arriviste and aristocratic pretensions—the Bundys and the Rostows and McNamara and Dillon and Rusk and poor Adlai Stevenson and poor Chester Bowles. Even the gazeteers of this brigade carried colors. Joseph Alsop was William Howard Russell and Theodore H. White brevetted himself Sir Thomas Malory; Arthur Schlesinger prowled around the perimeter of the encampment like Mr. Samgrass in Brideshead Revisited.

Then Dallas, then the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. The myth was lit into an eternal flame and honorary Kennedys were anointed its keepers. The thousand days of John Kennedy became Camelot, the eightyfive days of Robert Kennedy’s last campaign the end of promise. Those early hagiographies, born of grief and saturated with blood, had all the elements of pop mythology. Charisma became commitment and the Kennedys’ renewal each election season with a different set of values, a new set of priorities, was turned into a virtue—the pragmatic virtue of flexibility, the flexible virtue of pragmatism. There were no failures in Camelot, no warts spotted by the valet biographers.

Garry Wills buys none of it. His John Kennedy looks like the Elephant Man—a liar, a cheat, a philanderer, a war lover who waged war less successfully abroad than against the very government he was elected to lead. In Wills’s view, John Kennedy was the first Green Beret—a force Kennedy commissioned—and the enemy he sought to destabilize, to terminate with extreme prejudice, was his own bureaucracy. Command was fun, power exhilarating, throw caution to the wind. Vietnam was one of the hangovers produced by this heady wine.

It was a style of leadership to which John Kennedy came naturally. He was his father’s son, and that was but the first cell of the many prisons in which Wills finds the Kennedys incarcerated. Joseph P. Kennedy was a randy raider, Harvard-educated but always a parvenu on-the-make mick to classmates who booed him, this emissary from Franklin Roosevelt, at their twenty-fifth reunion. He was not so much a businessman as a predator of other men’s businesses. Always traveling fast, traveling light, he struck and moved on and struck again. The running of his various enterprises was not for him or his sons; that was the chore of flunkies and sons-in-law. Joseph Kennedy had “no ideology but achievement,” and he created “a kind of space platform out of his own career, one from which the children could fly out to their own achievements and come back for refueling.”

The raider collected women as he collected companies. Rose Kennedy visited his bed often enough to produce nine children and suffered gracefully when her husband invited Gloria Swanson, for years the official mistress, and other more casual conquests to Hyannis Port, and Swanson even on a liner to Europe with him and Rose. Rose Kennedy offered up, as the Catholic women of her generation were taught to do, every mortification and every humiliation as an opportunity for a plenary indulgence, markers against her time in purgatory. Her husband made passes at the daughters of his friends and at the friends of his daughters and used Arthur Krock, the conservative and seemingly punctilious resident oracle of The New York Times, as an ex-officio pimp who stashed discarded Kennedy girl friends in the various newsrooms of Washington. “What are you, our staff procurer?” a Washington newspaper editor asked Krock in 1941, and it took Krock nearly thirty years to realize that was indeed his role, both literally and figuratively, with his putative friends, Joseph Kennedy & Sons.

For most American Irish Catholics, the only real sins are sins of the flesh, but to Joseph Kennedy that notion was parochial school nun stuff, part of the baggage of Catholic guilt and ethnicity he jettisoned early. The Kennedys, as seen by Wills, were only “semi-Irish” and superficially Catholic. They were citizens of the world of celebrity and touched down in Palm Beach and Hyannis Port and logged in safari time on the zebra stripes of El Morocco. Not for them harp Boston politicians “with outlandish nicknames like Knocko and Onions.” Massachusetts was where they were registered to vote and Mass where they were photographed with Cardinal Cushing.

The Kennedys were mid-Atlantic people before the term was invented, “semi-English,” as Wills calls them. Father and (especially) children were absolutely moony over the virtues of the English aristocracy in that way that only rich Americans can get. John Kennedy went to England to study under Harold Laski and said that David Ormsby-Gore was the brightest man he’d ever met, a statement that makes him sound like Sebastian Flyte’s teddy bear. The very model of the politician he aspired to be was Queen Victoria’s Whig prime minister, Lord Melbourne—languid, horny, a man of state sustained by family and contemptuous of outsiders—and he was equally taken by John Buchan’s idea of “adventurer-aristocrats, who could save the people by guiding them, sometimes without their knowledge.” Democracy in spite of the people, in other words. Wills pinpoints the carcinoma inherent in this hubris:

The world of aristocratic rakes like Melbourne has an underside, the dark area where T.E. Lawrence moves, and Richard Hannay, and James Bond, all the Green Berets and gentlemen spies of the CIA. Presiding over this potentially dangerous world is the honor of the aristocrats, their code of national service.

It is John Kennedy’s honor, from those earliest days in England, that Wills finds suspect. If he was a prisoner of family, he was also a prisoner of image, one maximum-security slammer leading inevitably to another. “The whole point of being a Kennedy, in the father’s scheme of things, was to look good.” To make John Kennedy look good, his father saw to it that Why England Slept was published. John Kennedy’s tutor thought it “much too long, wordy, repetitious,” its “fundamental premise never analysed,” but what did he know, he had never met a payroll. Joseph Kennedy asked the family ponce, Arthur Krock, to rewrite and retitle the book, himself supplied a hodgepodge of charts and statistics that never actually quite made any point, and got Henry Luce to attach a foreword. No stranger to this game himself, Luce saw that a book by the son of Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to the Court of St. James offered a perfect opportunity both to push Wendell Willkie and to take a swat at Roosevelt. Only Harold Laski seemed to see through the whole charade. “In a good university, half a hundred seniors do books like this as part of their normal work in their final year,” he wrote Joseph Kennedy. “I don’t honestly think any publisher would have looked at that book of Jack’s if he had not been your son, and if you had not been ambassador.”

Perhaps because of his time in the movie business, Joseph Kennedy seemed to share the Jack Warner view that writers were “schmucks with Underwoods,” and that there would always be schmucks—if not Harold Laski—available to make his boys look good. It was not enough that John Kennedy exhibited rare physical courage when PT-109 went down and he saved the life of one of his crew members. First John Hersey and then Robert Donovan buffed courage into heroism, both writers begging the essential question: how does a glorified speedboat get run over in the dark by a heavier, slower and more ponderous enemy destroyer? John Kennedy’s version was that the 109 was “attempting a torpedo attack,” but the Navy’s medal and citations board would not swallow that and rewrote the citation for his Navy and Marine Corps Medal, changing the “attack” into a simple “collision,” adding that he had “contributed to the saving of several lives.” Cliff Robertson played the part in the movie; John Kennedy’s personal choice, Warren Beatty, turned it down.

Next to Arthur Krock, no writer ever made a Kennedy look better than the young Senator Kennedy’s amanuensis and aide-de-camp, Theodore Sorensen. He had a way with words and (especially in Kennedy) a highly selective memory. Every Kennedy was a hero to this exemplary servant; he was Hudson to their Bellamys and he kept his trap shut. Joseph Kennedy thought books made the man—“You would be surprised how a book that really makes the grade with high-class people stands you in good stead for years to come,” the ambassador once said—and he was not choosy about who wrote them as long as a son could claim authorship.

Thus Profiles in Courage was fabricated; “John F. Kennedy” was the nom de plume used by Sorensen and Georgetown historian Jules Davids, who “put [the book] together much like a major speech.” This was well within the rules of political deceit and did not exceed them until Arthur Krock, turning one last trick for his favorite John, began to lobby for a Pulitzer Prize for the book and its alleged author, the senator from Massachusetts and seeker after the presidency. The Pulitzer judges chose Alpheus Mason’s Harlan Fiske Stone: Pillar of the Law for the prize, but were overruled by the board, which—denying improper influence—awarded Profiles in Courage the laurel, one member of the Pulitzer board making the engaging claim that the board was swayed by his twelve-year-old grandson’s enjoyment of the book, which presumably the lad liked better than Harlan Fiske Stone. “The incremental touches of glamour were always sought,” Wills writes about this prisoner of image. “The unflattering notes were censored. The collision became an attack…. Reality was all a matter of rearranging appearances for the electorate.”

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