President Kennedy: Profile of Power
Richard Reeves’s book is hard to classify. Presented as a critical political biography, it turns the whole genre on its head. Rather than reciting essential facts and then reaching an informed appraisal of the achievements of President John F. Kennedy, Reeves begins by assessing Kennedy’s qualities as a human being, and then describes incidents of the Kennedy administration which he does not specifically relate to that initial assessment.
There can be no doubt about Reeves’s own conception of his approach. He explains that he was influenced by a book by Ryszard Kapuscinski about the fall of the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. In Kapuscinski’s book each member of the Negus’s court tells his own story of life in the court of the King of Kings, and Reeves’s fascination with those stories persuaded him to try to write what it was like to be “at the center.” On further reflection he pondered “what it was like to be President of the United States,” and that led him to focus on John F. Kennedy.
Although Reeves never met Kennedy, there were, in his opinion, still “enough witnesses and enough records to try to reconstruct the world from his perspective.” On the basis of those accounts he could conjure up “what [Kennedy] knew and when he knew it and what he actually did—sometimes day by day, sometimes hour by hour, sometimes minute by minute.”
At the outset Reeves refers to what he calls “the two essential Kennedy books,” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s A Thousand Days and Theodore Sorenson’s Kennedy. Both cover the whole term of Kennedy’s administration, and Reeves notes that “both of these eyewitness books see his presidency as a tale of personal growth, with Kennedy making early mistakes, learning from them to gain a sure control of the power of his position, and then to go on to later triumphs.” But, Reeves writes, he does not agree with these accounts. Kennedy, in his view, “certainly did not know what he was doing at the beginning, and in some ways never changed at all, particularly in a certain love for chaos, the kind that kept other men off-balance.”
That was, Reeves notes, his own firm conclusion from documents and thirdparty interviews. Yet, for undisclosed reasons, Reeves does not point out the relevance of the incidents he recounts to validate his judgment. Almost all those incidents are selected to cast light on Kennedy’s personality and personal qualities rather than on his competence for his job or the logic or consequences of his accomplishments.
Reeves makes clear the subject that most interested him in an article published in American Heritage in November 1993. That article was directed at answering the question whether, after completing his researches and interviews, Reeves liked or disliked Kennedy as a human being. In it he recounts many of the episodes included in his book. Yet, he also shows awareness of the limitation of his research method:
I saw him …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.