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 as “The President,” and I knew that his feelings—or even his “character,” to use the word of current fashion—may have had something to do with his decision making but little to do with his decisions.
Reeves’s book has more to do with Kennedy’s “decision making,” i.e., with the daily activities in the White House, than with the eventual soundness or weakness of the decisions on which history will judge his presidency.
In his American Heritage article, and to a lesser extent in his book, Reeves makes a great deal of the accusation that Kennedy was careless with his friends to the point of cruelty. But that does not correspond to my own observation. Far from being cruel to his friends, Kennedy treated them with the same robust playfulness—and often crude humor—to which all members of his boisterous family were accustomed. Reeves does not seem to understand the kind of behavior that is tough in manner but also affectionate. I found Kennedy, rather than displaying cruelty, deeply concerned with other people’s feelings and sensitivities to the point of being almost physically upset by having to fire anyone.
No doubt one can differ about Kennedy’s treatment of his friends, but Reeves has little to say by way of analysis of Kennedy’s political record. When I had finished reading the book, I felt uneasy until I had gone through it once again to try to discover the final judgments it contained even if only by inference.
What, for example, does Reeves regard as Kennedy’s qualifications to hold the highest office in the Western world? He states that, in his view, Kennedy’s only qualification for the presidency may have been “wanting it.” But has there been any president in modern history who did not avidly wish the job? What man or woman would willingly submit to the degrading task of campaigning—and particularly of raising campaign funds—unless he or she was wholeheartedly committed to becoming president? The only man I ever knew who did not sufficiently want to be president was Adlai Stevenson—and, of course, he was not elected.
History seems to have taught us—and Reeves concedes the point—that the duties of the presidency can be effectively learned only on the job. The qualities needed for successful on-the-job training consist primarily of an avidity for political life, a bright and well-organized mind alert to new ideas, and a set of values in harmony with those of the society at the time—all of which Kennedy manifestly had. Coupled with this is a president’s willingness and ability to surround himself with astute advisers and assistants; for that he should, as was the case with Kennedy, have possessed from the beginning a wide circle of well-informed and thoughtful friends and acquaintances (one thinks here for example of John Kenneth Galbraith, McGeorge Bundy, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Burke Marshall). Finally, he must be willing to ponder seriously the advice of those who have the intellectual qualities and historical understanding to extrapolate judiciously from experience. Only by drawing on these qualities can a president perceive significant trends that will enable him to put his day-to-day actions and reactions into a larger perspective from which an original policy will emerge. History is filled with undistinguished leaders who succeeded because they had a flair for selecting sound counselors.
No doubt some of the people around Kennedy also gave him poor advice. But Reeves does not undertake a serious evaluation of Kennedy’s advisers or of his achievements as president; instead, he allots excessive space to Kennedy’s health problems as well as to his activities as a sexual athlete. Indeed, there is hardly a chapter of Reeves’s book that does not discuss Kennedy’s painful illness at a particular point in his administration. Kennedy was cursed with a multitude of afflictions—he not only had Addison’s disease but he also had an operation involving two spinal fusions to relieve back pain in 1954; and he hurt his back again at a tree-planting ceremony in 1961.
Reeves gives an impression of Kennedy’s afflictions far darker than the facts of modern medical science justify. Until the 1930s, anyone with Addison’s disease faced the grim prognosis of a brief life expectancy, but in 1939 it was discovered that cortisone could maintain patients in a relatively normal state of health. Reeves notes that Kennedy was subject to attacks of excruciating pain, but that was probably more the result of his back injury than of Addison’s disease. Nevertheless, he could never travel outside Washington except with a coterie of doctors who often violently disagreed, while he was almost continually sustained in his official duties by the injection of one form or another of painkiller.
My own experience with him when I was briefly undersecretary of state for economic affairs and then the undersecretary (now known as deputy secretary) led me to conclude that Kennedy’s illness did not diminish his competence to react; when he was in agony during periods of international tension, he bore that burden with gallantry and with no perceptible loss of alertness. Reeves writes in a characteristic passage that Kennedy “usually spent more than half of most days in bed. He retired early most nights, read in bed until 9:00 AM or so each morning, and napped an hour each afternoon.” To this one might say that the vague word “usually” does not take account of the many occasions on which Kennedy worked very late indeed, and that in any case the practice of reading in bed in the early morning has much to recommend it.
The subject of Kennedy’s health is therefore, in my view, only marginally relevant to the theme of Reeves’s book. Indeed, until fairly recently, when reticence has itself acquired scurrilous overtones, the health of a president was normally left in the category of rumor. What first caused some revision of this convention was the experience of the last months of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency when, after Wilson had had a severe stroke, few knew that he was only intermittently sentient and that the affairs of the government were managed almost exclusively by the President’s wife with the assistance of his naval doctor, Admiral Cary T. Grayson.
With the beginning of the cold war, concern over a president’s health shifted from anxiety that he might be disabled for an extended period to a worry that he might not be alert at any moment to react to a nuclear attack or the threat of such attack. No president went anywhere without quick access to a black box.
Though in recent years a president’s health has been regarded as a compulsory subject for the attention of the media, a certain reservation still exists with regard to his sexual adventures. Perhaps the ultimate comment on the injection of tales of sexual indiscretions in a presidential campaign was made when Grover Cleveland ran against James G. Blaine in 1884. Since Cleveland had admitted that he may have had an illegitimate daughter, the Democrats argued that the real issue of the election was not the private conduct of a candidate but his public integrity:
We are told that Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office, but blameless in private life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in his personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so well qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is admirably fitted to adorn.
With one exception, a similar comment might be made with respect to Kennedy. Reeves has much to say about the number of liaisons in Kennedy’s life, but we never really know the actual details of his behavior or how they might reflect on his character; the women he knew have been protective of him. The exception is Judith Campbell, who was the lover of the gangster Sam Giancana at the same time she was seeing Kennedy. The relationship was so reckless as to have compromised his presidency, not least in providing J. Edgar Hoover information he could use to intimidate the Kennedys.