The Kennedy Fantasy

The Kennedy Legacy

by Theodore Sorensen
Macmillan, 414 pp., $6.95

American Journey: The Times of Robert Kennedy

Interviews by Jean Stein, edited by George Plimpton
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 448 pp., $8.95

No Hail, No Farewell

by Louis Heren
Harper & Row, 275 pp., $6.95

Who Needs the Democrats?

by John Kenneth Galbraith
Doubleday, 86 pp., $4.95

John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy; drawing by David Levine

The king and the crown prince are dead, and the heir apparent in disgrace. But the legend lives on, undiminished by promises unfulfilled, mistakes better forgotten, and doubts stilled by the cold hand of death. It is a tale with all the elements of a feudal chronicle—murders, usurped crowns, vendettas—and no shortage of troubadors to tell it. Theodore Sorensen, alter ego of John F. Kennedy and more recently a spurned aspirant to the public trust, now tells us, in words that will come as no surprise, that he views the Kennedy legacy “as the most important body of ideas in our time…a unique and priceless set of concepts…that endures and gives us hope.”

We need not doubt Sorensen’s sincerity—we all take hope where we can find it—to wonder what so great a faith rests upon. Whatever the Kennedy legacy may be, and we are told that it “can no more be summed up in a book than a Mozart concerto in a series of black notes,” the Kennedy record was one of great expectations rather than inspiring accomplishments. But Sorensen has a weakness for the overexcited phrase, and his pseudo-Homeric prose (“let the word go forth…we shall pay any price, bear any burden…now the trumpet summons us again…ask not what your country can do for you…”) both shaped and defined the posturing heroics of the Kennedy era.

We can sympathize with Sorensen’s difficulty in defining the exact nature of the legacy he extols, although we are told that “to love each other like brothers…is the heart of the Kennedy legacy.” Lest this hippie message seem sketchy, he also urges us to work hard, have faith in man’s ability to change our society, and not lose hope. Not by accident is “hope” a recurring word, for if ever there was a politics of hope, it was that practiced by the Kennedys. Our hope that they had a remedy for the social ills they described so graphically, their hope that we would be patient while they figured out what to do. The legacy they left is the enduring hope that somehow things would have been better were they still here.

Sorensen embellishes the Kennedy legacy in sticky, though no doubt heartfelt, panegyrics (“there has never been in American public life a family like the Kennedys”), ladies’ magazine commentary (“good taste and finesse governed not only their selection of clothes…”), political PR (“the…question asked everywhere was when the Kennedys would return to the White House”), and resentment at the usurper (“Lyndon Johnson…wanted to emulate their graceful wit and intellectual elegance”). The purpose of The Kennedy Legacy is to build a platform for what Sorensen calls a “peaceful revolution for the seventies.”

The program, which appeared in time to publicize, but not noticeably assist, his effort to fill Robert Kennedy’s old seat as senator from New York, is studded with such homilies as…

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