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.”

In the Wills version, the lust for image meant a sentence in still another prison, that of charisma. John Kennedy, author/hero, the first president born in the twentieth century, had the junior line officer’s contempt for the general staff, in particular for that ultimate staff officer, general of the Army Dwight David Eisenhower. Both as military man and as president, Eisenhower was the quintessential bureaucratic manager, a delegator of responsibilities, an advocate of caution who thought of crises in terms of—and on a scale with—the Normandy landings. His career was predicated on channels and chains of command, which gave him an intuitive grasp of bureaucracy and an inchoate respect for its procedures. It is a respect shared—hindsight, perhaps—by Wills, who finds bureaucracy the best governor against the imperial presidency.

The Kennedy concept of leadership was that of a commando leader (or a PT boat skipper, for that matter)—lightning strikes against the forces of darkness, be those forces poverty, Big Steel, Fidel Castro, or a bunch of obstreperous slopes in the jungles of Indochina. It was this very impetuosity that the cumbersome bureaucracy tended to thwart, and John Kennedy put that bureaucracy on his administration’s hit list: outflank the bureaucrats, seal them off from the schemes of his government, operate with mobile tactical squads recruited by and answerable only to the oval office.* Here was charisma in action, charisma in the true, rather than the vulgar, sense of the word. “Insofar as the charismatic leader asserts an entirely personal authority,” Wills says, “he delegitimates the traditional and legal authorities.” The Green Berets, the Peace Corps, military advisers to Vietnam—there seemed no understanding in Camelot that these romantic Chindits, operating outside regular channels of command, would only create new bureaucracies of their own, outlaw tumors which by their very dependence on the host body must ultimately metastasize and adhere to the older bureaucracy.

Kennedy charisma was the cult of personality carried, in a democracy, to the exosphere: the president as a strong leader in the Buchan tradition, “willing to administer timely jolts to the people as a form of therapy.” The timely jolt was often a timely goose. There was a high butch about that Kennedy administration, an obsession with metaphorical genitalia. Balls, ballsy, ballsiness, nuts—these were the calibrations of worth, and often of wit. “A Stevenson with balls,” Joseph Alsop called John Kennedy, and the mot was fondled all the way into the oval office. In turn, John Kennedy dismissed the allegedly timid as “holding their nuts” or “grabbing their balls.”

The problem with such ballsiness was a constant need to thrust. Crisis was a way to milk the gland, sixteen crises by Theodore Sorensen’s gleeful count, in the administration’s first eight months alone. It is this appetite for crisis, particularly the taste for foreign adventurism, that draws Wills’s most withering scrutiny. There was of course the Bay of Pigs, a legacy from the Eisenhower administration, the hagiographers have advised us, as if only an ingrate would turn down such an inheritance. “The truth is,” Wills writes,

that Kennedy went ahead with the Cuban action, not to complete what he inherited from Eisenhower, but to mark his difference from Eisenhower…. He would be bold where he accused Eisenhower of timidity….

Kennedy was a prisoner of his own taste for crisis, for being in the midst of the action…. The growing size of the invasion army—1,400 men—made the administration hostage to its own agents. Their visibility made them an “asset” that had to be used immediately or moved in a way that would waste the asset…. Once again, acquiring a “capability” chained one to its use, so that decision became a kind of resignation to the inevitable…. Thus do options bind, making “freedom of maneuver” a straitjacket for the mind.

Wills believes, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the hagiographers, that the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion taught John Kennedy nothing. Rather, John and Robert Kennedy were confirmed in their perception of Fidel Castro as a dagger at the throat. Getting rid of him seemed the administration’s highest priority. Secret select committees drew up plans and tables of organization—Operation Mongoose and Task Force W and Special Group Augmented and Special Group CI (for counter-insurgency)—and with a nod and a wink from the highest echelons of government the Mob was contacted about whacking Castro out. (John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson claimed, was running “a damn Murder Incorporated in the Caribbean.”) Castro knew what was going on and the missiles he imported from Russia were no more offensive, in the Wills version, than the secret war Washington was waging against him. The very fact of this secret war, Wills contends, punctures any pretense that John Kennedy acted with “restraint” during the Cuban missile crisis; instead the necessity of camouflaging his sordid and shadowy “guerrilla strategy” chained him to a policy of high-risk confrontation and bluster.

As with Cuba, so with Vietnam, war on an ad hoc, CI basis, “There was no reluctance to be ‘drawn into’ Vietnam,” Wills writes. “We welcomed it as a laboratory to test our troops…. There was no dove position in Kennedy’s administration that stood for withdrawal. The doves were for winning the war by gentler methods.” Crisis, always crisis, crisis courted, crisis incited: crisis was finally the syphilis of Camelot, and it has infected, in Wills’s telling, every subsequent president. “Over and over in our recent history Presidents have claimed they had to act tough in order to disarm those demanding that they act tough. The only way to become a peacemaker is first to disarm the warmakers by making a little successful war.”

Wills’s case against the Kennedys is supple and elegant, an extended essay rather than history, and therefore not overburdened by any cargo of facts that might shift and rock the tidy line of argument. He is often bracingly meanspirited, about Eugene McCarthy (“an interesting study in the pride of people trained to embrace humility”), who once stiffed him with a check at Elaine’s (dinner for two, plus brandy)—an impolitic thing to do to a writer—and about the more onanistic of the toady courtiers, about Theodore White, who seemed to find sanctifying grace in the Kennedy presence, about Arthur Schlesinger, presented as a tame chaplain ever ready to offer absolution to his mentors from the confessional of history. In the proliferation of honorary Kennedys, layer upon layer around each brother, Wills shrewdly finds a bloated and largely ineffective bureaucracy of sycophants, liabilities where once they were a source of strength, “too many of them now and too few real Kennedys.” It was this bureaucracy that sprang into action after Chappaquiddick, crisis managers who managed the solution that scarred the protagonist.

Wills’s John Kennedy is a horror, more Picture than Dorian Gray, a president who “did not so much elevate the office as cripple those who held it after him…. Inheriting a delegitimated set of procedures, they were compelled to go outside the procedures too—further delegitimating the office they held.” About Robert Kennedy, Wills is ambivalent; in him Wills sees what might have been had he not been his brother’s brother, yet had he been the first of the line, would Robert Kennedy ever have been anything more than the nasty piece of work who cozied up to Senator Joseph McCarthy? Toward Edward Kennedy, Wills is patronizing, seeing in him a boozily effective senator condemned to be last keeper of the flame, his life “a permanent floating Irish wake,” sorting out friends “according to which brother they accompanied to meet his killer.”

The problem with revisionism, however, is that it is too often the mirror image of hagiography, a faith with an orthodoxy of its own. For all its many virtues, The Kennedy Imprisonment is ultimately unsatisfying, brought down less by its attitude toward the Kennedys than by the Jesuitical rigidity of its premise, its narrative. Narrative is arbitrary and tendentious, useful to the historian only insofar as it throws people and events into an original perspective or relief. The notion of the Kennedys as prisoners—prisoners of legend, prisoners of sex, of family, of image, of charisma, of power—is a romantic idea, a novelist’s conceit that Norman Mailer first tried out in An American Dream. Mailer had it all and he had it first—the Cardinal and the girls and the Mob and the flunkies and the pet columnists and the spooks and the wartime heroics; his Stephen Rojak was a true prisoner of celebrity.

It is not just that this landscape has already been strip-mined. Part of the fascination with the Kennedys has always been prurient, and Wills is not exempt. The Kennedy administration was sexy, and its sexiness as much as its policies was discussed by the huge army of the knowing. The girls of the thousand days fueled the fantasies of the knowing: Angie Dickinson, Marilyn Monroe, Judith Campbell Exner, who was on loan from Momo Giancana. Wills has a seminarian’s interest in the Kennedy’s sexual imperialism. For all his excursions into Montaigne and Chesterton, for all the allusions to Carlyle and Bagehot, it is Mrs. Exner’s biography that seems to excite him, and the endless erections and the girls crossed off a list like things to do.

Wills uses Mrs. Exner (who noted that John Kennedy, because of his back, could only perform in the missionary position, with his partner the missionary) and Burton Hersh (whose book Wills never troubles to identify by title) and Mr. and Mrs. Clay Blair the way Mailer used Maurice Zolotow in Marilyn—as producers of factoids he can alchemize into meditations. Thus Robert Kennedy could not halt J. Edgar Hoover’s crusade against Martin Luther King because Hoover might release information the FBI director had gathered about a John Kennedy bedmate, early in World War II, with Nazi connections. Thus Robert Kennedy could not run forcefully, in 1968, against Lyndon Johnson because Hoover and Johnson because Hoover and Johnson knew all about Mrs. Exner and that “damn Murder Incorporated in the Caribbean” and might use it.

Tumescence as the arbiter of national policy is the plot machinery of trash novels. The imposition of this colorful and vulgar narrative finally makes Wills a prisoner of his own premise, and his book as airless and claustrophobic as the slammers to which he has sentenced the Kennedys. There is no Kennedy success offered, not even an extenuating circumstance—not the test ban treaty, and certainly not Soviet expansionism in Berlin and Eastern Europe. John Kennedy, who did not write Profiles in Courage, is compared, to his disadvantage, to Janet Cooke, who made up her Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post feature. There was some dark purpose in inviting Pablo Casals to the White House; the so-called Kennedy cultural revolution only signified a need to exact an “abject profession of servility” from the Kennedy courtiers.

There is a whiff of the Inquisition here, a high whine from the pulpit of revisionism, a sermon on every stone, a lesson on every pin. Wills does not accept mitigating evidence and the only defense he allows is the collective sin of the Kennedy forebears. There is no point in arguing that charisma was not invented by John Kennedy, or political deception, no point in claiming that politicians have always acted out of an inflated self-importance and nations out of an unenlightened self-interest, often with beneficial results. This is a kangaroo court and the verdict was in the judge’s pocket before the charges on the indictment were read. The end result is that The Kennedy Imprisonment becomes just another oddity in the automobile graveyard of Kennedyana, another model, like the Sorensen and the Schlesinger, future historians can scavenge for parts.

This Issue

April 15, 1982