John F. Kennedy first gained national attention at the age of 23. His book Why England Slept, published in 1940, became a best-seller and earned the new Harvard graduate plaudits as a man of learning and thoughtfulness. Kennedy was heard from again in the summer of 1944 when the New York Times carried a front-page story describing his dramatic rescue of 10 men following the destruction of PT-109 by a Japanese destroyer in the South Pacific. Kennedy’s friend John Hersey soon published a story about the incident in The New Yorker which was republished in condensed form in the Reader’s Digest. Jack Kennedy was instantly a national hero.
In June 1946, Look magazine published a lengthy eulogy of Kennedy in which the young congressional candidate was said to have brains, charm, and courage. After winning the primary in the solidly Democratic Eleventh District of Massachusetts, JFK was applauded by Time magazine for his determination, selflessness, and integrity. Other publications echoed the theme: John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a man of extraordinary character and intelligence.
Kennedy’s three terms in the House added little to his reputation. He was not a legislative leader, and his name rarely appeared in major newspapers and magazines. On the whole, Jack’s voting record reflected the views of his multimillionaire father, former Ambassador to England, Joseph P. Kennedy. A staunch anticommunist, the young congressman was thoroughly committed to private enterprise and suspicious of Big Government. On the other hand, he favored welfare proposals beneficial to his many blue collar constituents and befriended legislation liberalizing immigration laws, promoting civil rights, and defending organized labor.
Soon after Kennedy entered the Senate in 1952 it was widely apparent that he had aspirations for even higher office. His marriage to the beautiful and aristocratic Jacqueline Bouvier in September 1953 received lavish attention in the press and clearly enhanced the senator’s political opportunities. Kennedy also seemed to be more mature, more active, and somewhat more liberal. He published numerous articles in major magazines, lectured widely, and gained national notoriety for his efforts on behalf of the St. Lawrence Seaway. He advocated boosts in defense spending and expressed apprehensions about Indochina. He also drew the wrath of many liberals for cosponsoring the Communist Control Act of 1954 and for failing to vote from his hospital bed later that year on the Senate censure of Joe McCarthy, a personal and family friend.
In early 1956 Kennedy published Profiles in Courage, a highly acclaimed study of “grace under pressure” in American politics. The book, awarded the Pulitzer Prize, brimmed over with moral exhortation; historical figures were praised for their high ideals, absolute principles, bravery, and sound thinking. It was clear that the author identified himself with these virtues. It was obvious too that the book was designed, at least in part, to bolster Kennedy’s political fortunes. “Today the challenge of political courage looms larger than ever before. . . . We shall need compromises in the days ahead, to be sure. But these will be, or should be, compromises of issues, not of principles.”
Later that year Kennedy made a serious bid for the Democratic Vice Presidential nomination. His youth, his lack of solid legislative achievement, his father’s shady reputation, and his Roman Catholicism proved too much of a handicap and resulted in a second ballot defeat. Few doubted, however, that JFK would try again, perhaps next time for the White House.
The quest for the Presidency began almost immediately. Kennedy wooed East Coast liberals, spoke out boldly on foreign affairs, attracted Southerners with a vote against civil rights, and boosted his legislative record by serving on the McClellan Committee as it probed labor unions. He was soon to give speeches in every state of the Union, including Alaska and Hawaii, and in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Photographs and stories about Jack and Jackie appeared in scores of newspapers and magazines. A typical feature article in the Saturday Evening Post declared, “Mr. Kennedy is the clean-cut, smiling American boy, trustworthy, loyal, brave, clean and reverent, boldly facing up to the challenges of the Atomic Age.”
After his smashing reelection victory in 1958, Kennedy made overtures to the leading liberal intellectuals who supported Adlai Stevenson for the Presidency. He created a “brains trust” that included, among others, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, Paul Samuelson, and Walt Rostow. He spoke out for civil liberties, civil rights, the elderly, and liberal welfare legislation. He published two books along with scores of articles and book reviews on a wide variety of topics.
James MacGregor Burns, professor of political science at Williams College and an award-winning biographer of Franklin D. Roosevelt, published John Kennedy: A Political Profile. Burns portrayed the 42-year-old senator as deeper, more reflective, more responsible than the public, basking in the candidate’s good looks and eloquence, even imagined. He was “a serious driven man,” addicted to hard thought and action, cool and self-possessed, brave, a man of great moral strength who could give the nation the leadership it craved. “Such leadership calls for magical qualities of heart and spirit, of joy and earnestness, indeed of rhetoric and passion, that are bequeathed to few men.”
Once Kennedy had secured the Democratic nomination, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the Pulitzer Prize winning historian from Harvard University, published a frankly partisan campaign polemic entitled Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference? Schlesinger charged that the Vice President lacked a “steady deposit of conviction,” an “instinct for dignity,” a political philosophy, and a sense of history. Kennedy, on the other hand, was a man of principle, consistency, and self-confidence. He was “an exceptionally cerebral figure,” “a committed liberal” who admired intellectuals and would turn to them for advice. Nixon was in the Presidential race for private gratification, the author charged. “But Kennedy is ambitious because the Presidency alone would give him the power to fulfill purposes which have long lain in his mind and heart.”
As the Kennedy Administration got underway, a stream of articles and books celebrated the character, intellect, and political skill of the new President. Theodore H. White’s highly influential The Making of the President 1960 praised Kennedy for his high-minded ambition, energy, and intelligence. Washington journalist Robert J. Donovan lionized the President, a long-time friend, in PT-109: John F. Kennedy in World War II, a book excerpted in the Saturday Evening Post and made into a movie. Richard Tregaskis, a Kennedy classmate at Harvard, published John F. Kennedy: War Hero.
Reporters in the major media, who had overwhelmingly favored Kennedy during the election, lavished attention upon the handsome young couple in the White House, noting especially their attention to style, culture, and learning. Many stories focused on the Kennedy family’s happy domestic life. While the President’s political policies often drew sharp rebukes in the press, few leading writers chose to attack Kennedy personally. In an article tantalizingly entitled “What you don’t know about Kennedy,” Look magazine reporter Fletcher Knebel revealed nothing bolder than the fact that “Kennedy uses profanity with the unconcern of a sailor, which he was and is.”
Not everyone, of course, embraced Kennedy. Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman, for example, had long suspected that he lacked convictions and was little more than an extension of his father’s ego. Voices on the far left and right were often extremely critical, and conservatives increased the tempo as the second Presidential campaign began.
In September 1963 conservative journalist Victor Lasky published what Newsweek called “the first thoroughly and unmercifully anti-Kennedy book, J.F.K.: The Man and the Myth. Several former charges were reexamined, including a “first marriage” in 1947, poor helmsmanship aboard PT-109, softness toward Joe McCarthy and his “ism,” and vote-buying in the 1960 West Virginia primary. Lasky dissected JFK’s voting record in Congress as “one of carefully contrived contradictions.” But Lasky’s central thrust was aimed directly at Kennedy’s personal character. However charming, sincere, and brilliant JFK appeared to be in public, he was in fact, according to Lasky, cold, calculating, vain, superficial, and morally obtuse. Kennedy’s assassination three months later made Lasky’s charges almost unpatriotic, and the book was withdrawn from print.
On the heels of the tragedy in Dallas, a literature of adulation burst into print, the likes of which the nation had not experienced since the death of Lincoln. This was understandable, of course, given the President’s youth and physical attractiveness. Soon JFK became a legendary figure who presided over Camelot, a Presidential Administration of unmatched wisdom, virtue, and style.
In 1965 Kennedy’s personal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, published My Twelve Years with John F. Kennedy. The book was romantic, worshipful, and dedicated “with love” to Kennedy’s children. Of far more substance were large volumes published that same year by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had been a Special Assistant to the President, and Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy’s speech writer and chief adviser since January 1953. Schlesinger’s book, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, cast Camelot in concrete. For more than a thousand pages, in learned, moving, and often brilliant prose, Schlesinger lauded Kennedy’s intelligence, moral courage, self-awareness, learning, style, empathy, vitality, humor, detachment, discipline, and compassion. The author used the word character several times, defining it once as “that combination of toughness of fiber and courage.” Indeed, for Schlesinger, the President and his entire family were virtually beyond reproach; the Administration, so abruptly and cruelly ended, was one of history’s brightest moments.
Sorensen admitted that his view of the late President was “unobjective,” and his lengthy and eloquent Kennedy matched Schlesinger’s volume in total devotion. JFK was “the brightest light of our time,” “almost a legendary figure,” a man whose “cool, analytical mind was stimulated by a warm, compassionate heart.” Kind friend, devoted husband and father, churchman, wit, war hero, author, idealist, statesman—Kennedy was all of this and more. Sorensen was convinced that historians would rank his former employer among the greatest Chief Executives.
In 1972 political scientist James David Barber published his much-heralded The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House. At the center of all history. Barber argued, is the person; to understand the past, therefore, and make meaningful predictions about the future, one must understand people—not just on the surface, but on the deepest possible level. Barber was convinced that it was especially important to understand the character of American Presidents, those extremely powerful and influential men entrusted by the public with moral and political leadership. Barber based his treatment of Kennedy on the devotional volumes then available. JFK emerged, as Sorensen had predicted, among the very best Chief Executives.
But cracks in the Kennedy image (beyond Lasky) began to appear as early as 1964. Richard J. Whalen’s carefully researched biography of Joseph P. Kennedy revealed an unscrupulous manipulator, shamelessly willing to plot and spend in order to propel a son into the White House. All of the Kennedys, including JFK, were seen to be wholly under the influence of the Founding Father.
Liberal journalist Benjamin C. Bradlee, another Kennedy insider and admirer, further undermined the credibility of the Schlesinger and Sorensen portraits of JFK with his Conversations With Kennedy, published in 1975. Bradlee depicted a man who was exceedingly vain (he hired a woman just to brush his hair), incredibly foul-mouthed, petty, penurious, insensitive, spiteful, eager for salacious gossip, and extremely manipulative. He slipped secret government documents to journalists in return for favors, got drunk, spoke in favor of abortion, denigrated liberals, and (along with Jackie) showed a penchant for rock ‘n’ roll. Even the alleged brilliance was missing; the President took “the better part of an hour” with a foreign service officer and his son learning how to master “Ich bin ein Berliner.” Bradlee also included several somewhat veiled references to a Kennedy interest in women other than his wife.
That same year, a leak from a Senate Intelligence Committee staff member led to the revelation that a beautiful California woman, Judith Campbell Exner, had been secretly admitted to the White House on many occasions over an almost two-year period to carry on a romance with the President. Exner was also having affairs with Sam Giancana and John Roselli, Mafia figures involved in a newly disclosed CIA plot to poison Fidel Castro. It was learned that when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who was aware of the plot, learned of the Kennedy-Exner trysts, he confronted the President directly, and the clandestine visits stopped. (Giancana was murdered just before he was to testify before the Senate committee. Roselli was murdered afterward.)
Exner reluctantly admitted the facts of her affair with Kennedy, noting that Evelyn Lincoln had arranged her visits to the White House with the assistance of Dave Powers. Her later book, My Story, written after the FBI attempted to drive her to suicide, was filled with compelling evidence. Her frank, detailed, and generally sympathetic descriptions of Frank Sinatra (who had introduced her to Kennedy and Giancana), the “Rat Pack,” her Mafia lovers. White House staff members, and the President himself—attentive, aggressive, strongly contemplating divorce—caused a storm in the press. Evidence uncovered by the New York Times that JFK was almost certainly aware of the plot to kill Castro raised even more questions about Camelot.
Before 1975 was over New York Times columnist William Satire obtained FBI documents through the Freedom of Information Act showing that Joseph P. Kennedy had quietiy paid a former JFK girlfriend $500,000 to drop a lawsuit against the President-elect. In San Francisco, socialite Joan Lundberg Hitchcock gave reporters details of her three-year affair with JFK during the late 1950’s. Time and Newsweek magazines ran lengthy and obviously well-researched articles linking Kennedy romantically with several well-known actresses, scores of unknown young women, and two staff members code-named “Fiddle” and “Faddle” by the Secret Service. One former New Frontiersman was quoted as saying of the Kennedy White House, “It was a revolving door over there. A woman had to fight to get in that line.”
It was becoming apparent that the stories of the President’s extramarital exploits were not only true but had long been widely known. Lewis H. Lapham reported:
In New York during the thousand days, it was impossible to go to dinner among the forward elements of society (i.e., with journalists passing through town on their way from Washington to Hyannisport, with White House advisers and Broadway directors, et cetera) without listening to someone tell yet another amusing story about yet another actress who had discovered (much to her wonder and surprise) that politics wasn’t always as boring as deficit spending or Berlin.
For all of the rhetoric about the high-mindedness of the Kennedy Administration, there had been a taboo, especially in liberal circles, about publicly discussing the President’s personal character. Only occasionally was the silence broken by insiders. In 1977 former French Ambassador Herve Alphand published a revealing recollection of JFK in August 1962: “He likes pleasure and women. His desires are difficult to satisfy without fear of a scandal which would be utilized by his political adversaries. That will happen one day, for he does not take sufficient precautions in this Puritan country.”
Objective scholarship entered the picture in 1976 with The Search for J.F.K. by Joan and Clay Blair Jr. This superb study was based upon thousands of recently opened documents from the Kennedy Library and more than 150 oral interviews. The authors focused their attention upon the years 1935 to 1947, but the impact of their research shed light upon the entire history of the Kennedys. For the first time the public could grasp the dimensions of the gap between what was passing for Kennedy history and the truth.
JFK was revealed as an extraordinarily sickly and frail young man, born with an unstable back. (The Blairs disclosed a Kennedy family cover-up about JFK’s health, from his early childhood through the onset of Addison’s disease in 1947, a cover-up perpetuated by Burns, Schlesinger, Sorensen, and the press.) His alleged education at the London School of Economics and Stanford University amounted to nothing. His first book. Why England Slept, was strongly influenced by his father and was in large part a product of journalist Arthur Krock. “He was certainly very bright, but he was a ‘quick study,’ not an intellectual or scholar.” JFK’s almost mechanical pursuit of women, from age 17 on, was documented fully. “He relished the chase, the conquest, the testing of himself, the challenge of numbers and quality.”
The Blairs completely revised JFK’s naval history, showing with meticulous clarity that the stories of the PT-109 accident and rescue had been grossly misrepresented. “He was, in effect, a ‘manufactured’ war hero.” Kennedy’s political ambitions and thoughts after the war were largely dictated by his father.
In 1980, historian Herbert S. Parmet published Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy. A sympathetic study, it was nevertheless the most reliable biography to date, making use of recent scholarship and adding valuable information and analysis. The author was especially strong on Kennedy’s early education (revealing his LQ. to be 119), his religious skepticism, his heavy reliance upon his father in all of his political campaigns, his marital difficulties (“Politics and promiscuity were all part of being married to John Kennedy”), and his studied evasion of the Joe McCarthy censure. Parmet’s account of Theodore Sorensen’s dominant role in the creation of Profiles of Courage, and of his authorship of many other “Kennedy” publications, raised new questions about JFK’s character. (Kennedy claimed sole authorship of the book even more vigorously than he denied being a victim of Addison’s disease.) His examination of the Pulitzer Prize award suggested the presence of Joseph P. Kennedy.
The Kennedys: Dynasty and Disaster, 1848-1983 by John H. Davis, was especially important because of its piercing and unsentimental appraisal of Jackie Kennedy, a Davis relative. The book caused a stir because of its revelations that Judith Campbell Exner had told the President about her affair with Sam Giancana and that Kennedy was jealous. Davis speculated that JFK was using Exner to monitor the CIA’s “dirty business” against Castro. This was “reckless in the extreme,” Davis concluded. “But as we know, John Kennedy thrived on danger, risk, and intrigue.” Davis blamed “sycophantic journalists” for the discrepancy between the Kennedy image and reality.
Despite the sycophants and the Kennedy family’s careful control of documents in the Kennedy Library, we know a great deal about the man who served as the 35th President What we need now, in my judgment, is a skilled and objective examination of the Kennedy Administration to see how much of what JFK really was made any difference to the nation and the world. The effort, inspired by Barber and begun by Parmet, needs completion.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who, like Theodore Sorensen, clings stubbornly to the Kennedy portrait he helped create, recently sneered at what he called “the National Enquirer school of biographers” who arrive at “highly speculative character analysis.” He contended that “if anything unto ward happened at all” in the Kennedy White House “it did not interfere with Kennedy’s conduct of the Presidency.” That provocative assertion demands scrutiny, because it opens up the entire issue of Presidential character.
Obviously, many decent men would make poor Presidents, but the office nevertheless requires character. The visibility of the Presidency and its power for good and evil are unequaled. If a Chief Executive has, say, an emotional weakness and needs to prove his masculinity, the results could be catastrophic. Should a President be self. destructive, reckless, ruthless, corrupt, or completely cynical, millions-even billions-might suffer.
It can be argued that John F. Kennedy was the most immoral man ever to serve as President; he was certainly the most lascivious. Almost all of the triumphs recorded in his campaign literature have been debunked. We know about a number of his lies and cover-ups, his largely ghost-written eloquence, his almost wholly hedonistic and pragmatic approach towards ethics and morality, his compulsive satyriasis. George Smathers, a close friend of Kennedy, was recently quoted as saying, “No one was off limits to Jack-not your wife, your mother, your sister. If he wanted a woman, he’d take her.”
And yet Kennedy continues to be ranked among our most popular Presidents, even by historians. The volume quoting Smathers is entitled A Hero for Our Time: An Intimate Story of the Kennedy Years. Is this because of JFK’s good looks, wit, and style, still seen in the media, or does it merely reflect a longing for happier times? Does the tragedy of the assassination still work in Kennedy’s favor? Surely the liberal bent of the intellectual world plays a role.
It is clear that Kennedy continues to require scholarly scrutiny. Millions of documents have yet to be released; we need to think through the abundance of material now available. When the relationship between the President’s character and Administration policy becomes clearer we may not only have a better view of the Thousand Days but a deeper understanding of the Presidency.