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Two Views of JFK: History and Eulogy

KENNEDY, by Theodore C. Sorensen. New York: Harper and Row, 1965. $10.00.

By Donald E. Graham

The mists have now set in for good over John F. Kennedy. It is hard to realize that these books deal with the same man. In fact, they don't; "Sorensen's Kennedy" and "Schlesinger's Kennedy," are different people, and perhaps it is not unfair to suggest that each resembles his author more than a little.

Not that there is any question about what Kennedy did during his Presidency; the issue seems to be the way he did it. Sorensen's Kennedy is a man of pragmatic instinct, distrustful of liberal intellectuals, his chief preoccupation domestic politics and the domestic economy. He liked football; he liked Casablanca and Spartacus-- "nothing too arty or actionless." Schlesinger's Kennedy is instinctively broadminded; he actually opposed the Bay of Pigs, Schlesinger thinks. Where Sorensen never mentions Adlai Stevenson's name without irritation, Schlesinger sees in Kennedy a bit of an old Stevensonian. Though their personal relations were marred by "a slight tinge of mutual exasperation," Kennedy had "an essential respect and liking for Stevenson," and politically they were almost soul brothers.

In other words, everyone is beginning to see Kennedy, like Hamlet, in his own image. And this is not terribly surprising, for if these books make one thing clear about Kennedy, it is that he told people what they wanted to hear. Time and again the liberal, U.N.-conscious Schlesinger seems to have heard one thing when old political comrade, domestic politics expert and speechwriter Sorensen heard something else.

Nor were they alone. In choosing a Vice-President, if we are to believe the published reports, Kennedy said as early as Monday of convention week that he planned to offer the Vice-Presidency to Johnson and would try to make him accept it (Theodore White), and also said that he only decided to make the offer Wednesday night (Sorensen). On Thursday he either offered the nomination to Johnson seriously (White-Sorensen) or expected him to reject it (Schlesinger). Later, Bobby Kennedy either went to Johnson on his own (White) or as his brother's representative (Sorensen) to suggest that Johnson might become chairman of the national committee instead: or he was sent with instructions that were superseded by a phone call from his brother to Johnson before he arrived (Schlesinger). Meanwhile, John Kennedy was the one man who was certain that he wanted Johnson (White) or was amazed that he accepted (Schlesinger quotes him as saying later "I didn't offer the Vice-Presidency to him. I just held it out ... and he grabbed at it.").

And this was not the only time that Kennedy apparently told a number of people different things--a process very conducive to myth-formation. Kennedy is already being quoted on different sides of a number of issues, most frequently in the case of Vietnam.

But one should not protest about a good thing, and the creation of the Kennedy myth has been nothing but good. It has given utopians a never-to-be-realized ideal against which they can measure Kennedy's fallible successors. One of the most valuable things Schlesinger does is to remind his readers of the antipathy towards Kennedy that grew up in the year before his death. "He used to say that Adlai Stevenson could still beat him in Madison, Wisconsin, or in Berkeley, California--perhaps even in Cambridge, Massachusetts."

Perhaps indeed! To a student who came here from Washington in the fall of 1962, it didn't seem possible that Kennedy was less popular anywhere in the country than he was at his alma mater. He had promised so much and delivered so little, and what he had delivered was disaster. On the night after Kennedy's speech on the Cuban crisis, Lowell Lee was packed with people, the majority of whom applauded when a professor snapped that the whole thing had been rigged up so a few more Democratic Congressmen could be elected. Then there was his slowness on civil rights, which so exasperated those who went South with SNCC and those who heard about their troubles. There was Teddy, who snatched the 1962 Senatorial election, to everyone's great disgust, and Bobby the cold, Bobby the ruthless, trampling on civil liberties.

So for good reasons and bad, no group except the Goldwaterites hated Kennedy more than Harvard's radical intellectuals did then. But because we have come so far, or because Lyndon Johnson is President, or simply because he was shot (although the de mortu's principle does not seem to protect other Presidents) there are now few places that cherish his memory more.

To cut away the myth was a hero's job. Schlesinger, unlike his rival, really tried, and no quibbles about the book should mask the fact that his achievement is extraordinary. He is, to begin with, a master narrator; the elegance of the book will astonish those who read Life's patched-together excepts. But an even greater achievement is his knowledge of what was going on in the world while John Kennedy was President. His store of detail is prodigious, and his use of his carefully dug-up gems masterly. He illustrates the disquieting attitude of the press towards the radical right:

When Life ran a skeptical story about Fred Schwarz, the outcry from Schwarz's backers, some of whom were national advertisers, Induced Life's publisher, C.D. Jackson, to fly to a Schwarz rally in the Hollywood Bowl and offer a public apology. "I believe we were wrong" Jackson said, "and I am profoundly, sorry. It's a great privilege to be here tonight and align Life magazine with Senator Dodd, Representative Judd, Dr. Schwarz, and the rest of these implacable fighters against Communism."

And, thank God, Schlesinger is not stifled by the solemnity of the things he is writing about. When he looks for a quotation to illustrate a technical point, it is invariably a humorous one. When something was done without medieval pomp, he is willing to say so. Here, for instance, is Kennedy's search for a Postmaster-General:

Because the Pacific Coast was conspicuously underrepresented in the Cabinet word went out to dig up a California businessman. Someone suggested J. Edward Day of Prudential Insurance. Day, a man of rollicking humor, had been Adlai Stevenson's Insurance Commissioner in Illinois, before moving to the West. His credentials appeared good, and his rather hasty appointment on December 17 completed the Kennedy Cabinet.

He is more than irreverent when the subject is the State Department and its Secretary. In the Life excerpts, the discussion of the department occupied just one installment. Now it has been decentralized and sprawls over the book (the sentence about Kennedy's decision to fire Rusk has wandered way back into the last chapter). Every discussion of a foreign policy issue bristles with exasperated recollections of programs sidetracked, of speeches emasculated, of policies buried in Foggy Bottom. Dean Rusk is rarely mentioned without an accompanying broadside (most gratuitously, a footnote implies that Rusk shirked his advisor's duties during the Cuban crisis, a strange Schlesinger exercise in Charles Bartlettism).

But if it can be argued that Schlesinger maintains his attack too protractedly for his own purposes, it is difficult to understand how these passages were taken last summer as a betrayal of the national interest. Obviously a President must be free to speak without his every remark being made public; just as obviously, an occasional revelation of this kind doesn't hurt. It is now four months since Schlesinger's revelation, and the sky has yet to fall upon the State Department building. And from the number of people who have stepped forward to give loud expressions of non-surprise at the disclosure, it does not appear that the U.S. lost any kind of diplomatic prestige it had not lost long before.

The criticisms of State would be galling if Schlesinger were, as has been suggested, without critical words about anyone else. He's not. Schlesinger's Lyndon Johnson is unhappy at his treatment by Kennedy aides, and opposed to administration tactics on Vietnam, the civil rights bill, and the wheat sale to Russia. "He seemed to have faded astonishingly into the background and appeared almost a spectral presence at meetings in the Cabinet Room." His Chester Bowles "dissipated his authority by diffusing his energy." His Nehru is a tired, tedious old man. There are also a surprising number of critical passages about Kennedy, some of them of un-expected bluntness:

I saw the President soon after he heard that Diem and Nhu were dead. He was sombre and shaken. I had not seen him so shaken since the Bay of Pigs. No doubt he realized that Vietnam was his great failure in foreign policy and that he had never really given it his full attention.

There are, of course, plenty of white hats. It seems to help greatly in these books to be a friend of the author's. Adlai Stevenson is an ever-valiant fighter, winning commendation from the President every chapter or two. Of Robert Kennedy, Schlesinger writes that "I do not know of any case in contemporary American politics where there has seemed to me a greater discrepancy between the myth and the man." Averell Harriman is the lone guerilla fighter standing up for truth in the State Department.

Many of the friends Schlesinger writes about came from Harvard, and this book is going to be gobbled up by every Cantabridgian who wonders just what happened to the people who disappeared in 1961. Schlesinger includes detailed accounts of what many of them were doing (there are times when J. Kenneth Galbraith seems almost to be running the government singlehandedly), and there are bits of information about the less exalted that illustrate just how closely Washington was tied to Cambridge for those three years. When, at the time of the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Revolutionary Council needed a manifesto of its intention for a non-Communist Cuba, John Planck, former professor of Government, and William Barnes, assistant dean of the Law School, were asked to provide suggestions. When a dangerously hard-line Berlin policy seemed to be taking hold in 1961, a Harvard all-star team moved in. On the diplomatic front, "Abram Chayes, Carl Kaysen and I got together to express a collective concern" in the form of a memorandum to the President. Meanwhile "McGeorge Bundy and Kissinger were bringing the President comparable questions about the state of military planning." So many Faculty members were called to Washington that Kennedy was often reluctant to appoint a professor because "we've taken so many Harvard men that it's damn hard to appoint another."

Schlesinger dismisses the campus left very briefly. Many students will feel he does not give the radicals credit for being ahead of the administration occasionally, particularly on civil rights. He also uses H. Stuart Hughes as a leftist straw man and has quite clearly removed some Hughes statements from their context. If he is dissatisfied with his role in the text, however, Hughes can be consoled by a moral victory in the index: he gets seven references to five for Edward Kennedy.

It is in confronting John Kennedy that Schlesinger's reconstruction seems to grow a bit wobbly. Though he is critical at times, his basic tone is apologetic. If Kennedy had followed his inclinations at the time of the Bay of Pigs, if he had devoted his full energy to Vietnam, his major foreign problems might have been solved. Then, there is the apparently unconfrontable fact of his death--what might not have followed in that unforgettable second term with its Decade of Development for the third world and its war on poverty at home. And there it is: we don't know. Every time Schlesinger seems to be bringing himself to voice a major criticism of the President himself, rather than his policies, something intervenes, and we are awash in Mrs. Kennedy reading "I Have a Rendezvous With Death," and the Presidential foresights of doom, and the drums rolling, and the procession marching up Capitol Hill.

Theodore Sorensen doesn't even try to stay afloat. The faults of his book are as obvious as the virtues of Schlesinger's and they have been freely jumped on by reviewers for a month now. Sorensen's virtues are less obvious.

Kennedy has its virtues, but they are well hidden. It is, to begin with, not terribly well written. Sorensen simply isn't the narrator Schlesinger is; stories that are well-told in one book come out flat in the other. Parts of the Sorensen book, too, sound embarrassingly like Kennedy speeches:

The three marble monuments and memorials--to the men who forged in the Presidency an instrument of power and compassion--remind a grateful nation that it has been blessed in its gravest trials with its greatest leaders. In the distance, the dome of the Capitol covers a milieu of wisdom and folly, Presidential ambitions and antagonisms, political ideals and ideologies.

It is also disappointingly uncritical. Sorensen says at one point that this is his substitute for the book Kennedy would have written; at another he apologizes for appearing biased by saying "My only obligation is to the truth about Kennedy."

But he never gets at that truth. Instead, Superman too frequently appears to be in charge of the government. When "a mistake" is made (anything from the Bay of Pigs to the cancellation of the White House's subscription to the Herald-Tribune) the implication is always that all the information wasn't considered, and that if they had been, everything would have worked out for the best.

Ersatz Perfection

No man is supposed to be a hero to his valet, and Sorensen was Kennedy's intellectual valet too long for his praise to seem altogether honest. Richard Neustadt has called the book a lawyer's brief for the Kennedy Presidency, but no good lawyer would have written it this way, as Kennedy himself knew. Schlesinger shows him reading Eisenhower's memoirs and clucking that Ike apparently hadn't made any mistakes, and saying he wasn't about to write his own book that way.

What is interesting about Kennedy is what it reflects about the topic of Sorensen's last book, Decision-Making in the White House. The last half is arranged in chapters that discuss the development of issues--the economy, civil rights, the alliance--from the beginning to the end of the administration. These chapters leave one with two impressions: first that the process of Presidential decision-making is frequently very hectic, and second that the President, and especially the White House staff, is ordinarily very isolated.

The book makes the President's reactions appear to be disorganized, often emotional, provoked by crises. Only when the crowds massed in the streets of Birmingham and Bull Connor beat them back did Kennedy begin to think of a strong civil rights bill, according to Sorensen. He makes Kennedy's speech on the enrollment of two Negroes at the University of Alabama appear the most important civil rights development of the administration, and he never recognizes those critics of the 1964 civil rights act who felt that it didn't go far enough. Polls showed that Kennedy was losing votes over the issue, and this proves to Sorensen's satisfaction that a strong stand had been taken.

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