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Inventing Kennedy

ISSUE:  Autumn 1983
The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power. By Carry Wills, Little, Brown. $14.95 cloth, $3.95 paper.

Garry Wills cannot understand why Americans persist in picturing the Oval Office during the early sixties as having been prominently furnished with a Round Table. In The Kennedy Imprisonment, he seeks to free the American people of their loyalty to the Kennedys of legend by revealing a family whose actual history is less sacred than sordid. The members of America’s unofficial royal family have indeed proved all too human in both private and public life, and Wills, with an occasional gesture of sympathy in a sea of cynicism, leaves no throne unturned. In particular, he focuses on the main source of the legend, the Kennedy presidency, and concludes in effect that nothing more magical than the beacons of modern public relations illumined “the brief shining moment” of Camelot.

In a grim parody of such epic court histories as Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s A Thousand Days and Theodore Sorensen’s 800-page eulogy, Kennedy, Wills takes a long if not loving look at John Kennedy’s family upbringing, searching for early signs of future gracelessness. As limned by Wills, this was a clan cast in the mold of its founding tyrant, Joseph, Sr., who imparted to his male children his own ambition, opportunism, and (except for the disappointingly pious Bobby) a shameless machismo toward women. John’s early years unsurprisingly formed a story of self-indulgence reinforced by paternal example and encouragement. A succession of affairs unencumbered by emotional involvement; publication of a barely coherent senior thesis courtesy of family friends; the embellishment of a war record marked by heroism but also some unexplained lapses in leadership; and reception of a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage, written largely by his aide, Sorensen, all reflected a pursuit of expedience more than excellence.

Wills believes that Kennedy’s performance as president confirmed and expanded rather than overcame this pattern of flamboyant mediocrity. His conduct of foreign policy strikes Wills as a dismal amalgam of anti-Communist hysteria, reckless posturing, and a disturbingly gleeful crisis orientation. The results were accordingly grim, ranging from the early disaster at the Bay of Pigs to the placement—or misplacement—of more than 16,000 U. S. military personnel in Vietnam by the time of Kennedy’s death.

To historians who argue that Kennedy learned from his early mistakes, showing new wisdom during the Cuban missile crisis, Wills strongly demurs. Kennedy ignored legitimate Cuban concerns for defense against American intervention and needlessly flirted with the apocalypse in order to force the removal of missiles that scarcely affected the world military balance. To judge from Wills’ skeptical recounting, this harrowing superpower confrontation might better be termed the “misled crisis,” for it stemmed from Kennedy’s perception of a threat to his personal and political prestige rather than (as Americans were misinformed) to the nation’s security.

Kennedy emerges from Wills’ portrayal with equally scant credibility as a moral symbol for the nation. The book focuses particularly on the president’s liaison in the White House with Judith Campbell (now Exner), whose link to an underworld boss involved in a CIA plot to kill Castro added to the potential for devastating scandal. Wills argues that to keep his brother’s Byzantine escapades from public knowledge, Attorney General Robert Kennedy showed a rare timorousness when dealing with the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover, acquiescing in Hoover’s obstructionism in civil rights cases and his wiretapping of Martin Luther King, Jr. The president’s moral laxity thus placed his brother in “a moral prison” and “makes a mockery of any talk that John Kennedy’s sexual affairs were irrelevant to his politics.” Kennedy’s brilliant public aura, then, had little to do with reality, for his leadership as president chiefly formed a profile in cover-ups.

Even Kennedy’s undeniable charisma impresses Wills as less a cause for celebration than sober cerebration. The more Kennedy sought to maximize his power as president, focusing authority on his compelling personality instead of his office and relying on small circles of loyalists working outside bureaucratic channels, the more he subverted traditional institutions. The result was to “delegitimate” his successors, who had to imitate his extragovernmental style and to compete in vain against public yearnings for a Kennedy to lead them once again.

Not least among the victims of this public fixation on the idea of a Kennedy “Restoration” is the surviving brother, Edward, whose life has been mired in a myth he can never match. Virtually compelled by popular memories of his brothers to run for the presidency in 1980, he was at the same time doomed to fall short of those same memories. He could not even counter, as Wills wryly observes, “that his brothers were not as good as his brothers, that Camelot had been a fabric of political unreality,” For those still faithful to the myth, Ted Kennedy inevitably disappoints; to those disillusioned by recent revelations about flesh-and-blood Kennedys, he has become the focus of their wrath.

While seeking to demythologize the Kennedys, Wills also finds in their careers a collective lesson about how the pursuit of power not only corrupts but entraps. It can, as with Robert Kennedy, imprison the conscience or, as Ted Kennedy’s career has shown, imprison the spirit. It can even imprison a nation seduced by leaders who, like John F. Kennedy, permit ambition to outrun principle and thus engage in a doomed quest for greatness. The book’s concluding passages highlight this point by comparing the surface “dazzle” of the Kennedy presidency with the less individually assertive but deeply influential career of his contemporary, Martin Luther King, Jr. King did not grasp for personal power, yet his nonviolent advocacy of social justice left a more enduring legacy than Kennedy’s calls to national glory and his charismatic style. The Kennedy era, Wills avers, was really the age of Dr. King; moral vision rather than a striving for control is the force that truly sets men free.

Wills, in short, has really written two works in one, as the volume’s full title suggests: an iconoclastic look at the Kennedys and a broader “meditation on power.” Judged by this second concern, the book emerges as a model of penetrating reflection, written with Wills’ characteristic flair and suffused with originality. Yet curiously his passages on the Kennedys themselves, while provocative, are less than fully persuasive, perhaps because they tend to betray a bit too much zeal to tarnish and feather the family. The book’s repeated strafings of the shrine of Kennedy legend are not without their direct hits; but to this reviewer, its claims of surgical precision are belied by the wanton leveling of solid achievements along with undeserved icons. Notably, the book’s dust jacket heralds this political tract as “an exhilarating search-and-destroy mission”; and as an idea of Wills’ sense of balance, it is difficult to improve that formulation.

It seems a curious sense of proportion in a book professing to weigh the uses of power in the Kennedy presidency that there is virtually no substantive treatment of his programs. Wills declines to discuss Kennedy’s Keynesian economic policies, his energetic expansion of NASA’s space program, the achievements of the Peace Corps, the innovative Mobilization for Youth to combat juvenile delinquency, the fight for federal aid to education and to raise the minimum wage, the pilot program in food stamps, and other liberal initiatives— while he recounts at length the sensational but no longer new details of Kennedy’s romance with Judith Campbell, This would seem to predetermine any verdict on Kennedy’s impact as president; omitting his record militates considerably against judging him a constructive leader.

The sum of innuendos in The Kennedy Imprisonment may well lead a reader to conclude that President Kennedy was too constrained by self-made foreign crises, preoccupation with romance, and simply political caution ever to take a stand for a social cause. This picture, however, dissolves in the light of Kennedy’s record on civil rights, the critical domestic issue of the early sixties. As Carl Brauer demonstrates in his excellent study, John F. Kennedy and the Second Reconstruction, Kennedy “far surpassed” the initiatives of previous presidents on behalf of the Negro Revolution. Brauer notes among the administration’s initiatives the dramatic increase in litigation to guard black rights, the persistent and effective moral suasion to promote desegregation, accelerated appointment of blacks to federal posts, and aid in forming a Voter Education Project, which by 1964 had helped register over half a million new black voters in the South. Moreover, it was President Kennedy who, in the wake of racist violence in Birmingham in June 1963, asked Congress for comprehensive civil rights legislation, while admonishing Americans on national television that they could no longer tell black citizens to “be content with the counsels of patience” or tell each other that this country has “no master race except with respect to Negroes.”

If, as Wills emphasizes, Kennedy was not so radical as Martin Luther King, Jr., it should also be noted that his electoral victory (with 49,7 percent of the vote) had scarcely yielded a mandate for change, let alone to renew memories of Reconstruction. Nevertheless, within the constraints of a democratic system, his actions went beyond mere political calculation (a point that Martin Luther King himself strongly affirmed). A Harris poll in mid-fall of 1963 showed that 4. 5 million white Southerners had become disaffected with Kennedy’s leadership, far exceeding the number of additional black supporters he could hope to attract in 1964. It is also a fact, seldom recalled now through the mists of nostalgia, that the president’s death met approval, some of it boistrous, in certain parts of the country because of his strong stand for civil rights. It offers a grim reminder that the Kennedy presidency was very much entwined in substantive controversy—and commitment.

In foreign affairs, Wills accurately identifies Kennedy as a purveyor of Cold War attitudes, yet fails to note that the president was reacting, if not always in the wisest way, to a real danger. If Kennedy strongly voiced American misgivings about Soviet expansionism and repression, it is also true that Soviet leaders have long shown a consistently cynical contempt for their own people’s freedoms and other peoples’ sovereignty, as Solzhenitsyn eloquently details and as East Europeans knowledgeably whisper. During the early sixties in particular, the unilateral Soviet resumption of atmospheric nuclear testing, the barbarity of the newly raised Berlin wall, Khrushchev’s unsettling swaggering about his 100 megaton “superbomb,” and the growing Russian support for guerrillas the world over, all suggest that the Soviet threat was not simply a phantasm of Kennedy’s insecure musings.

Wills’ efforts to explain Kennedy’s foreign policy as stemming from a machismo complex, largely detached from wider considerations, result in repeated clashes with historical evidence. Thus Wills argues that Kennedy’s eagerness for bold intrigue, as seen in his decisions on the Bay of Pigs plan and in Vietnam, departed from the restraint of his predecessor, who had “no public policy of engagement everywhere, no mystique of countering any guerrillas who might pop up.” Yet the American assumption of responsibility for South Vietnam, together with the public propounding of the “domino theory,” originated under Eisenhower. (So, too, did the Bay of Pigs plan, although Wills contends that Eisenhower would not have approved it.) Also during his administration, American alliances burgeoned to more than 40, containment doctrine yielded to the more provocative rhetoric of “rollback” and “liberation,” the micro-islands of Quemoy and Matsu off Taiwan were promoted to vital national interests, and Eisenhower warned President-elect Kennedy that he might soon have to send American boys to Laos to ward off a Communist insurgency. In this light, Kennedy’s global commitments to curb forces he considered subversive appear quite consistent with foreign policy precedent, and not simply his personal quest for an anti-red badge of courage.

The argument that Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis was impelled largely by political machismo similarly falters, if it does not topple altogether, once one looks more fully at the Soviet provocation. Few historians believe that Khrushchev placed missiles in Cuba simply to give Castro a deterrent against American hostility. (Indeed, Cubans were at no time given access to the missile sites, and later Castro acknowledged that he essentially cooperated with strong Russian initiatives regarding the missiles). More important, the clandestine Soviet maneuver, in defiance of strict American warnings and repeated Russian assurances, challenged the status quo, undermined the Monroe Doctrine and U. S. military credibility with its Latin American allies, and cast the gravest doubt on Soviet diplomatic integrity. In short, notwithstanding Wills’ minimizing of the Soviet action, the Russians were menacing considerably more than the president’s emotional equilibrium. .

Given the Soviet’s aggressive deception in Cuba, one can more easily understand why Kennedy chose not to rely on quiet diplomacy alone, and why his blockade of the island received strong support from NATO and the OAS, as well as the American public. One can also better appreciate the subsequent praise for his restraint in refusing to bomb or invade Cuba, as urged by several key military and civilian advisers and by political leaders ranging from Richard Nixon (who saw this as a chance to overthrow Castro) to Senator J. William Fulbright (whose call to use troops carried especial weight given his earlier strong dissent against the Bay of Pigs plan). Kennedy’s restraint extended to instructing his aides to make no “victory” statements after the missiles were withdrawn, so as not to embarrass Premier Khrushchev gratuitously. In all, if this be macho, there was method in it. Skepticism about the book’s historical reliability mounts as Wills moves to the broader charge that Kennedy’s personalization of power “did not so much elevate the office as cripple those who held it after him.” To prove such “delegitimation,” Wills adduces as evidence the supposedly hobbled presidency of Lyndon Johnson, the “guerrilla war” against government institutions waged by Richard Nixon (who resented yet imitated and enlarged Kennedy’s personal approach to power), and Jimmy Carter’s campaign in 1976 “against Washington,” seen by Wills as the culmination of Kennedy’s antibureaucratic approach to government. Yet this impressment of ill-fitting cases in the cause of what is, in any case, a doubtful claim, stretches the limits of historical license. It is true that Johnson suffered politically from his failure to project the same electrifying public presence as his slain predecessor. Nevertheless, this handicap did not prevent him from exercising the most forceful leadership in foreign and domestic affairs, including a mastery over Congress undreamed of by Kennedy, until he was brought low by inflation, Vietnam, race riots, a widening credibility chasm, and other factors more mundane than the ghosts of Camelot past. As for Nixon’s excesses, most reasonably informed laymen would probably be able to point out that they related mainly to certain unfortunate limitations of character (which were, in fact, widely discerned in the fifties well before Kennedy became president). Finally, Jimmy Carter’s “outsider” approach to becoming the top Washington insider may better be explained by reference to the nation’s view of public officials after Watergate than as Carter’s perverse tribute to the Kennedy style. Somewhere in this farrago of fancy, Wills bears the kernel of a vital insight: free citizens should beware strong personalities who openly love power, lest they seek to become more important than the offices they hold. The examples Wills presents, however, fail on closer inspection to persuade that Kennedy’s presidency—however much missed by the public or emulated by officials—exerted anything like the catastrophic, virtually demonic impact Wills suggests it had on the nation’s subsequent leadership.

When the book turns from John Kennedy to his younger brothers, it seems to become better attuned to historical shadings. Of Robert Kennedy, Wills writes that he was basically moral, even courageous, yet a captive of his brother’s public deification and private delinquencies. This point is valid to a considerable degree, as seen especially in Robert Kennedy’s efforts to appease J. Edgar Hoover even against his better ethical judgment. Yet even here, Wills somewhat oversimplifies an ambiguous record, neglecting to note that, on balance, Robert Kennedy challenged Hoover more boldly and effectively than any other attorney general in Hoover’s long tenure heading the FBI. He pressed Hoover into reversing his longstanding denial of a national crime syndicate and into increasing the bureau’s civil rights activities so that by 1964 it had even opened an office in Mississippi to investigate violations more rapidly. While Kennedy accepted too timidly Hoover’s claim that the FBI lacked authority to protect black demonstrators, still he resourcefully used evidence in FBI reports to win civil rights cases in the South. In all, it begins to seem that the “moral prison” around President Kennedy’s attorney general was in key respects a minimum security institution.

Only when appraising the surviving Kennedy brother does Wills seem to find reasonably sure historical footing. Perhaps this is because here he seems less concerned to struggle against legends formed in the past than to gauge their impact on an individual with whom he has had some contact. Thus the book depicts vividly and at times poignantly how the senator’s personal life is prey to magnification and distortion by a media obsessed with the Kennedys. It describes his acceptance of an impassioned but largely powerless role as a spokesman for liberalism; and the burden he daily faces, as a public figure condemned to be known less for his own acts than for what his brothers represent to the country. Still, Wills does little to ease this burden with his failure to offer more than fleeting allusions to Ted Kennedy’s long career in the Senate. A chapter on the causes he has supported and the legislation he has helped enact might do more to enable Americans to see Ted Kennedy in a realistic political light than the book’s repeated concession (tinged by something more than a trace of condescension), “It is not easy to be an American prince.”

A reader unfamiliar with the literature on the Kennedys might assume that at the least Wills has embarked on a pioneering venture into the darker side of America’s most venerated family. Yet he presents little information not found in a host of earlier character (and caricature) studies. Those seeking a pathbreaking work on the subject will likely profit more from consulting Harris Wofford’s recent volume, Of Kennedys and Kings, easily the most sophisticated attempt to sort out the real Kennedys from the competing myths offered by canonizers and cannonaders. Wofford unflinchingly probes the seamier side of politics in the sixties, yet far more than Wills he incorporates the abundant evidence that Gamelot was not all chivalry into a sympathetic and balanced account of the Kennedy legacy. His work should serve as the standard reference on the topic for some time to some.

The Kennedy Imprisonment still bids for distinction whenever it explores its broader ideas on the dangers of pursuing power untempered by moral purpose, and of prizing charisma above conscience. Sadly, though, in a case of art imitating argument, Wills’ broader “meditation” tends to be imprisoned by his constricted approach to the Kennedys. Throughout much of his work, he seems to undercut his own formidable intellectual acuity by his efforts to force these complex people into simplistic paradigms of destructive leadership. Publicly renouncing hagiography, Wills too often forsakes history as well, pursuing instead a briefly cathartic but ultimately unsatisfying journey into a realm of political exorcism.


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