We gave it a B+
Among the hundreds of thousands of words in Richard Reeves’ massive, blow-by-blow, crisis-by-crisis, memo-by-memo, meeting-by-meeting, press conference- by-adulterous liaison account of the presidency of John F. Kennedy, one significant word you will not find is the word Camelot. By now, of course, few readers would expect to find JFK depicted as a saintlike King Arthur. Even so, the portrait of the Kennedy administration that emerges from Reeves’ relentlessly detailed account could shake the most worldly-wise adherents of what we call ”hardball” politics.
Even Reeves himself seems only intermittently aware of how scathing a picture he has drawn. President Kennedy: Profile of Power (Simon & Schuster, $30), indeed. A full-length, 18th-century-style subtitle would seem more appropriate. Say, President Kennedy: Master Illusionist, or, Whistling Past the Nuclear Graveyard.
It is not that JFK strikes one as all that much more opportunistic and devious than any other contemporary politician. The wit, charm, and skepticism that made him so magnetic a figure are very much on display. A man of few fixed beliefs and ”a certain love for chaos,” Kennedy, Reeves writes, ”had little ideology beyond anti-Communism and faith in active, pragmatic government What he had was an attitude, a way of taking on the world, substituting intelligence for ideas or idealism, questions for answers. Irony was as close as he came to a view of life.” But all that is pretty much par for the political course. Where Reeves’ book gets scary is in its depiction of a President politically on the make—he often stuck a slip of paper in his pocket to remind himself of his razor-thin, 118,574-vote majority over Richard Nixon—even amid what he calls the ”astonishing density of event during the Kennedy years.” Moreover, the book is scary not so much because of Kennedy’s apparent willingness to risk almost anything—up to and including nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis—for the sake of reelection in 1964, but because the President and his advisers appear to have been playing political poker with each other, and keeping the hole card concealed.
The CIA, for example, wanted to invade Cuba in 1961. Determined to preserve ”plausible deniability,” Kennedy scaled the plans down to the point where failure became inevitable. Suspecting as much, but also deluding themselves that a spontaneous uprising against Castro was likely, the CIA gambled that once U.S.-sponsored Cubans landed at the Bay of Pigs, JFK would order bombing strikes and send in troops. When Kennedy refused, not only was Soviet premier Khrushchev emboldened to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, but an even more disastrous chain of events began. Knowing he needed to get tough somewhere, Kennedy chose Vietnam. Reeves writes that Eisenhower, MacArthur, and de Gaulle all warned him against committing troops, but Kennedy figured he could finesse Vietnam, too.
The notion that all would have been different had Kennedy lived seems at best a sentimental wish. Intellectually lazy, with a short attention span and his eye on political survival, JFK tended to choose the middle option of three almost every time. ”And, of course,” Reeves notes, ”those who served Kennedy knew that was what he would do. The cunning of aides was in writing the options, maximizing the chances that their staff option would become the presidential order.” Preoccupied with what the British used to call the Great Game of foreign affairs, Kennedy was bored by domestic policy. ”Well, that’s over,” he told an aide after a 1960 campaign speech in South Dakota. ”F— the farmers after November.” And although he was sympathetic with the goals of the civil rights movement, his first instinct was to placate segregationist Southern congressmen whose votes he needed.
Brilliantly written and researched, President Kennedy is hardly flawless. Monumental in scope, the book is also, alas, monumentally long—its narrative energy too often dissipated by verbatim transcripts of 30-year-old speeches and press conferences that weren’t all that fascinating the first time around. Readers with patience and stamina, however, will find themselves both fascinated and repelled by this saga of American democracy in the raw. B+