Feckless Youth

What Kennedy magic?

Leaming’s book is absorbing in showing the young Kennedy’s devotion to his widowed sister (whose bereavement occurred at almost the same time as the death, on a flying mission, of Joseph Kennedy Jr.). It also shows that the young JFK privately sympathized with his father, throughout most of the war, in believing England to be decadent, doomed, and—always a key word with him—old. But when it later came to suit him, he borrowed the imagery of Munich all over again, and sought to evoke the sternest Churchillian echo that he could contrive. The British establishment in 1960 had every reason to welcome the election of a man who was in some sense “our American cousin.” But it then found that his impetuosity and opportunism made the asset somewhat volatile.

Upon me the principal effect of reading this book was a renewed distaste for the vindictiveness of Republicans in passing the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution in 1951. Had President Eisenhower been able to seek and win a third term, there is some reason to hope that we might have been spared the Bay of Pigs and been allowed a chance to reconsider the rash commitment in Indochina. The man who detested McCarthy, warned against the “military-industrial complex,” and sent troops to Little Rock, moreover, would have had less to prove, and less to fear, in confrontations with jittery hawks, or with racist Democratic governors after the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. More than this, Richard Nixon would have been less likely to emerge as a natural GOP successor, or to feel cheated by the Kennedy family’s dirty work in Cook County during the 1960 election. Just think what we might have skipped …

Daydreaming to one side, Eisenhower did accidentally do one thing that made the JFK presidency easier. In October 1956 he swiftly put an end to the illusions of Anglo-French colonialism in the Suez War. And having done that, he further intervened to condition the choice of Harold Macmillan as the successor to Sir Anthony Eden. His instrument in doing this was Winthrop Aldrich, a Rockefeller scion who then occupied Joseph Kennedy’s old roost as American ambassador in London. Leaming does not mention any of this, but then her subject is not the American native aristocracy, and despite her many virtues, she is still one of those who think that we should have paid any price, borne any burden to have been allowed to be reverent spectators at “Camelot.” (The new volume subtitled Creating Camelot is just that: an unembarrassed account by men like the late Hugh Sidey of Time of how the “Jack”/“Jackie” household was served by the press at the time, and of how it has been airbrushed and whitewashed since.)

I once sat on a panel with Pierre Salinger, to discuss Oliver Stone’s ridiculous Oedipal epic about the slaying of the noble father of the ’60s generation. Salinger was enraged by an anachronism in the movie, showing anti-Kennedy elements jeering about the end of “Camelot” as they heard the news of the assassination. Though this objection was formally correct—it wasn’t until Mrs. Kennedy praised the fourth-rate Lerner and Loewe musical to Theodore White very soon after Dallas that we became oppressed with this foolish image—I thought it was fantastically ungrateful of Salinger to protest at any currency for the expression that had allowed him such a long and undeserved career as an expert. But he was nonetheless right. There is, in retrospect, every reason to understand why a model of courtliness and chivalry, and grace in warfare—even a showbiz one—would have been completely inapplicable to the Kennedy administration as it actually was.

What several of these books combine to show—sometimes but not always unintentionally—is that the three years of the JFK regime were consumed by extraordinary hyperactivity on two fronts, and by extraordinary torpidity on two others. The hyperactivity consisted of continuous and stressful “crisis management,” often necessitated by self-induced crises, and reflected a picture of narcotic and sexual debauchery within the White House that still has the power to make one whistle. The torpor concerned two “macro” subjects—the pursuit of a nuclear test-ban treaty and the adoption by the administration and Congress of a serious position on civil rights—that really were both urgent and overdue.

The contrast between the two tendencies could not easily be greater. Having defamed Eisenhower and Nixon as appeasers, on the basis of a falsified “missile gap,” and having used the Munich analogy—in which he had not believed when it might have counted—as a continuous trope, the newly elected Kennedy was at a loss to find scope for his poor man’s Churchillianism. He encountered an additional difficulty. Winston Churchill himself—giver of the famous Fulton speech about the Iron Curtain—had become convinced after the death of Stalin and the Hungarian revolution that a more accommodating Soviet leadership was, if not actual, certainly possible. The old man also believed that the development of weapons of mass destruction had changed everything. He was largely seconded in both views by Harold Macmillan and Sir David Ormsby-Gore.

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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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