Feckless Youth

What Kennedy magic?

The man against whom Kennedy was historically ranged, or felt himself to be, was Nikita Khrushchev. In spite of much boorishness and demagoguery—partly undertaken to conceal the increasing lack of confidence that the USSR and the Communist movement felt after his own “secret speech” concerning the crimes of Stalinism—Khrushchev was, probably no less than his eventual successor Gorbachev, a man with whom, at a minimum, business could be done. Had it not been for the stupidity of the CIA (how often one has recourse to those words) in sending a U-2 spy plane into Russian airspace just as Eisenhower and Khrushchev were about to meet in Paris, there might well have been a ban on atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons and a consummating visit by Eisenhower to Moscow. But Kennedy, eager to prove himself in turn, and to live up to his inflated campaign rhetoric, was far too willing to listen to the CIA when it came to Cuba and the Congo, and far too inclined to view every meeting with the Soviet chairman as a test of his own will and energy and strength.

The misgiving he must have felt about those very qualities is now a doubt that we must all share. At practically all material times, the Galahad of Camelot was pumped full of drugs that affected his mental and physical ability, and was concomitantly obsessed with a need to demonstrate “potency.” That this led him to adopt something like a Marilyn Monroe doctrine is indubitable. Even the smitten Barbara Leaming is shocked to note on how many vital occasions the president of the United States was closeted with his official procurer, David Powers, and a couple of hired women. Eros may be a tried and tested way to ward off Thanatos, but it is alarming to discover from Leaming’s book how long Kennedy had brooded on the likely brevity of his own disease-haunted life, and how casually this allowed him to gamble with Thanatos for other people.

Professor Robert Dallek evidently hopes to step into the shoes vacated by Salinger, Sorensen, Schlesinger, and the rest, and now makes a Zelig-like appearance in all JFK anthologies, but his last book made it agonizingly clear that Kennedy was in no sense competent to be the chief executive, and that after being too sick and too crazed with dope to handle the celebrated confrontation with Khrushchev in Vienna, he resolved abruptly to pick a macho fight in Indochina. This would have been bad enough in itself, but he also made a hostage of his own honor—and ours—by sleeping with the gun moll Judith Exner at the very same time when she was the mistress of the mobster Sam Giancana, and when Mr. Giancana and other Cosa Nostra elements were the executors of the Kennedy administration’s deranged policy in Cuba. Has any president ever sunk so low? And who will still maintain that this was a private peccadillo?

I do not know for sure when the avuncular Harold Macmillan came to realize that so much of his role was going to involve careful and therapeutic hand-holding in between storms of narcissism and poll-driven mood swings. (Most historians date this to the moment when the brash young president informed the moustachioed last of the Edwardians that if he didn’t have a woman every three days he would suffer from a headache or—deferring to one account I once heard—a nosebleed.) The old man noted presciently in his diary, “Kennedy got elected by attacking Eisenhower as ‘weak’ and on his slogan ‘Wake up America!’ So, elected on the Churchill ticket, he will now be accused of following a Chamberlain policy.”

Every time the British thought that a test-ban treaty was within political reach, they were made to appreciate that Kennedy was the first of the absolutely image-conscious, media-savvy, sales-oriented generation. Those of us who hate the dull and sordid world of the professional “handler” must date our mourning from the moment when the TV camera decided that it loved JFK. Several opportunities for a negotiated end to the nuclear standoff were missed, and the proposal that was eventually accepted (involving mutual force reductions in Cuba and Turkey) had to be kept secret by the Kennedy clan because its terms were so ignominious and because it had been purchased at the high price of a terrifying and needless risk of thermonuclear war. The man who did the most to defuse the October 1962 crisis, as well as make it redound to the credit of the United States, was Adlai Stevenson at the UN, and when the nightmare was over, the Kennedy brothers maliciously put it about that this great public servant, too, had “wanted a Munich.”

At least since the 1954 Brown decision, and certainly since Eisenhower’s show of force at Little Rock, it had become clear that the continued existence of the American South as a postbellum plantation was impossible as well as undesirable. But after 1960 the president and his fraternal attorney general, both of them charged to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, did not find it convenient to face the facts. As Nick Bryant shows in his admirable book, they saw themselves as highly dependent on Dixiecrat votes, in the country and in Congress, for reelection. And they regarded, not the insufferable status quo, but the “agitators” among black Americans, as the problem. The squalor and risk of their personal lives had also put them under the fell influence of J. Edgar Hoover, who knew how they were behaving and who regarded the civil-rights movement as a political enemy and Dr. Martin Luther King as a personal one. Given the hagiography that has enveloped the Kennedys ever since, it would come as a shock to many people to read that, faced with the historic March on Washington, in 1963, the Kennedys expended most of their effort in trying to get it called off.

That this should be the case, so shamefully late in the day, would be clear to anyone reading Bryant’s especially fine chapter on the desegregation of the University of Mississippi. Confronted by a Democratic governor who not only declined to enforce the law but actually employed force to defy it and break it, the Kennedy White House treated the man as if he were a full-dress foreign potentate who needed to be, well, appeased. Brave enough when commissioning the covert murder of Diem in Vietnam or Castro in Havana, the Knights of the Round Table became shifty and fawning when it was their job to guarantee equality before the law. The university treated James Meredith as a nuisance when he tried to register, and several times turned him away while constitutionally mandated forces stood awkwardly by. Consistently—Bryant is good on this too—the Kennedy administration was publicly outflanked on the issue by none other than Nelson Rockefeller. Perhaps, then, there are times when noblesse oblige is a better principle than mere populism and compromise. But let’s have no more servile babble about “American royalty” in the face of this record.

Looking at the extraordinary contrast—between what is now known of the Kennedy administration and the continuing infatuation with it—one is drawn to an explanation of the difference that may still be slightly delicate to mention. If this vulgar hoodlum president had not been survived by a widow of exceptional bearing and grace, his reputation would probably now be dirt. Sheer discretion and consideration, exerted on her behalf (and partly demanded by her in return for “access”), conditioned many of the founding chronicles and continue to influence the successor ones. Perhaps even this spell is now not too strong to be broken. Professor Giglio approaches the question, at last, in a matter-of-fact way. We have all understood for a long time that Kennedy did not even attempt to shield his wife from the humiliation caused by his whorings. He seldom invited her to bear him company on his out-of-town forays, and she often declined to accompany him. I had not appreciated, though, that until November 22, 1963, she had never been at his side on a domestic presidential political trip. And she might have missed that one, too, had it not been felt that a charm offensive was needed to heal the breach in the Texas Democratic Party, and had she not just spent too much time being photographed half naked on the cruise ship of her future husband Aristotle Onassis. On the first couple’s last night in the White House together prior to departure for Dallas, staff and press accounts coincide in reporting an emotional row on the Grand Staircase. And the next day, she had parts of his skull in her hands. But all this was almost half a century ago, which is surely enough time for the dispelling of our remaining illusions.

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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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