Feckless Youth

What Kennedy magic?

There was something more than tawdry about the detention in Washington last May of Representative Patrick Kennedy, Democrat of Rhode Island. Having long been the butt of jokes about his inability to find his way to the Capitol unaided, he smashed his car into a Hill security barrier at 2:45 in the morning, claiming to be in a hurry to vote long after all his fellow congressmen were in bed. Avoiding an on-the-spot sobriety test, and later dodging allegations about his attendance at the nearby Hawk ’n Dove drinking establishment, he claimed a just-then-fashionable addiction to the sleep aid Ambien and vanished into the Mayo Clinic. On his emergence, he gave a press conference at Brown University and asserted that he’d received no special treatment from the police. “I expect at the end of the day to have made sure that I will have done the same thing in terms of the charges, in terms of bookings, in terms of mug shots, fingerprints, whatever they might have me do, if [I] were an African American in Anacostia and were picked up,” he managed to say, before comparing his struggle to help addicts to the earlier battles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was reported that, at Brown at any rate, his remarks won him a standing ovation.

There was such a good match between this little Kennedy fiasco and so many, many preceding ones, from Martha’s Vineyard to Palm Beach, that the press in its coverage reflected its own almost trance-like state. Why, here was a story that almost wrote itself. Meanwhile, the publishing industry continues to find that there is a never-ending market for books that feature the Kennedys as either “magic” or “royalty.” (Recent developments among the delinquent progeny of Queen Elizabeth II admittedly make this comparison, insulting as it is to republican virtues, considerably more plausible.)

Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of the Kennedy “charisma” without the Court of St. James’s and the associated radiance diffused by the British aristocracy. Joseph Kennedy, the resentful patriarch who sponsored the political careers of at least his male issue, may have been hated by the British for his pro-Hitler sympathies while serving at the embassy in Grosvenor Square but, as Professor James Giglio points out, he did know how to be lavish and obsequious when he had to be. Seizing hold of young Jack’s 1940 Harvard senior thesis, handing it to Arthur Krock of The New York Times for a rewrite and persuading Henry Luce to write a foreword, then portentously retitling it Why England Slept, the assiduous envoy finally had it gift-wrapped and sent around to Buckingham Palace and many of the great houses of London. As he wrote to Jack: “You would be surprised how a book that really makes the grade with high-class people stands you in good stead for years to come.”

This grating arrivisme points up an ambivalence in the discrepant Anglo-American usages of the term class. On this side of the Atlantic, the word means “style” or perhaps “poise” or “polish,” as in classy or a class act. On the English side, it can now mean that too, but it also (especially with the prefix high‑) means “class” as in hereditary status. The great merit of Barbara Leaming’s new book is to demonstrate how dependent the young Kennedy became upon a charmed circle of British noblemen, and also how obsessed he became with the need to match himself with that greatest of Anglo-American aristocrats, Winston Churchill. When he first visited England, in the 1930s, his sister Kathleen, known as “Kick,” had already been an unusually well-accepted American guest in British town- and country-house circles. She later (over the strong Catholic sectarian objections of her mother, Rose) married the Marquess of Hartington, eldest son and heir of the Duke of Devonshire. When Hartington was killed, in Belgium in September 1944, the dukedom passed to his younger brother, Andrew (whose widow, Deborah Mitford, is now the last survivor of the most astonishing set of English sisters since the Brontës). One almost needs to draw a family tree at this point, but Harold Macmillan—later prime minister—was married to the Duke of Devonshire’s daughter, and Sir David Ormsby-Gore—later Macmillan’s ambassador to Washington—was a cousin of Andrew Devonshire’s and had a sister to whom Macmillan was also father-in-law. Whether “in-” or not, this certainly constitutes “breeding,” and conforms to most people’s notion of “class” or “dynasty.”

This influential group had generally identified with the pro-Churchill Tory minority against Baldwin and Chamberlain, had generally performed well in the Second World War, and was to become politically central in the years when young John Kennedy was emerging as a congressman and senator. While Kennedy was making his compromises with Joe McCarthy, taking positions against Western colonialism, and accusing Eisenhower and Nixon of being soft on communism, these Tory aristos were trying to manage the orderly decline of the British postwar empire, and to prevent their nation from further bankrupting itself in an arms race in which it was too insolvent to compete.

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.

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.

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