The Perils of Charisma

Kennedy's team treated the bureaucracy as the enemy, launching a counterinsurgency that centralized authority in the White House, and placed a dangerous amount of power in one man's hands.

President Eisenhower's crime, in the eyes of many of his critics, was a government by committee. Committees are not creative. They stifle originality, impose conformity. Eisenhower had let problems go untended in order to preserve the country’s (and his own) tranquility. An “existential” leader, as Norman Mailer put it, would dare to go outside channels, to confront the unexpected with a resourceful poise of improvisation.

Arthur Schlesinger and Theodore Sorensen, official historians of John F. Kennedy’s presidency, portray their leader as just the “existential” hero Mailer pined for. His first job was to dismantle the protective procedures Eisenhower had woven around the presidency. Kennedy wanted to be exposed, not shielded—out on the battlements, scanning all horizons, not seated in his chamber sifting documents. His ideal was the Franklin Roosevelt celebrated by Schlesinger and Richard Neustadt. Neustadt’s 1960 book, Presidential Power, became the “hot” item of the transition. In it, Roosevelt and Eisenhower were presented in sharp contrast—Roosevelt as a man free from procedural entanglements, Eisenhower as the slave of them. Kennedy, to imitate Roosevelt, had to become a sort of Eisenhower in reverse.

There would be no Sherman Adams in Kennedy’s White House. The president would direct his own operation. All bottlenecks to fluidity had to be broken up. The National Security Council, for one. Under Eisenhower, this was a coordinator of information coming to the president. Kennedy meant for it to be his own arm reaching out—through, over, or around the government—to get things done …

A pattern was being set, by which the president’s special teams actively took on an adversary role toward the rest of the executive branch.

Kennedy’s appointments reflected his sense of priorities. Dean Rusk, a southern gentleman acclimated to Eastern-establishment ways as head of the Rockefeller Foundation, would be custodian of the State Department’s traditional duties toward other countries. But McGeorge Bundy would supply the ideas on foreign policy, from his office in the White House. Schlesinger felt that Washington could pose no difficulty too great for a man who had been king of the hill in Cambridge: “Bundy possessed dazzling clarity and speed of mind—Kennedy told friends that, next to David Ormsby-Gore, Bundy was the brightest man he had ever known—as well as great distinction of manner and unlimited self-confidence. I had seen him learn how to dominate the faculty of Harvard University, a throng of intelligent and temperamental men; after that training, one could hardly doubt his capacity to deal with Washington bureaucrats.” It is an interesting psychological point—and typical of the time—that Schlesinger considered the bureaucracy, not hostile foreign powers, the enemy to be dealt with.

Dean Rusk soon became the butt of jokes emanating from Bundy’s circle of bright men at the White House … Rusk, it was said with condescension, actually liked to attend meetings. It was a point of pride at the White House not to hold meetings. Sorensen boasts, in Kennedy: “Not one staff meeting was ever held, with or without the President.” The few meetings the president had to call were shams: “He never altered his view that any meeting larger than necessary was less flexible, less secret and hard-hitting … No decisions of importance were made at Kennedy’s Cabinet meetings and few subjects of importance, particularly in foreign affairs, were ever seriously discussed. The Cabinet as a body was convened largely as a symbol, to be informed, not consulted.”

The Kennedy teams lived on the move, calling signals to each other in the thick of action—as Sorensen put it, like basketball players developing plays while the game moved on; not, like Eisenhower’s people, withdrawing into football huddles after every play …

A president who treated his executive branch as something to be raided, prodded, or ignored was bound to deal with Congress as an adversary. Kennedy’s lackluster performance as a representative and senator derived in large part from his sense that real power lay with the executive branch (if only a non-Eisenhower would come along to energize it). Congress was, in his mind, the epitome of government by committee. Its principal power was to obstruct, to “deadlock” the system (as James MacGregor Burns argued in The Deadlock of Democracy, an influential book of the period). A strong president was needed to use all his power against the recalcitrant legislative branch …

Kennedy’s fascination with counterinsurgency in other countries is well known. More important is the extent to which he viewed his own administration as a raid of mobile “outsiders” on the settled government of America. He had assembled a hit-and-run team to cut through enemy resistance, go outside channels, forgo meetings, subvert committees, and dismantle structures …

Abroad, counterinsurgency meant that a regime such as [South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh] Diem’s could not fight off insurgents alone; it was too mired in the past, too crippled by old compromises with France. But a team without such ties, a fresh force with clean hands, could purge and reform the administration while propping it up. It could fend off insurgents and alter the Vietnamese establishment. The assignment at home was not very different. In order to get the country “moving again,” as Kennedy’s campaign slogan had it, to make it clean and tough enough to confront the Russians, crisis teams would have to save the bureaucracy from itself, take over its duties, and force it to join the successful operation of the outsiders. Henry Fairlie rightly called this a vision of “guerrilla government.”

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