Sorensen's Kennedy

BOOKS and MEN Author of many articles and books (including AMERICA COMES OF MIDDLE AGE)on the American scene, Mr. Kempton was born in Baltimore and studied at Johns Hopkins. He lives in New York and is a columnist for the New York WORLD TELEGRAM AND SUN. He here gives his appraisal of Theodore Sorensen’s KENNEDY.


MANY of us will come away from his recollection of his twelve years with John Kennedy unexpectedly fond of Ted Sorensen. To be liked was not always his experience and seldom his intention. These two men were an uncommon juncture of the Roundhead and the Cavalier, so dissimilar that it becomes possible to think that Sorensen’s great service to Senator Kennedy was as mask.

The President seems to us now to have been born for command. He was not. He was a Catholic politician in a country so Protestant as to have turned many of its Catholics dourly Presbyterian in its atmosphere. Not having inherited, Mr. Kennedy had to seize, as revolutionary commanders do, in disguise and after forced night marches.

Sorensen remembers how in the last week of his 1960 campaign Senator Kennedy said, “I am going to last about five more days, and that is time enough.” For the spectacle of a guerrilla in the exhilarating exhaustion of combat, we might hope for a little of the spirit of Bunyan: “I fought till the sword did cleave to my hand and, when they were joined together, as if the sword did grow out ol my arm; and, when the blood ran through my fingers, then did I fight with most courage.” Instead, Sorensen can rise only to the tone of one inspecting a piston after strenuous service: “Actually he seemed to gain strength and steam with each

new audience.” (Italics mine.) That imagery of the machine is as near as Ted Sorensen comes to poetic flight; to have come closer in the low church litany appointed for this republic would have been dangerous. And so Sorensen can at once jar us by describing his principal as a “brainy man” and assert that they both abjured words they considered hackneyed — like, it turns out, “glorious.” The test for style then is not what is hackneyed but what is unsettling: “brainy” is safe; “glorious” is risky.

Sorensen’s service was peculiarly useful because he was trite in a secure way, habitually inhibited, never off guard, unvaryingly sober. “I learned,” he remembers, “to keep a Bartlett’s and similar works handy.” The President, while preparing his Inaugural, asked Sorensen to study the secret of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “My conclusion, which his Inaugural applied, was that Lincoln never used a twoor three-syllable word where a onesyllable word would do, and never used two or three words where one would do.”

The difference between Kennedy and Sorensen is illuminated by an early conversation about what place in the Cabinet each might take if any place were ever offered him. Senator Kennedy cared only for State or Defense; Sorensen wanted Health, Education, and Welfare.

Sorensen had come to Senator Kennedy from the joint congressional subcommittee on railroad retirement; he was induced to serve by the thought that Massachusetts “had neither responded to the growing competition of other regions nor made the most of postwar industrial developments.” The master was a man upon whom the social problem intruded; the servant’s was a nature which would have needed to invent the social problem if it had not been there.

The intruding social problem of the Kennedy term was, of course, civil rights. Sorensen does his best to remember a deepening moral involvement in Mr. Kennedy’s attitude on the subject, but, at its climax, he does not make it easy for us to discover any engagement more heartfelt than to the public peace: “The Kennedy commitment was designed to preserve the fabric of our social order — to prevent the unsatisfied grievances of an entire race from renting that fabric in two. . . . His obligation was not to the Negroes but to the nation.”

IN SORENSEN we are never away from a presence for whom to be casual for one hour at a time was to risk feeling oneself not a serious person for all time. Yet Senator Kennedy allowed himself to be casual much of the time, and President Kennedy compounded the indulgence to a point where we treasure his informalities far above his formalities and value his chroniclers according to the degree of their indiscretions. There was a private John Kennedy who was more like William Lamb, Lord Melbourne, than any other American politician has ever been; his spirit, too, survives better in his conversation than in his rhetoric. There is that same wry deprecation of human wisdom; Melbourne on Ireland (“What all the wise promised has not happened and what all the damn fools said would happen has come to pass”) is echoed by Kennedy on the Bay of Pigs (“The advice of every member of the executive branch brought in to advise was unanimous — and the advice was wrong”). There is the same preference for order over change; Kennedy was never quite able to say with Melbourne: “When in doubt what should be done, do nothing,” but he would dearly have liked to preside over a world where it could plausibly be said; he never sounds more lonely in Sorensen’s memory than when he sat looking at the photographs of the Soviet missile bases in Cuba and said at last, “The worst course of all would be for us to do nothing.”

Sorensen gives us less of that Mr. Kennedy than the massive girth of his work would seem to promise. He will be blamed for indiscretions, of course, but these are as few as the pieties would demand.

In this case the pieties have become even more rigid than Sorensen’s natural inhibitions had already dictated. The wrath which has descended upon Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for being so personal a memorialist seems indeed to have forced Sorensen deeper into that impersonality into which he had already too far withdrawn.

There has, as an instance, been excised between drafts of these memoirs a private remark of Mr. Kennedy’s which would otherwise support Schlesinger’s assertion that the President would have begun his second term with a new Secretary of State.

There is, of course, an argument for deletions of this sort. That argument is strongest when it asserts that the public is foolish enough to believe that any private utterance of a statesman, once accepted as having been made, is thereupon established as an announcement of fixed purpose. The public may not be this foolish, but Schlesinger’s experience would indicate that the publicists certainly are.

The notion of the absolute historical authority of the offhand expressions of historical personages seems especially foolish when we are dealing with the private John Kennedy, who must have carried the habit of saying different things to different persons to an unusually cheerful extent. He did this, one thinks, less from any low desire to be agreeable than from that natural curiosity which made the exploration of alternatives not just a matter of common sense but of genuine enjoyment to him. One remembers him, even from slight experience, for the particular pleasure he took in accepting the assistance of guides down paths lie had no intention of traversing even halfway.

It is important to bear in mind, therefore, that whatever judgments about Secretary of State Rusk have so far been publicly remembered as his were offered in conversation with Schlesinger and with Sorensen, who were representatives of a common and particular viewpoint and whose complaints about Rusk must have been very much the same. Foreign policy is a resolution of the quarrel between the diplomat and the soldier; and how a state makes that resolution is a critical point in its health. There are natures which prefer the military weapon and natures which prefer the political. Schlesinger’s intellectual disposition was heavily toward the political, and Sorensen had the additional emotional bias, founded on a childhood in a Nebraska household of which George Norris was god, to dispose him even further against the military. Both Sorensen and Schlesinger then would want a Secretary of State measurably outweighing the Joint Chiefs of Staff; they could be expected to judge Rusk with special harshness for every inch he fell short of such a measurement, and neither would be human if he did not credit a President he so obviously revered with the same standard.

But if Mr. Kennedy’s judgment of his State Department was not quite so harsh, there are reasons to feel that it may well have been rather severe indeed. There is, for example, Sorensen’s exposition of what he sees as Mr. Kennedy’s problem in Southeast Asia:

“But as President, unfortunately, his effort to keep our own military role in Vietnam from overshadowing our own political objectives was handicapped by the State Departments inability to compete with the Pentagon. The task force report in the spring of 1961, for example, had focused almost entirely on military planning. A five-year economic plan, (a long-range plan for the economic development of Southeast Asia on a regional basis), a diplomatic appeal to the United Nations and other miscellaneous ideas were somewhat vaguely and loosely thrown in to please the President.” (Italics mine.)

This is a serious comment, and whatever the bias of the observer who makes it, one which is fortified enough by exterior evidence to be hard to dispute. Now, if Sorensen wanted a State Department whose views could override the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Kennedy may very well have disagreed with him. But that is not to say that Mr. Kennedy wanted a Department of State too weak to resist overmastering by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

There is every evidence that the President was, like every sensible politician, a trimmer. That word, in its political connotations, has been pejorative for more than a century; it remains a fundamental principle of navigation that to trim can be the only way to get the ship across the water. Mr. Kennedy could very plausibly have thought that his Department of State was a weak piece of rigging indeed.

The problem of the imbalance of the military over the political in our foreign policy is the most important one in government today. The need for balance has not often been more precisely defined than in the remarks attributed to President Johnson at the Cabinet meeting where he is reported to have told Secretary of Defense McNamara that he was expected to keep us in the Vietnam war and to have told Secretary Rusk that he was expected to get us out of it.

So then, when Schlesinger prints and Sorensen excises what each remembers of the President’s observations on the weakness of Secretary Rusk, the one is not publishing gossip and the other withholding it; each is dealing in his special way with information useful enough in our present predicament to be described as a piece of national property because it is one expression of what has been learned from a unique public experience. One’s preference would therefore have to be for the Schlesinger way.

Still, Sorensen is what he is, and we must take him as he is, as altogether true to the habit, formed early on, of protecting his principal. The triumph of loyalty over candor or even common sense is one of the more depressing checks on his memory. He insists that we believe that “there is no truth to the allegation that [the President’s] father was responsible for the formal draft of brother Bob” as Attorney General. (This seems to have been, clearly, if not Joseph P. Kennedy’s entire responsibility, at the least his second-dearest and second-most-oftenexpressed desire.)

He even plunges back to that dead time when an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation awakened a journalist in the night to question him for ammunition in the President’s lightning raid on the steel companies, a feeble enough piece of tyranny at best and one long since submerged in the common sorrow. “As usual,” Sorensen explains, “neither of the Kennedys would publicly blame the underling responsible, but the AttorneyGeneral’s deputy had in fact specified that all those to be interviewed should be telephoned at their place of business for an appointment in the usual hours.” (Here Sorensen first stretches and then quite overmasters the detached imagination. It is hard enough to believe that an emergency order to find the witnesses would be accompanied by a stipulation to suit their convenience. And it is impossible to believe that, etiquette having been stipulated, the always careful — when told to be — FBI would disregard it.)

His infrequent citations of the private Kennedy are generally those of the sort of man who remembers better what he reads than what he hears. Much of what he remembers turns out therefore to be what has been printed before. What is interesting is not often new, and what is new is not often interesting.

He instructs us, for example, that the President “thought the New York Times one of the most influential newspapers in the nation” and that the Senator never took seriously Wayne Morse’s candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1960.

“The nature of their responsibilities and the competence with which they did their jobs,” Sorensen tells us in a paragraph which is a fair instance of his general tone, “brought six senior national executives particularly close to the President: Vice President Johnson, Secretary of Defense McNamara, Secretary of the Treasury Dillon, Secretary of State Rusk and Secretary of Labor Goldberg. The other Cabinet officers — Secretary of Agriculture Freeman, Secretary of Labor (II) Wirtz, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare Ribicoff, Secretary of the Interior Udall, Secretary of Commerce Hodges, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (II) Celebrezze, and Postmasters General Day and Gronouski — all enjoyed, for the most part, the President’s fullest confidence, though he necessarily spent less time with them.”

The appointed color scheme is then the gray of Royal Gazettes, but every now and then it is blessedly relieved by flecks of brighter, more illuminating hue:

The President, with his peculiar detachment, looking across the river at the Custis Lee Mansion at the worst of the Cuban missile crisis and saying to Sorensen, “You have to admire Adlai. He sticks to his position when everyone else is jumping on him.”

The President, with his particular intimacy, considering the renewal of nuclear testing, at his desk talking about radioactivity with Jerome Wiesncr, his scientific adviser, and watching the rain outside his office window and asking suddenly, “You mean it’s in the rain out there?” “And I said, ‘Yes,’ ” Wiesner remembers, “and he looked out the window, looked very sad, and didn’t say a word for several minutes.”

The President, with his special loneliness, overruling the advice of his Secretaries of State and Defense, his Vice President, and the heads of his Special Mission to South Vietnam and refusing to commit American troops to Southeast Asia,

The President, giving way to that temper he never lost except on inconsequential matters, coming out from an hour’s harassment by congressional leaders who wanted him not to blockade but to invade Cuba and saying to Sorensen, “They can have this—job. There is no joy in it.”

The President on the Sunday morning of the thirteenth and last day of the Cuban missile emergency entering a Cabinet room where the director of the Central Intelligence Agency had but lately confessed that when he heard the news of Khrushchev’s retreat, “I could hardly believe my ears.”

“John F. Kennedy entered and we all stood up. He had, as Harold Macmillan would later say, earned his place in history by this one act alone. He had engaged in a personal as well as national contest for world leadership and he had won. He had reassured those nations fearing we would use too much strength and those fearing we would not use it at all. . . . Yet he walked in and began the meeting without a trace of excitement or even exultation.”

We can, in that picture, be grateful for the virtues of men to whom the word “glorious” was hackneyed. After Mr. Kennedy died, Sorensen tried dutifully to fit his implements — it is too much to call them talents — as a speech writer to the new President’s service. He failed, and not only, one thinks, because he had no heart for it, but because his inhibitions did not suit Mr. Johnson’s taste. The President has said that he likes his words to be put in order for him by writers who can cry a little.

Mr. Kennedy was not one of your great reformers, those unwearying managers of everything, like Chairman Khrushchev or Mr. Johnson. He was no more and no less than what the war made him, the line officer, bored at the mere housekeeping of the base, essentially at home only with the crew on the great occasions in the small boats. Then and only then, command became his whole nature; other moments were only duty; this alone was life. We treasure such men not for what they do for change but for what they do for order. For such men to cry a little or to rant a little is alike to give way to a failure of nerve. Once Mr. Kennedy wrote Clinton Rossiter that to him the most appropriate lines in Shakespeare were

GLENDOWER: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
HOTSPUR: Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?

The special change he brought to all our lives was the example and the atmosphere of his affection for order and his hatred of cant.