Politics & Policy

Reeves’ Kennedy

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was the cover story in the December 31, 1994, issue of National Review. It was edited and introduced by Wm. F. Buckley Jr. WFB wrote the introductory essay; excerpts from Richard Reeves’s book President Kennedy: Profile of Power follow after.

MY FRIEND (who is also my son) anticipated my reluctance when, a year ago, he urged me to read the new book about John F. Kennedy. I had privately resolved not to read any more about JFK until after I had caught up on Julius Caesar, Napoleon, and Frederick the Great. But when a book is recommended by someone in whose sensibilities you have confidence and who knows how overstuffed your reading list is, generic resolutions weaken. I put Richard Reeves’ President Kennedy: Profile of Power on my short list, which meant it had a 10 per cent chance of getting read.

And then too the word of mouth was lapping in: The book was “essential” reading. It was “novel,” “ingenious,” “brilliant,” and free of ideological predisposition.

These reports came in about a very well-known journalist, someone with whom I had had (limited) personal experience, some of whose other books I had read. Richard Reeves is the author of The Reagan Detour and American Journey: Traveling with Tocqueville in Search of Democracy in America, among other books. Politically, he is a liberal; as a writer, his work is fast-paced, intelligent, and superbly organized.

What he set out to do in President Kennedy is indeed novel. He has reconstructed the 35th President of the United States by focusing on his day-to-day activities beginning with his election as President, and he ends the book immediately on the impact of Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet. Reeves’ modus operandi is to put together a presidential day, focusing on events that took place on that day, going on to what touched on the same questions in the days and weeks and indeed months ahead. He has managed to do this persuasively by reading everything written about JFK, by exploring his papers, and by engaging in hundreds of interviews with men and women who were on the scene with Kennedy. Having done this, he proceeds to tell you what happened in the Kennedy White House as surefootedly as if he had himself been present.

The technique makes for a marvelously readable tale. It has the narrative advantages of historical fiction–what were the words uttered? the thoughts thought?–but Reeves is scrupulous about confining himself, when without a live witness to rely upon, to reconstructions of what simply had to have been so. If the first photograph available to the researcher shows Abbie sitting down, spoon in hand, gazing at a plate of ice cream, and the third photograph, taken five minutes later, shows the plate empty, your failure to come up with the second photo should not deny you the liberty to speak of Abbie’s having consumed the ice cream.

Another of Reeves’ conventions is to follow through a narrative of a political initiative/crisis/adventure without interruptions of the kind one associates with choppy newscasts (“We interrupt this broadcast to announce that there has been an eruption in Pompeii. . .”) except when such interruptions clarify the ongoing narrative. When the story stretches out over a long period, as with JFK and the civil-rights movement, Reeves will work simultaneously on a half-dozen canvases. In dealing with civil rights, for instance, he begins early in JFK’s Administration, describing the convulsive effects on the Kennedy White House of one civil-rights demonstration. Several hundred pages go by before we reach the great March on Washington, only a few months before Dallas. The reader is taken from day to day: what Kennedy thought, what he was advised to think, what he was advised to do, what he did. We hear–and feel, in some cases–the people around JFK, and the people around the people around JFK. We come to know what it is that affected John Kennedy. We come to know Kennedy.

What is of course absolutely required to bring off a slow-motion transcription of an epic is the unqualified confidence of the reader. The reader must have quietly decided, early on, absolutely to rely upon the integrity of the author, who has evolved as a documentarian. The reader has to begin by accepting the professional skills of the researcher in whose hands he finds himself. (Can we be sure that Reeves got hold here of everything relevant to the telling of this story?) Reeves inspires such confidence, even as we would give it to the doctor who fiddled with the lesion, whereupon it stopped bleeding. No person alive, or dead, could apodictically advise the reading world which exactly was the critical argument, fact, event that decided JFK, e.g., against bombing Cuba during the missile crisis. And of course even if he had lived to write an autobiographical account, JFK himself might not have known–or if he had, might not have revealed–what finally inclined him to do this rather than that. This is why one often learns more from biographies than from autobiographies. More precisely, why one learns different things.

THE CURRENT undertaking is done because this reader profoundly believes in the authenticity of Mr. Reeves’ reconstruction. A more cautious way to say this is that if Reeves is sometime in the future proved incorrect about this event or the other, I’d in every case conclude that the available evidence supported Reeves’ account at the time he wrote down what is in this book. I’d conclude that a jury assessing all the evidence available would reach the same conclusion Reeves reached. Such confidence in Richard Reeves will of course be disputed, in particular by the (fairly large) company of men and women who will not settle for any historical account of JFK that is less than hagiographical. Courtiers we always have with us. But it is a tribute to this volume that even men professionally concerned to prevent the eternal flame from giving off shadows have been largely mute on its revelations, which come together as an act of portraiture. In some cases the relative quiet of the Knights of Camelot can be attributed to an intelligent indisposition to take Mr. Reeves on, so thorough is his craftsmanship. Sure, here and there trivial mistakes have been spotted–they are in the nature of narrative typos–but none nearly weighty enough to discredit any part of the book, let alone, the book.

The late George Ball wrote an extensive essay in The New York Review of Books the purpose of which was to argue that the medication JFK took was not as enfeebling as Reeves here and there suggests it was, or must have been; and that the medicine was never psychologically incapacitating. For instance, it can’t be established –Mr. Ball in effect argues–that JFK went this way or that, on this occasion or the other, because a few hours earlier he had been given a shot of amphetamines by the legendary Dr. Feelgood. But it is not left in doubt that Dr. Jacobson indeed did inject the President with heady brews of one kind or another the primary purpose of which was–to make his patient feel good; a quite understandable objective on behalf of someone suffering, as Mr. Kennedy was, from Addison’s disease, and other afflictions. We do not know, any more than we can ever know whether this pot-valiant decision or that made by Mr. Kennedy’s successor, or for that matter his predecessor, was at some point influenced by alcohol. But the reader is entitled to know what were the medical drugs on which President Kennedy manifestly depended and how they do act on some people who take them.

THE PLAN of this essay is to attempt to set down features of Kennedy’s Presidency not widely known, if at all; to record some of the words spoken by Kennedy, or spoken to him by others, which give us a surer sense of his character than we had before; and to focus on some critical points, large and small, that illuminate crises in the Presidency of the most mythogenic American figure of the century.

What follows is the voice of Richard Reeves, except where the typography makes clear otherwise. The introductory headings are mine. Ellipses are generally omitted. The first section focuses on presidential policies, the second on John Fitzgerald Kennedy the man.

On the Policy Front</h2

1. JFK was uninstructed and uninformed in economics.

–He knew little of banking or corporate America or, for that matter, of the lives of his countrymen. He was forever asking workmen or drivers how much they were paid or how much rent they paid, how much refrigerators cost, how they paid for college.

–”Now tell me again how do I distinguish between monetary and fiscal policy?” the [President asked Economics Advisor Walter] Heller more than once in the first couple of months of the Administration.

“Well,” Heller had answered, “monetary is M,’ like Martin”–William McChesney Martin, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. “So remember Martin and think of the Federal Reserve.”

2. JFK was convinced that a growing economy was critical to political success and sought a reduction in the marginal rate of taxation.

–”Point out to me a single instance in the last year when I’ve said anything that’s anti-business [JFK addressed his staff, reacting to an attack on his policies by the president of Pittsburgh Steel]. Ike could have tried to give business a tax break. But he didn’t do it. I’m at least trying. We’re going to give them better depreciation credit.”

–Heller and [economist Paul] Samuelson were devoted to persuading Kennedy that cuts in personal income taxes would increase consumer spending and stimulate the economy enough, without inflation, to fulfill his pledge to get the country moving again–and ensure himself a second term.

They were winning him over, though he could not go that far yet in public. “I asked people to sacrifice,” he said to Heller early on, “and you want me to start by announcing that I’m reducing their taxes?” Besides that, tax cuts would increase the national debt, which was already $284 billion. From day one of his Presidency, one of Kennedy’s most rigid political goals was to hold the yearly deficit below $12.8 billion, the high during Eisenhower’s eight years.

–It was more a domestic speech this time [JFK’s third State of the Union Address, January 14, 1963], and he began by saying: “One step, above all, is essential, the enactment this year of a substantial reduction and revision in federal income taxes.”

–”I shall propose a permanent reduction in tax rates [in 1963], which will lower liabilities by $13.5 billion”–a revenue cut equal to almost 15 per cent of the federal budget. “Of this, $11 billion results from reducing individual tax rates, which now range between 20 and 91 per cent, to a more sensible range of 14 to 65 per cent … Two and one-half billion dollars results from reducing corporate tax rates from 52 per cent–which gives the government today a majority interest in profits–to the permanent, pre-Korean War rate of 47 per cent.”

–[In December 1962 he told the Economic Club of New York:] “Surely the lesson of the last decade is that budget deficits are not caused by wild-eyed spenders but by slow economic growth and periodic recessions… In short, it is a paradoxical truth that tax rates are too high today and tax revenues are too low and the soundest way to raise the revenues in the long run is to lower the rates now.”

3. JFK’s primary concern on the civil-rights issue was politics. He only reluctantly decided that he needed to adopt a pro-civil-rights position.

–As he saw it, he was taking real risks with the tolerance of the Southerners in Congress, and there was no reasonable political point in getting too far ahead of the American people.

–Senator Prescott Bush, a liberal Republican from Connecticut, attached an anti-segregation amendment onto the Kennedy Administration’s school-aid bill. The amendment was defeated 61 to 25.

–Nor did he make good on a campaign promise to end racial segregation in new federal housing with “a stroke of the pen”–by signing an executive order. On November 22 [1961], he had met with the Civil Rights Commission and assured them he was just about ready to sign the order. In fact, up in Hyannis Port that Saturday, the President asked [Theodore Sorensen] what he was thinking about when he wrote that promise into a campaign speech.

“It wasn’t me,” Sorensen said.

“Oh, I guess nobody wrote it,” Kennedy replied.

–Guests were flattered [at being invited to the private rooms in the White House during that day’s reception for prominent blacks], few realizing that it was a trick to keep them away from photographers in the public rooms. A photograph of the black man in the White House with his white woman [Sammy Davis Jr. and his wife, the blonde Swedish actress Mai Britt] could be a political disaster. “Get them out of there!” Kennedy whispered to one aide after another. Still upstairs, he told one assistant after another to tell his wife to take Mai Britt aside so that the Davises would not be together before the photographers were pushed out of the room.

Jacqueline Kennedy refused. She was so angry at the suggestion she did not want to go downstairs at all, and the formal reception began without the President and his wife. He was still upstairs trying to talk her into going down. She finally did, agreeing to sit next to her husband for a formal portrait with Vice President Johnson and his wife, Mrs. Robert Kennedy, and 11 Negro leaders. Then she stood up, said she did not feel well, and left in tears.

–”[JFK] thinks that if he does more than he has to about Negroes, he can forget about being President for eight years,” [Fr. Theodore] Hesburgh a member of the Civil Rights Commission told [Berl] Bernhard [the staff director of the Commission].

–The country is not ready [for comprehensive civil-rights legislation], Kennedy repeated, telling [Senator Hubert] Humphrey and others: “When I feel that there’s necessity for a congressional action with a chance of getting that congressional action, then I will recommend it to the Congress.”

–He declined an invitation to speak [at the 1963 March on Washington], because he thought it was impossible to craft a speech that would satisfy both the crowd at the Memorial and a nation watching on live television. He also refused to meet with [A. Philip] Randolph [president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters], [Martin Luther] King, and [NAACP leader] Roy Wilkins before the March to avoid photographs that would make him look bad if there was trouble in the streets. And he wanted to make sure that no Negro leader would give him a list of demands before the speeches and then denounce him from the Memorial if he turned them down.

–Polls were still showing him losing six or seven white votes for every Negro one he gained.

–Wiretaps on [Martin Luther King’s] office and home phones were approved by Robert Kennedy on October 7 [1963]. All the while, too, the FBI was continuing to build up its Kennedy files, with the newest entries including not only Mary Meyer, a regular White House visitor [and JFK sleep-in] during the past eight months, but also a 27-year-old German woman named Ellen Rometsch, the wife of an Army sergeant assigned to the West German Embassy since April 1961. She was, it seemed, a call girl, paid by and reporting to [LBJ protege Bobby] Baker.

–At the Lincoln Day gala [in 1963], the new chairman of the Civil Rights Commission , John Hannah, had told Kennedy that the commission intended to prepare a special report on the situation in Mississippi.

“You’re making my life difficult,” Kennedy said. “I’ve read this law and I know you can do anything you want to, but I would appreciate if you didn’t.”

That was in private. A couple of weeks later, at a press conference, [JFK] was asked whether he thought the commission should delay Mississippi hearings and he answered: “No. Any hearing that they feel advances the cause or meets the responsibility which has been entrusted to them by law, then they should go ahead and hold it.”

–While Kennedy was still with Wilkins, [Assistant Attorney General] Burke Marshall told King that he would have to get rid of two of his advisors, Stanley Levison, the New York lawyer, and one of King’s executive assistants, Hunter Pitts O’Dell. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had concluded the two men were Communists. A paid agent of the Soviet Communist apparatus,” Marshall said of Levison. King implied that he did not believe that, he asked for the government’s proof. With that, he was passed on to Robert Kennedy.

Robert Kennedy believed Hoover; at least, he believed that even the possibility of King’s being linked to Communists might bring down King and the President, too. So, he was not in the mood to argue.

When it was clear that lung did not believe either Marshall or Robert Kennedy, the President took over. He asked King to take a walk with him in the Rose Garden. He put a hand on King’s shoulder, something he rarely did, and said: “I assume you know you’re under very close surveillance.” He mentioned Levison and O’Dell by name, and said: “They’re Communists, you’ve got to get rid of them.”

– [Robert Kennedy] mentioned Bayard Rustin, the man A. Philip Randolph had chosen to organize the march, who had once been a Communist and had once been arrested on a sodomy charge. Leaning toward [Marietta] Tree [a social friend and UN delegate], he said: “So, you’re down here for that old black fairy’s anti- Kennedy demonstration.”

Mrs. Tree tried to deflect the attorney general by asking what he thought of Martin Luther lung Jr. “He’s not a serious person,” said Robert Kennedy. She had no idea what that could mean. The attorney general was operating on a different level, having seen transcripts produced by the FBI’s taps and bugs on lung’s telephones and in the hotel rooms the Justice Department helped find for march leaders in Washington.

“If the country knew what we know about King’s goings-on, he’d be finished,” the attorney general told Mrs. Tree.

She decided not to pursue the conversation.

Five weeks earlier, Attorney General Robert Kennedy had authorized the FBI to tap the phones of King and of Clarence Jones, the New York attorney he had first met during the angry meeting with James Baldwin.

–The tapping order was the same one he had proposed himself on July 16 [1963], then rejected on July 25. Two weeks later, on October 21, before the home tap was in use, Robert Kennedy had signed a second order authorizing taps on the four phone lines into King’s offices at the Southern Christian Leadership Council in Atlanta, this time ordering that the material collected by the tap be reviewed in thirty days, to determine whether the eavesdropping should be continued.

On October 25, the attorney general discovered that the FBI was circulating a classified memo through military intelligence agencies and the office of the secretary of defense, describing King as “An unprincipled man … who is knowingly, willingly, and regularly taking guidance from Communists.” [Robert Kennedy ordered Hoover to recall the memo, but copies of it circulated widely.]

–He was also losing the support of some Northern liberals who thought he was moving too slowly. John Roche, who succeeded Arthur Schlesinger as the president of Americans for Democratic Action, had attacked Kennedy in the current issue of ADA World, calling him a technocratic liberal: “JFK is totally dedicated to managerial politics the end point of which is to beautify cities by replacing Negroes with trees.”

–He was going to have to do what he most wanted to avoid, propose comprehensive civil-rights legislation in his first term. And there was going to be trouble if it passed, and worse if it did not.

– [George Reedy, assistant to Vice President Lyndon Johnson, wrote a memo designed for JFK in which he said:] “The Negroes are going to be satisfied with nothing less than a convincing demonstration that the President is on their side. The backbone of white resistance is not going to be broken until the segregationists realize that the total moral force of the United States is arrayed against them.”

–Could they persuade American business, particularly Southern business, to employ Negroes? The President answered his own question: “I called in businessmen to ask them to hire Negroes. You know what they said to me? Why should we hire Negroes? You don’t hire Negroes.” Then he pulled out a sheet of paper [Assistant Attorney General] Lee White had prepared for him on federal employment in one Southern city, Nashville: “Four Negroes in the 405-man Treasury Department offices; two of 249 Agricultural employees; no Negroes working in Labor and Commerce Department offices.”

–But the meeting was taken over by a former Freedom Rider named Jerome Smith, who had been on the bus that had left Montgomery on the morning of May 22, 1961. He stilled the others with angry stories of being beaten by Southern police. “I want to vomit being in the same room with you,” he told Robert Kennedy; he said it made him sick to be begging for his legal rights from the man who was supposed to be enforcing them.

The New York meeting lasted three hours. The Negroes demanded a public gesture from the White House. Perhaps the President should personally escort the two Negro students waiting to begin summer classes at the University of Alabama.

–”I don’t think you can get by without it,” Robert Kennedy said. The time had come to prepare comprehensive civil-rights legislation. It was time for John Kennedy to choose sides.

–That was it. Legislation would follow, but, at last, the President of the United States had chosen sides.

–Kennedy’s approval rating in Gallup polls had dropped from 76 per cent to 59 per cent during 1963, and he recited those numbers to dampen a certain overconfidence in the White House. That decline, [Census Bureau Director Richard] Scammon said, was attributable almost entirely to civil rights.

4. JFK was duplicitous on the matter of political assassinations sponsored by the United States Government.

–The CIA had been plotting to “eliminate” two leaders in the Caribbean: Fidel Castro and Generalissimo Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina of the Dominican Republic.

–The last official thing [JFK] had done about the assassination plot was to approve a coded cable that same day to the CIA station in Ciudad Trujillo, saying: “We must not run risk of U.S. association with political assassination, since U.S. as a matter of general policy cannot condone assassination. This last principle is overriding and must prevail in doubtful situation. . .” But the last sentence made it clear that what the President wanted was plausible deniability: “Continue to inform dissident elements of U.S. support for their position.”

– What the plotters needed was] guns, ammunition, and hand grenades. The weapons were delivered to [Henry] Dearborn [U.S. deputy chief of mission in Ciudad Trujillo] in a U.S. diplomatic pouch. He gave them to the assassins.

–”Get off your ass about Cuba!” Robert Kennedy shouted at [General Edward] Lansdale and everyone else in the room the next day, November 4 1961 . The attorney general was the chairman of something called the “Special Group (Augmented),” which was really a White House team trying to get rid of Fidel Castro any way they could. He wanted Lansdale as his operating officer and he got him.

“The Cuban problem carries top priority in the U.S. Government,” Robert Kennedy said. “No time, money, effort or manpower is to be spared.”

–In public as in private, the President attempted to distance himself from assassination talk, which was common conversation, not only in the White House but in newspapers and at Georgetown dinner parties.

–On November 30 [1961], the President sent a memo to Secretary of State [Dean] Rusk, ordering him to “Use our available assets to help Cuba overthrow the Communist regime.” That day he officially appointed Lansdale as executive director of the Special Group (Augmented), “The Cuba Project,” run by Robert Kennedy, with an action arm called “Operation Mongoose.”

–The first [call was] made by William Harvey, the CIA agent who had run ZR/RIFLE, the agency’s program to develop stand-by assassination capability. He was in charge of Task Force W, an agency unit created at the beginning of 1962 to try to overthrow Castro. He was in a rage over a short memorandum that had been sent out the day before by General Lansdale, chief of operations of “Operation Mongoose.” Mongoose had been created at the end of 1961 with this goal: “In keeping with the spirit of the presidential memorandum of 30 November 1961, the United States will help the people of Cuba overthrow the Communist regime from within Cuba and institute a new government with which the United States can live in peace.”

The Lansdale memo that enraged Harvey was only a call for a Mongoose meeting later on August 14, but it was classified “TOP SECRET, SPECIAL HANDLING NOFORN.”

[General Lansdale’s memo read:] “In compliance with the desires and guidance expressed in the 10 August policy meeting on Operation Mongoose we will hold an Operational Representatives work session in my office, at 1400 hours, Tuesday, 14 August. Papers required from each of you for the Tuesday meeting:

“Mr. Harvey: Intelligence, Political (splitting the regime), including liquidation of leaders. . . .”

Harvey’s angry memorandum on the memorandum was [directed] to Richard Helms, who had succeeded Richard Bissell in February as the CIA’s deputy director for plans. It was Bissell who had assigned Harvey to Task Force W at the end of 1961, telling him he was under more and more pressure from the White House to get rid of Castro. Now Harvey told Helms:

“Reference is made to our conversation on 13 August 1962, concerning the memorandum of that date from General Lansdale. Attached is a copy of this memorandum… The question of assassination, particularly of Fidel Castro, was brought up by Secretary [of Defense Robert] McNamara at the meeting of the Special Group (Augmented) in Secretary Rusk’s office on 10 August. It was the obvious consensus at that meeting, in answer to a comment by Mr. Ed Murrow, that this is not a subject which has been made a matter of official record.”

So, as he had after the Bay of Pigs, McNamara was talking about the assassination of Castro, but this time it was on paper. The Lansdale memo Harvey sent to his superiors at the CIA read: “Upon receipt of the attached memorandum, I called Lansdale’s office and pointed out the inadmissibility and stupidity of putting this type of comment in writing in such a document. I advised that, as far as CIA was concerned, we would write no document pertaining to this and would participate in no open meeting discussing it.”

Harvey never had any doubt in his own mind that in planning for Castro’s demise he was acting on orders from the highest authority, the President.

–Nevertheless, uncertain about what exactly was new and different in Cuba, [President] Kennedy issued a National Security Action Memorandum, NSAM-181, the next day, August 23 [1962], a “Top Secret and Sensitive” document written by [National Security Advisor McGeorge] Bundy and available in full to only five men –Rusk, McNamara, Robert Kennedy, CIA Director John McCone, and [General] Max Taylor:

“The President has directed that the following actions and studies be undertaken in the light of evidence of new bloc activity in Cuba… the line of activity projected for Operation Mongoose Plan B-plus should be developed with all possible speed. (Action: General Taylor)….”

–So the old Special Group with a new name began to meet every Tuesday morning with the same old purpose –getting rid of Fidel Castro. Robert Kennedy, Sorensen, McCone, [Treasury Secretary Douglas] Dillon, Taylor, and [Undersecretary of Defense] Roswell Gilpatric were all members of the ten-member Standing Group, convening without staff in the White House Situation Room. McGeorge Bundy was the chairman. “We agreed [Bundy reported to the President] on the desirability of not spreading knowledge of covert operations any wider than absolutely necessary, if we are to preserve the principle of deniability.”

–But, at the same time, the CIA was still recruiting assassins. In fact, a ballpoint pen with a poisoned needle designed to kill Castro was scheduled to be delivered to a potential assassin on November 22 [1963–the day JFK was assassinated] by Desmond FitzGerald, who had replaced William Harvey as director of Task Force W.

–[Schlesinger wrote in a memorandum, April 1961:] “When lies must be told, they should be told by subordinate officials. At no point should the President be asked to lend himself to the cover operation. There seems to me merit in Secretary Rusk’s suggestion that someone other than the President make the final decision and do so in his absence someone whose head can later be placed on the block if things go terribly wrong.” One Schlesinger “failure option” was to put the blame on the CIA as “errant idealists and soldiers-of-fortune working on their own.”

5. JFK was badly informed about economic progress within the Soviet Union and slow to catch on to what was actually happening there.

–[In June 1963 he said:] “But we can still hail the Russian people for their many achievements–in science and space, in economic and industrial growth, in culture and in acts of courage. . . .”

–One set of government growth projections, based on CIA estimates [made in 1960], indicated that the gross national product of the Soviet Union would be triple the U.S. GNP by the year 2000.

–By August 1961, Kennedy was beginning to realize too that his own warnings about the Soviet economy overtaking U.S. production were as exaggerated as had been his missile-gap rhetoric.

6. JFK’s volatile showings on the voter-popularity charts deeply affected and influenced him.

–The midterm election was no landslide. The Democrats won 52.7 per cent of the overall vote, compared with 56.3 per cent in the 1958 midterm election and 55 per cent of the congressional total in 1960. The turnout was high, 5.8 million voters more than in 1958, but 4.2 million of the new voters cast their ballots for Republicans.

–”There are limits to the number of defeats I can defend in one 12-month period,” he had told [John Kenneth] Galbraith. “I’ve had the Bay of Pigs, pulling out of Laos, and I can’t accept a third.”

–At home, Kennedy’s personal approval rating, which had been 66 per cent in the August Gallup Poll, rose to 77 per cent after the Soviets began dismantling the missiles of October.

–The President, no slouch himself at telling men what they wanted to hear, left [Senate Majority Leader Mike] Mansfield with this thought: “If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam, we would have another Joe McCarthy Red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I’m re-elected. So we had better make damn sure that I am re-elected.”

–Then he told [David] Lawrence, who was also the chairman of the Democratic Party of Pennsylvania, that he was going to need every Northern state he could get in 1964. The way things were going in Alabama, Kennedy said, “I can kiss the South good-bye.”

–The President thought he was already in the spotlight. The last Gallup Poll had indicated that 63 per cent of Americans disapproved of the March [on Washington], and that 38 per cent thought he was pushing too fast on integration. At the same time the Harris Poll estimated that Kennedy, who had won election by roughly 118,000 votes, was currently losing 4.5 million votes because of his stands on civil rights, most of them in the South and border states, and could expect to pick up fewer than 600,000 new Negro voters, even including those allowed to register for the first time.

–”I’m not going to have a library if I only have one term,” he said. “Nobody will give a damn.”

– Kennedy’s approval rating in Gallup polls had dropped from 76 per cent to 59 per cent during 1963.

But the latest horse-race polls showed Kennedy with a percentage lead of 55 to 39 over the current [Republican] favorite, Senator Barry Goldwater.

–The Belden Poll showed that his approval rate in the state [Texas] was just 50 per cent, down from 76 per cent in 1962.

–For the first time [September 1963] he felt sure that he was going to be re-elected.

7. JFK’s thoughts on Vietnam and its importance to the West oscillated wildly.

–Back in Saigon, [General Maxwell] Taylor sent an “Eyes Only” cable to Kennedy recommending that the flood be used as a pretext for sending in six to eight thousand U.S. troops.

–The question that drew the shortest answer that day [January 15, 1962, at the presidential press conference] was:

“Mr. President, are American troops now in combat in Vietnam?”

“No.” That was not true.

–The return cables from the White House to Saigon that day, August 31 [1963], ordered the embassy and the military mission to recall and destroy all copies of the messages received and sent during the week that began with the cable of August 24 [calling, in effect, for the overthrow of Diem by military coup]. In Washington, the same orders, over the President’s name, were sent to the State Department, the CIA, and the Defense Department: Destroy all coup cables.

–The ambassador [Henry Cabot Lodge] recommended that [South Vietnamese General] Big Minh be told directly that the United States would not thwart his plans and would, in fact, help make them–all except assassination details.

Alarm bells went off at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. “Assassination” was supposed to be kept out of written records. As soon as [CIA Director] McCone saw the cable, he cabled Lodge: “We certainly cannot be in the position of stimulating or approving, or supporting assassination, but on the other hand, we are in no way responsible for stopping every such threat of which we might have partial knowledge.”

McCone called [JFK] and asked to come over to the White House. Robert Kennedy was with the President in the Oval Office when he arrived. McCone avoided using the word “assassination”–the President had to be able to deny ever talking about it–but, he said, he wanted to make clear his own understanding of the CIA’S role: “We are collecting information on coup planning, but not attempting to direct it.”

–Tran Trung Dung [a South Vietnamese former assistant minister of defense] had told Lodge one more thing: “The generals are planning the complete removal of the Ngo family.”

–[Taken from the text of a recorded telephone call from Diem to Lodge, November 1, 1963, the day before Diem’s assassination. Lodge tells Diem:] “You have certainly done your duty. As I told you only this morning, I admire your courage and your great contributions to your country. . . .”

Less than two hours later Ambassador Lodge sent a cable received in Washington at 7:55 A.M.: “Following message is being passed to General ‘Big Minh’: ‘Generals will be received at Embassy after coup is over.”’

–[The standard-issue, ghost-written] Army reply [to surviving family members of GIs killed in Vietnam] did not satisfy Kennedy and he wrote his own, including these thoughts: “Americans are in Vietnam because we have determined that this country must not fall under Communist domination.

“It is also apparent that the Communist attempt to take over Vietnam is only part of a larger plan for bringing the entire area of Southeast Asia under their domination. Though it is only a small part of the area geographically, Viet Nam is now the most crucial. Your brother was in Vietnam because the threat to the Viet Namese people is, in the long run, a threat to the Free World community, and ultimately a threat to us. . . .”

–He said [at his news conference on April 24, 1963, when asked about the “Domino Theory”]: “If Laos fell into Communist hands, it would increase the danger along the northern borders of Thailand. It would put additional pressure on Cambodia and would put additional pressure on Viet Nam, which in itself would put additional pressure on Malaya. So I do accept the view that there is an interrelationship in these countries . . .”

–[From a CBS interview with Walter Cronkite, September 2, 1963:] “All we can do is help, and we are making it very clear, but I don’t agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. I know people don’t like Americans to be engaged in this kind of an effort… We made this effort to defend Europe. Now Europe is quite secure. We also have to participate–we may not like it–in the defense of Asia.”

–”Mr. President, [asked David Brinkley on September 9, 1963,] have you had any reason to doubt this so-called ‘Domino Theory,’ that if South Viet-Nam falls, the rest of Southeast Asia will go behind it?”

“No, I believe it,” the President said.

–[From a White House press conference, July 17, 1963:] “We are not going to withdraw from that effort. In my opinion, for us to withdraw from that effort would mean a collapse not only of South Viet-Nam, but Southeast Asia.”

–That evening [April 24, 1963] over a drink, Kennedy brought up Vietnam again with Charlie Bartlett: “We don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam. Those people hate us. They are going to throw our asses out of there at almost any point. But I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the Communists and then get the American people to re-elect me.”

“He’s totally out to sea about what to do in Viet Nam,” Bartlett said later.

8. JFK was baffled by the nuclear question and even considered a pre-emptive strike against China.

–That [U.S. nuclear superiority], of course, was the opposite of what Kennedy had said during the campaign. “We are facing a gap on which we are gambling with our survival,” was one of his alarming campaign lines.

–Kennedy knew now that the missile gap overwhelmingly favored the United States. Still, that did not matter much. After Vienna, he had concluded that for all practical purposes there was no such thing as nuclear superiority. There was no difference between superiority and parity or anything remotely close to parity.

–The American military and some scientists had been pushing for new U.S. tests. And, in fact, the President had secretly ordered preparations to resume testing, to be ready to respond to the politics of the moment.

He had ordered the paperwork on that decision withdrawn, so he would have the option of saying he had made the preparation decision later than he actually had.

–From the new film, the CIA and McNamara and Gilpatric concluded that the Soviets had only a few primitive ICBMs, perhaps just four 100-ton SS-6s.

Kennedy knew all that. The United States, with 185 ICBMs, and with more than 3,400 nuclear warheads on submarines, and bombers capable of striking deep into the Soviet Union, had overwhelming nuclear superiority.

–So, still peppering his staff with memos telling them to figure out a way to explain away his old “missile gap” speeches, the President decided to lay out the true extent of U.S. military superiority.

–[Edward] Teller’s specific argument was that the United States needed to test in the atmosphere to begin development of an anti-missile system which would shield the country like a great umbrella.

–One of the reasons for keeping this secret [a contingent U.S. plan to initiate a nuclear strike if necessary to prevent a Soviet invasion of Europe] was that the American people believed the United States would never be the first to use nuclear weapons. But that was not true, not in Kennedy’s mind, particularly not after the previous week.

–During a 1989 Moscow conference on the Cuban missile crisis, the director of the Institute of Military History of the Defense Ministry, General Dmitri Volkogonov, said the number of Soviet ICBMS aimed at the United States in late 1962 was actually only twenty. Some Soviets, including Sergei Khrushchev, son of the late premier, also stated there were warheads on the island during the 1962 crisis–a claim U.S. intelligence never could verify because aerial photography never clearly revealed storage bunkers.

–Kennedy told his audience [at American University], “[We live] in an age when a single nuclear weapon contains almost ten times the explosive force delivered by all of the allied air forces in the Second World War.”

–In Washington, there was also an astonished and belated realization that the Chinese Communists were pressuring Khrushchev and the Soviets to renounce talk of co-existence with the Americans. The Soviet premier, it seemed, believed that he had as much or more to fear from a nuclear China as the American President did. It now seemed possible that Khrushchev would soon have to choose between dialogue with Washington and dialectic comradeship with a belligerent Peking. The Chinese were already on the move, involved in a border war with India in the Himalayas. Again and again, in private, Kennedy said that his greatest fear was Chinese nuclear weapons, and he had an almost romantic attachment to the idea that, somehow, the Americans and the Russians could combine to block China’s nuclear programs.

–The “U.S. Action,” as outlined in [Undersecretary of State Averell] Harriman’s briefing books, was classified “Top Secret.” It was a discussion of an alliance between the United States and Soviet Union with the specific goal of preventing China from developing nuclear weapons, including this: “Radical steps, in cooperation with the USSR, to prevent further proliferation of nuclear capabilities [and] Soviet, or possibly joint US-USSR, use of military forces against China”–presumably a joint air strike against China’s nuclear facilities.

The Personal Kennedy

9. JFK was a charming human being.

–Men and women fell in love with him. And politics, the career he had chosen, was a business that magnified charm and institutionalized seduction.

–”He’s an artist who paints with other people’s lives,” said Polly Kraft, the wife of one of the campaign speech-writers, Joseph Kraft. “He raises the spirit of a room. ‘Come along with me!’ he says–and we all do.”

10. JFK was easily bored

–And boredom was the worst sin. Sometimes its name was Adlai Stevenson or Chester Bowles, the well-meaning, long-winded dons of American liberalism.

–These meetings were for political stroking. Most of the [senators] bored Kennedy, as they had even when he was one of them. Whenever he could get away with it, Kennedy shrugged off congressional concerns, and most domestic issues, too, handing them off to [subordinates].

11. JFK was personally vain.

–Kennedy took photographs seriously, spending hours looking at himself on glossy paper before deciding which image the public might see.

–”Sure it’s a big job,” he had said in an interview at the end of 1960, before he had taken office. “But I don’t know anybody who can do it any better than I can. Besides, the pay is pretty good.”

–He was shameless in exploiting his family and children, using them to take over the slots newspapers usually reserved for photos of local kids and their puppies.

–They were getting nowhere in drafting an answer to Khrushchev!, partly because the President thought of himself as a master of words.

12. JFK’s cultural tastes were undeveloped

–A new sound system pumped out the country and western music and show tunes that he liked.

–The President preferred Sinatra and show tunes to Stravinsky.

13. JFK was undisciplined and lazy.

–[The New York Times‘ James] Reston asked him about his vision of the future, what kind of world he would like to help make. Kennedy looked at Reston for a long moment, seeming a little sad. “I haven’t had time to think about that yet,” he answered.

–[National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy wrote to JFK in a memorandum after the Bay of Pigs:] “The National Security Council, for example, really cannot work for you unless you authorize work schedules that do not get upset from day to day. Calling three meetings in five days is foolish–and putting them off for six weeks at a time is just as bad.

“Truman and Eisenhower did their daily dozen in foreign affairs the first thing in the morning, and a couple of weeks ago you asked me to begin to meet you on this basis. I have succeeded in catching you on three mornings, for a total of about 8 minutes, and I conclude that this is not really how you like to begin the day. Moreover, 6 of the 8 minutes were given not to what I had for you but what you had for me from Marguerite Higgins, David Lawrence, Scotty Reston, and others.”

Bundy went on like that, scolding his boss:

“Right now it is so hard to get to you with anything not urgent and immediate that about half of the papers and reports you personally ask for are never shown to you because by the time you are available you clearly have lost interest in them… Above all you are entitled to feel confident that (a) there is no part of government in the national security area that is not watched over closely by someone from your own staff, and (b) there is no major problem of policy that is not out where you can see it and give a proper stimulus to those who should be attacking it.”

14. JFK (along with Bobby) was given to authoritarian and imperious practices.

–Of course, it was not really a joke. The FBI and the CIA had installed dozens of wiretaps and listening devices on orders and requests from the attorney general. Transcripts of secret tapes of steel executives, congressmen, lobbyists and reporters routinely ended up on the President’s desk. The targets ranged from writers who criticized the President–Hanson Baldwin of the New York Times; Lloyd Norman of Newsweek; Bernard Fall of Howard University; and Victor Lasky, a conservative author–to members of Kennedy’s own staff: his Air Force assistant, General Godfrey McHugh; and Robert Amory, the CIA’S man on the National Security Council. And the White House had had its own taping system installed by the Secret Service with help from military aides early in 1962, on Kennedy’s orders. When he thought of it, the President used hidden switches in the Oval Office, the Cabinet Room, and his living room in Hyannis Port to secretly record meetings and phone calls. Among other reasons, the President wanted the transcripts as notes for his own memoirs.

–He picked up the phone and got Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission: “Did you see that goddamn thing on Huntley-Brinkley? I thought they were supposed to be our friends. I want you to do something about that. You do something about that.”

–”The f—ing Herald Tribune is at it again,” Kennedy said that morning in an angry telephone call to his press secretary. Then he canceled the 22 Trib subscriptions that came to the White House each morning.

Canceling the Herald Tribune was a stupid thing to do. Cartoonists and comedians around the country were making fun of the President–and his aides made things a bit worse by whispering that, of course, the President read the Trib secretly.

–[He told New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger:] “I wish like hell that you’d get [David] Halberstam out of there [Vietnam].”

–He was asked next about Robert Frost and reports that the poet was carrying a private message from Khrushchev, and he responded: “I have not received his message, though I hope to see him shortly. . . .” Actually, Kennedy had no intention of seeing Frost. He was still angry that the old man had added to the impression that he was weak and indecisive.

–Robert Frost died on January 23 [1963]. He had gone into a hospital in Boston just before Christmas. It seemed everyone of import in the world had sent what they knew were final messages-Khrushchev, the Pope, Robert Kennedy; but not John Kennedy. [Interior Secretary] Stewart Udall asked the President to call or just to say something, but Kennedy was still angry about Frost’s casting doubt on American resolve.

–Kennedy had already asked Ted Sorensen to have the Justice Department do some checking into the activities of the Rockefeller Foundation and other family enterprises. At the Army-Navy Football Game, on November 26 [1962] in Philadelphia, Kennedy sat with Roswell Gilpatric, who had known Nelson Rockefeller and his brothers since they were all children. Kennedy did what he always did with Gilpatric: he questioned him about Rockefeller–about the family, their homes, the foundations, their wives, their children, their hobbies. What about Rocky’s girlfriends?

There were a lot of them, Gilpatric said.

“How does he get away with it?” asked Kennedy, pressing for details.

–Robert Kennedy, as usual, hit the hardest, summoning a federal grand jury and sending FBI agents to offices and homes of steelmen.

–”We’re going for broke,” Robert Kennedy told his men [in referring to the steel-company executives]. “Their expense accounts and where they’d been and what they were doing. I told the FBI to interview them all–march into their offices … subpoena their personal records … subpoena their company records … We can’t lose this.”

FBI agents took the attorney general at his word, telephoning steel executives in the middle of the night.

–”We haven’t spent as much f—ing time on anything since Cuba,” Kennedy joked after a long session with the [Boston] Globe’s Washington bureau chief, Robert Healy on how to handle the news story about to break, that Teddy had cheated at Harvard. The President and the bureau chief worked out a statement, which Edward Kennedy repeated in a staged interview, admitting that another student had taken a freshman Spanish exam for him. The Globe broke the cheating story on March 30, under the gentlest of headlines: “Ted Kennedy Tells About Harvard Examination Incident.”

–”[Congressman] Roland Libonati is sticking it right up us,” said [JFK].

“He is?” [Chicago Mayor Richard] Daley said with surprise in his voice.

“Yeah, because he’s standing with the extreme liberals who are going to end up with no bill at all. Then when we put together a bill with the Republicans which gives us about everything we wanted, and he says ‘No.’”

“He’ll vote for it,” said the mayor. “He’ll vote for any goddamned thing you want.”

Kennedy laughed.

“Where is he?” the mayor asked. “Is he there?”

“Well, he’s in the other room.”

“Tell Kenny [O’Donnell] to put him on the wire here.”

“Okay,” Kennedy said, then thought better of it. “Or would you rather get him when he gets back to his office? That’s better, otherwise, ’cause he might think . . . “

“The last time I . . .” Daley said. “I told him, ‘Now look, I don’t give a goddamned what it is, you vote for anything the President wants. This is the way it will be and this is the way we want it and that’s the way it’s gonna be.’”

“That’d be good,” Kennedy said. “Thanks, Dick.”

–He was mad as hell. In the middle of the Medicare struggle, the president of the AMA, Dr. Leonard Larson, asked for a meeting with the President to discuss their differences. “Forget it,” Kennedy said. Why not? A meeting suggested compromise, he said, and a photograph suggested a meeting of equals. He was not of a mind to give either to Dr. Larson. He had the same reaction when Walter Heller asked him to pose for the cameras at a reunion of past chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisors, including Truman’s man, Leon Keyserling, and Eisenhower’s, Arthur Burns. “Burns and Keyserling are kicking me in the balls every day and I’m not going to give them a platform to do it more successfully,” he told Heller.

–[Ben] Bradlee had been quoted in a Look Magazine article early in August [1962] on press coverage of the White House: “It’s almost impossible to write a story they like. Even if a story is quite favorable to their side, they’ll find one paragraph to quibble with.”

–In Rome, Kennedy dispatched one of the most loyal of his old friends, Lem Billings, to search the city’s antiquity shops for small items to bring back home. He figured that Billings must know about such things because he had a degree in art history from Princeton. With only ninety minutes to search the city, Billings was assigned an aide to the president of Italy and a famous archaeologist. The three of them raced from shop to shop, with the Italian official warning the proprietors of the consequences of selling fakes to the President of the United States. They collected 27 pieces from back rooms, none of them on display, and brought them back for Kennedy’s consideration. He chose two, paying $900 for a little Greek horse from the sixth century B.C., and $500 for a life-size head, a Roman copy of Praxiteles’ Hermes. The rest were sent back.

“God, I don’t know why we didn’t get more,” Kennedy told Billings on the plane back to Washington. Billings telephoned the Italian president’s office after they landed, and within a couple of days the Italian ambassador delivered a treasure of statues and jewelry. The President selected a few more pieces, giving them to his wife, then passed the collection on to Billings and other friends to make their own choices. Nothing went back to Rome this time.

15. JFK’s sexual self-indulgence was pathological.

–The routine of clandestine comings and goings had to be taught to the willing among the women Kennedy regularly propositioned, often within a couple of minutes of introduction. Some of the action was somewhat graceful–or at least roses were sent with a card that said: “Friends of Evelyn Lincoln.” Some of it was in the back seats of cars. Many of the women he asked said yes, but if they did not, Kennedy asked again …

“We’re a bunch of virgins, married virgins,” said one young staff member, Fred Dutton, the secretary of the Cabinet. “And he’s like God, f—ing anybody he wants to anytime he feels like it.”

–Mary Meyer, a Georgetown artist who was the ex-wife of a CIA official, Cord Meyer, . . . flew up with the President. They had been sleeping together for several months; usually she came to the White House whenever Jacqueline Kennedy was out of town.

–Some of the fun ended with Hoover’s formal visit to the Oval Office. Two weeks later, on April 4, the CIA’S formal request to the FBI to forgo prosecution of [Sam] Giancana and [Robert] Maheu was worded this way: “Any prosecution in the matter would endanger sensitive sources and methods used in a duly authorized intelligence project and would not be in the national interest.”

–Keeping the secrets was part of the price of admission.

–She [Dr. Janet Travell] was injecting her novocaine mixtures into the President’s back as often as five and six times a day.

–Another possible side effect [of corticosteroids, used to treat Addison’s disease] was heightened sexual desire. The side effects of [Dr. Jacobson’s amphetamine mixtures] were more dangerous: an exaggerated sense of power and capabilities, and the debilitating symptoms of classic paranoid schizophrenia, then slow death by poisoning. It was not Kennedy’s doctors but his brother Robert Kennedy who suspected such dangers and tried to get rid of Dr. Jacobson.

–As the European trip was being planned, the President had asked Rusk if he knew of a beautiful and a secluded place in Italy for a private matter. Rusk did. He had been president of the Rockefeller Foundation, which owned Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como, once the grand vacation home of a Milanese merchant prince. Kennedy said he wanted the villa on the night of June 30 and he wanted it empty–no servants, no staff, no Secret Service. [Dave] Powers and [Ken] O’Donnell would be there to handle any problems, that was part of their jobs. But somebody didn’t get the message. It soon became apparent that the resident director of Rockefeller programs at the villa and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. John Marshall, were intending to stay on the property, moving into guest quarters.

“Get them out of there,” Kennedy said, and the State Department was on the way. The Marshalls left and soon afterward a lady of some note in Europe arrived. Rusk returned in the morning. “How was it?” asked Rusk, who did not approve of some of Kennedy’s habits. “Wonderful,” Kennedy said. “Absolutely wonderful.”


[From the New York Times, March 30, 19851] Hempstead, L.I. For the last two days, white-haired former members of the Kennedy Administration have mingled with younger scholars on the campus of Hofstra University, affectionately recalling the youthful John F. Kennedy and the zest and style with which he touched the hearts of his countrymen.

The conference on his Presidency has been a celebration, a gathering of the clan: Theodore C. Sorensen, McGeorge Bundy, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Walter W. Heller, and many others. Their faces still shine when they speak of him.

From President Kennedy: Profile of Power, by Richard Reeves. C 1993 by Reeves -O’Neill, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster.


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