Oral history of JFK shows how memories change

June 06, 1993|By Theo Lippman Jr.

LET US BEGIN ANEW:

AN ORAL HISTORY OF

THE KENNEDY PRESIDENCY.

Gerald S. and

Deborah R. Strober.

HarperCollins.

540 pages. $25.

THE KENNEDY LEGACY.

Theodore C. Sorenson.

MacMillan.

414 pages. $22. Of books about the Kennedys there is no end, to paraphrase historian V. O. Key. Here are a couple more.

The first proceeds from an interesting premise. The authors, newcomers to political writing, interviewed 140 women and men (practically all men) who knew John F. Kennedy in some political context, 26 to 28 years after his death. The first thing this reader suspected was that if these people's memory is no better than mine, a lot of this "oral history" is bunk.

Here are a couple of examples of what is at least semi-bunk. Lee White, a White House lawyer, recalls that Theodore Sorenson wrote President Kennedy's civil rights speech after the 1963 bombing of a black church in Birmingham sheet by sheet "as the president delivered it. But all of a sudden Kennedy was talking faster than Sorenson could dictate and the secretary could type, so he ran out of sheets. But you could not tell where the script ended and the president began to take off with his own words. The guy was that spectacular."

In fact, according to Mr. Sorenson in his biography "Kennedy," written shortly after the president's assassination, the speech was completed in draft form before the president took the mike. JFK did ad-lib an eloquent conclusion, however.

The difference between the versions is the difference between impressive fact and spectacular legend.

Speaking of fact and legend: Joseph Rauh Jr., a civil rights lawyer in Washington, quotes Attorney General Robert Kennedy saying of a possible Supreme Court nominee, Harvard professor Paul Freund, " 'Not on your life. When we asked him to be solicitor general, he turned us down. We can't do this; if the person's coming from Harvard, it's going to be Archie Cox.' "

Mr. Rauh goes on: "Bobby was angry. I think he would remember [the turn-down] for a long time. The Kennedys remember old slights."

Robert Kennedy, himself, recalled the decision on Freund in a taped interview for the Kennedy archives a few years after the fact. He strongly implied that it was not pay-back that motivated him, but loyalty to Mr. Cox, a Harvard professor who had accepted the solicitor's job.

The difference in emphasis between the versions is important. I'd like to believe Mr. Rauh. I'm as enamored of the "Bobby was ruthless" legend as anyone. But was Mr. Rauh at the meeting? Did he hear and see Kennedy's anger? I don't think so, but the book doesn't say.

There are several anecdotes dealing with events of which I had first- or second-hand contemporary knowledge. My recollection doesn't square with the book's. My memory is no better than anybody else's, so I checked academic biographies on three of the anecdotes. In each case the memories of the interviewees are slightly but importantly different from what more careful, earlier researchers found.

The Rauh interview underlines a serious problem with this form of oral history. You often cannot tell if an interviewee is remembering something witnessed or merely something heard or thought at the time or later.

Another problem is that many comments are, well, worthless. Gerald Ford says, "Jack was not as intellectually smart as Bobby." But economist Paul Samuelson says, in the very next entry, "My judgment is that John F. Kennedy was the smartest of the three brothers." Why each felt as he did deserves to be asked and answered in order to be worthwhile.

The Strobers are too often passive and uncritical. The book reads at times as if they had done these 140 interviews for a biography. Then, looking at the hundreds of 3-by-5 cards with transcribed remarks on them, they despaired of sorting out the conflicts and contradictions and just published their notes. I've had the feeling myself.

The Strobers also do damage to some of their interviewees. For example, why subject Adam Yarmolinsky, now the provost at the University of Maryland Baltimore County but back then a high-level Pentagon official, to seeing hmself quoted with this banality: "The appointees proved excellent. And a lot of people stayed on through the Johnson administration. There was a good cabinet and then a first-rate group of people. There were a few bad actors."

So it's an inferior book? Yes, but pretty good reading for people who have their own recollections of the events described and those quoted. It's the bedside equivalent of sitting on a bar stool or a park bench with a bunch of old, interesting, self-deluding veterans swapping war stories.

"The Kennedy Legacy" is just a reprint of Mr. Sorenson's 1969 salute, with a gushing new foreword.

G; As I say, of books about the Kennedys, there is no end.

Mr. Lippman is an editorial writer for The Sun and author of several political biographies, including "Senator Ted Kennedy."

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