The 1,000 days of Camelot

Monday Books

November 22, 1993|By Robert Dallek

PRESIDENT KENNEDY: PROFILE OF POWER. By Richard Reeves. Simon & Schuster. 662 pages. $30. IN "Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye," two of John F. Kennedy's close friends and aides lamented nine years after his assassination. Now, 30 years after what his successor called "the foulest deed of the century," we have come to know JFK, the man, as well as any president in our history.

His family, upbringing, education, military service, marriage, medical history and love life -- especially his love life -- have been the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles and books. The public seems to have an insatiable appetite for Kennedy gossip, even, several publishers have believed, if it were no more than the product of the author's imagination. This outpouring of Kennedyana may reveal more about public taste in late 20th century America than about the man and the president -- or, more precisely, the presidential administration, which has commanded far less attention than JFK's personal life.

Richard Reeves, a distinguished journalist and author of several books on American politics including studies of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and America's democratic system, has made a significant addition to the Kennedy literature, a book focused primarily on JFK's White House years and performance as president.

Mr. Reeves doesn't ignore the man: JFK the charming, witty, afflicted, brave, indulged and highly entertaining character is as alive in this book as he's ever been. Indeed, Mr. Reeves give us a portrait that comes as close to the real man as we are likely to have for a long time. True, Mr. Reeves at times relies too much on the many accounts alleging unsubstantiated affairs, but, for the most part, he is judicious and bases his reconstruction of Kennedy's personal life on well-grounded sources that have the ring and smell of truth to them.

Far more important than anything he has to say about JFK's personal life, which will be familiar to anyone who has kept up with the Kennedy literature, is Mr. Reeves' reconstruction of Kennedy's brief presidential term. Though there is much here that will be familiar as well, Mr. Reeves' arresting narrative makes the day-to-day events in Kennedy's White House seem fresh and exciting. Despite having to recount oft-told tales about the Bay of Pigs, the Vienna confrontation with Khrushchev, the Cuban missile crisis, civil rights, the test ban treaty and America's expanding role in Vietnam, for example, Mr. Reeves has culled enough new details from interviews and recently opened oral histories and documents to make his book the richest, most complete study of Kennedy's presidency to date.

Mr. Reeves' book is also notable for its balance. It is a fair assessment of the gains and losses, successes and failures marking JFK's thousand days in power. Kennedy was principally a foreign-policy president whose timidity in domestic affairs made him a reluctant leader. As Mr. Reeves reminds us, it was only late in his term that Kennedy began boldly to address the great civil rights and economic issues of his day. In world politics, where he invested his greatest energy and the country's prestige, he stumbled badly a number of times, but had the wisdom and good sense to put across policies, especially toward the Soviet Union, that contributed, both in his day and later, to the national and international well-being.

In Mr. Reeves' account, Kennedy's presidency was neither Camelot nor a mass of unrealized hopes by a leader more notable for his profile than his courage. Instead, it was an administration that, on the one hand, played hardball politics at home and abroad -- using wiretaps and the IRS against domestic opponents and plotting assassinations overseas. It was a government that operated by the seat of its pants and repeatedly asked not "What is right?" but "What will work?" At the same time, however, it was a White House that drew on America's best minds for advice and direction and made policy decisions that set the country on the path to long-term prosperity, avoidance of nuclear war and successful exploration of outer space, including a manned mission to the moon.

Yet Mr. Reeves' book is less a balance sheet of what went right and wrong in Kennedy's White House than a sprawling chronicle of what happened. It is a convincing demonstration that, however brief his time in office, John Kennedy presided over a consequential administration. JFK's presidency, Mr. Reeves' massive reconstruction makes clear, made a large difference, shaping what happened in at least three succeeding decades. Neither the great civil rights reforms, nor the reliance on Keynesian economics, nor the course of the Vietnam War, nor the ending of the Cold War in the post-1963 era can be fully understood without going back to Kennedy's thousand days in office.

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