High Concept

They Don’t Know Jack

What all the new books get wrong about JFK.

In 1962, the writer William Manchester published Portrait of a President, a book so gushing in its praise of John F. Kennedy, so slack-jawed in awe, that the White House distributed copies as souvenirs. Today, Kennedy scholars and debunkers can share a collective smirk at Manchester’s naiveté, confident that 35 years and 500 books (by the Kennedy Library’s rough count) have taught us all a thing or two; that our understanding of JFK, like the Kennedy literature itself, is rich, complex, ever expanding. The latest additions, however, rattle that confidence. Traditionally, Kennedy books have ranged from apologist to revisionist. The current vogue is reductivist: JFK, we are now told, was a fairly simple fellow. Recent releases portray him as hero or hedonist, romantic or reprobate–but never as all these things at once.

First, regrettably and inescapably, there is Seymour Hersh’s TheDark Side of Camelot, a Portrait for Kennedy-haters. The significance of the investigative reporter’s book lies neither in its revelations (which are few) nor its hype (which is considerable, and has stirred up waves of attackers and defenders, including Slate’s Jacob Weisberg). Rather, Dark Side’s significance lies in the countermyth that Hersh constructs to displace Camelot–an anti-Camelot in which every public virtue conceals a private vice. Hersh’s JFK is not shrewd, he is “fanatical”; he is not coolheaded, he is impulsive; he is not suave, he is sleazy. Hersh reconciles any contradictions in Kennedy’s character by eradicating them. At the swimming pool, JFK grabs a woman’s backside; in the situation room, he flirts with nuclear holocaust. Reckless at play, reckless at work, JFK is just a bad man with a nice smile that made travesties appear to be triumphs.

For every bitter revisionist, however, there is an equally ardent admirer. In Love, Jack, Gunilla von Post’s slight memoir of a brief affair during the 1950s, JFK again has a winning grin, both “incandescent” and “offhand.” (It fades only when he thinks of Jackie.) But in Kennedy’s soul, where Hersh sees darkness, von Post, a stunning Swedish aristocrat, perceives only light. “This wasn’t a man who simply needed a woman to satisfy his cravings and would then go on to something else,” she explains as Kennedy embarks upon another transatlantic booty call. A philanderer, perhaps, but hardly a cad. Von Post’s JFK even “[makes] love with a surprising innocence.” He swoons, he sighs, he weeps. He looks toward the heavens and proclaims, “The stars, Gunilla. The stars!”

John Hellmann, a professor of English at Ohio State University, has little interest in the debate over Kennedy’s character. Hellmann’s focus is instead on the Kennedy “image” and its importance to the man’s historical reputation. In The Kennedy Obsession, Hellmann conducts a close reading of young Jack’s personal library: the adventures of Ivanhoe and The Young Melbourne; the steely, masculine prose of Ernest Hemingway. In reading these books, Hellmann claims, Kennedy was shrewdly incorporating the archetypes–the lonely hero, the sensitive rebel–that would later compose his public persona. Hellmann sees no distinction between Kennedy’s image and his actual achievement; for Hellmann, the image is the achievement. This is a helpful insight: All pols engage in what the author calls “creative self-making.” But Hellmann’s Kennedy is too self-aware to be believable. The reader’s mind rebels at the notion of JFK and Ted Sorensen discussing “self-presentation” or, more ominously, “liminal marginality.” This isn’t politics. This is what lit crits talk about when they talk about politics.

Individually, none of these books tells us much about John F. Kennedy that we didn’t already know. None, not even Hersh’s best seller, will greatly alter Kennedy’s reputation. Considered together, though, they underscore a truth about JFK: that he can’t be reduced to a type. Suave and sleazy, cool and reckless–these contradictions raise important and troubling questions about his presidency. How could a man so dissolute in his private life display such discipline in his public role? If Kennedy was so quickly bored by others–his anonymous lover in Dark Side is not the first to recall his relentless tapping of feet, of fingers, of teeth–how did he endure interminable briefings on border disputes in North Africa? If one accepts (as one must, increasingly) the portrait of JFK as almost absurdly careless, how does one explain his mastery of the televised press conference? This was a controversial innovation during the Cold War, when a “live” gaffe might spark an international incident. Yet Kennedy conquered the new medium, and not just with his winsome smile and quick wit; his preparation was unmatched by any but the most thorough reporter.

These paradoxes are puzzling, which explains the temptation to ignore or deny them. It is hard to believe that any man, particularly a public figure, could embody such contradictory traits without self-destructing. Perhaps given more than a thousand days, Kennedy would have self-destructed. But his record in office demonstrates growth, not decay. The Kennedy Bildungsroman–his coming-of-age, from fumbling the Bay of Pigs invasion to resolving the Cuban missile crisis–is a tired tale, but newly validated by TheKennedy Tapes, Ernest May and Philip Zelikow’s edition of the transcripts of those crucial ExComm meetings of October 1962. Whatever goings-on are going on in the executive mansion of the White House, Kennedy’s brilliant Cabinet Room performance underscores his ability to “compartmentalize his life,” as Hersh nicely puts it in his first chapter (before denying it in the rest of his book). The most interesting recent portraits of JFK–Richard Reeves’ masterly President Kennedy: Profile of Power and Nigel Hamilton’s flawed JFK, Reckless Youth–confront the dualities in his character. If they do not explain them, at least they acknowledge them, which is more than this current crop of books can boast.

In the end, it is not the authors who know Kennedy best. It is his public. The Camelot myth crumbled long ago under the strain of molls, mob money, election fraud, and foreign adventurism, and it is precisely this sordid mix–sex, glamour, power–that accounts for much of Kennedy’s enduring appeal. For some Americans, JFK remains the anointed apostle of the New Frontier. But it’s not because Kennedy passed a nuclear test-ban treaty or founded the Peace Corps that 39 percent of Americans, according to a 1991 poll, consider him our greatest president. For most of us, Kennedy is a lovable rogue. His broad smile, neither purely romantic nor wholly cynical, tells the story: This is a man who breaks the rules and is attractive, wealthy, and smart enough to get away with it. In his audacity, John Kennedy is utterly American, and simply irresistible.