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Two books on John Kennedy
Maudlin memories and a critique
By NEIL McKENTY
Sooner or later the law of diminishing returns will begin to operate for readers of books about John Kennedy. Maybe it’s operating already. But I’m ready to give Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye the benefit of the doubt.
Kenneth O’Connell, appointments secretary for Camelot, as the Kennedy regime came to be called, and Dave Powers, court jester and friend-in-waiting, have strung together these “memories.” mostly of an anecdotal nature, with the help of ghost-writer, Joe. McCarthy.
The title is maudlin (like much of the book) and doubly ironic because at. the end of more than 400 pages that once again touch all the bases from Boston to Balias, we really don’t know that, much more about the first Roman Catholic president of the United States. Some of the things we do learn are not nearly as flattering as the authors apparently intended.
One of their central themes is to portray Kennedy as “the most skillful politician of his generation.” To this purpose, Kennedy’s political career is charted through the mists and bogs of Irish Catholic politics in Massachussets. Here he encounters weird and wonderful pols like James M. Curley. Knocko McCormack, Onions Burke, Freddy Blip and Pat Lynch. Energetic but naive in his first run for Congress in 1946, starry-eyed Jack Kennedy was bloodied in Boston’s back wards in some of the most vicious political in-fignting this side of Tammany Hall.
It was in south Boston that Kennedy learned to make deals with rival political factions, then watch, safely out of sight, while O’Donnell
and other hatchetmen blatantly repudiated them. After listening to O’Donnell tell a bare-faced lie on the telephone to a political rival, Kennedy remarked: “That was pretty good. A nice performance. Not bad at ail.”
Still, though these Kennedy memories are too long, too banal and never critical (except of JFK’s enemies), they do have their moments of poignancy especially Kennedy’s thoughtfulness for others though he was constantly in pain from an injured back the last eight years of his life. *
If nothing else, Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye. is a sad reminder that there’s less laughter and more folly along the Potomac now than there was during the short time Johnny Kennedy was there.
This is a fascinating, provocative and, in some ways, a brilliant book. Where Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye is all heart. The Kennedy Promise is cerebral without being academic.
Henry Fairlie (a respected British journalist who has lived in Wash ington since 1965) claims that Camelot was a charade—a glittering and theatrical performance that failed to deliver the goods.
P’airlie’s thesis is that John Kennedy and his cohorts followed “a political method which was always bound to mislead even as it fatally attracts.” This method was fatally flawed because it induced the American people lo believe that their every need, both sacred and profane was susceptible “to a political solution.”
In practice this meant that a manageable situation was perceived as a potential crisis to be inflated by Kennedy rhetoric which in turn provided the springboard for action: “And what (Kennedy) meant by action was a spectacular display of his power in a situation of maximum peril as he defined it.”
So, as Fairlie defines them, were ihe confrontations over Cuba. Berlin. Laos. Viet Nam. Alabama and the steel crisis. Promise was celebrated as performance and domes lie problems—civil rights, education —were ignored in favor of the larger stage of foreign affairs.
So did. John Kennedy, who personalized the presidency beyond any o’ his predecessors with the possible exception of Theodore Roosevelt, pursue his “imperial pretensions.” Efficiency was found in process; options were confused with choice, success with achievement and tough-mindedness was regarded as proof of strength.
As I have said this is valuable and intriguing book. It peels the charm and glamor from Camelot. By so doing it provides a necessary antidote to the bushels of laudatory tomes that have almost apotheo- sized the Kennedy brothers. Much of what Fairlie says with such clar- ity and grace should be said to redress he balance.
But it is suremely ironic that many of the faults attributed here to Kennedy, the president, can also be charged to Fairlie. the writer- historian. The author makes the fatal mistake of many rhetoricians making their argument—he proves too much. He does so by inflating or deflating situations suit his purpose, by constructing straw men and by succumbing to the very negligence he accuses Kennedy of —an ignorance of history Surely Franklin Roosevelt. Eisenhower (a favorite of Fairlie’s). and Johnson ran personal presidencies and Richard Nixon is pursuing an imperial one. Surely much of the tumult of the late ’60s, including the street riots, would have occurred had the Kennedy brothers never left Boston.
The Kennedy promise was indeed flawed. So, despite his engaging style and sometimes brilliant insights, is Fairlie’s book.
Neil McKenty is the author of Mitch Hepburn, a biography of the one-time premier of Ontario.
Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye, by Kenneth P. O’Donnell and David F. Powers with Joe McCarthy, Little Brown, 434 pages, $10.
Tho Kennedy Promise, by Henry Fairlie, Doubleday, 376 pages, $9.25.