Neil reviews two books on Kennedy for the Toronto Star

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From the Toronto Star:

Two books on John Kennedy
Johnny We Hardly Knew Ye
The Kennedy Promise

Maudlin memories and a critique


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.

The Kennedy Promise

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 Washington since 1965) claims that Cam­elot was a charade—a glittering and theatrical performance that failed to deliver the goods.

Fairlie’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 the 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 apotheosized the Kennedy brothers. Much of what Fairlie says with such clarity and grace should be said to redress he balance.

But it is supremely 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. ODonnell and David F. Powers with Joe McCarthy, Little Brown, 434 pages, $10.

The Kennedy Promise, by Henry Fairlie, Doubleday, 376 pages, $9.25.

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