Twenty-six years ago, one of the first lessons this reviewer learned as a newly minted college history major was that for just about every major event and period in American history, there are four schools of thought: the classic, the revisionist, the neoclassic and the neorevisionist.
The classic school represents the interpretations and assessments of the first historians out of the box, so to speak -- which, in 1965, would have applied to the hosannas being written by New Frontiersmen Theodore Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. about the then recently assassinated John F. Kennedy.
The revisionists, as their name indicates, are the next generation of historians, who generally trash the theories of the classicists, and so on. In the case of JFK, this cycle probably will go around and around indefinitely, because the debate about whether Kennedy was or was not a great president, and was or was not a great man, clearly has become one for the ages.
At a time when the Kennedys again are very much in the news, two new books -- one neoclassical and one neorevisionist -- raise once again the question of what the Kennedys were and are made of: whether JFK deserves a spot among this nation's pantheon of great leaders or whether he was a spoiled, oversexed, take-what-you-want-when-you-want-it playboy who used money, charm and good looks to achieve self-aggrandizing ends.
In "Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy's New Frontier" (Oxford University, 342 pages, $24.95), which focuses almost entirely on domestic problems and policies, Irving Bernstein, emeritus professor of political science at UCLA, argues that the revisionists are "dead wrong" in dismissing Kennedy as a disappointing or mediocre leader. Dr. Bernstein insists that when Kennedy "predicted on November 14, 1963, that his entire program would be enacted within eighteen months he was right" and that "he was emerging as a President of great stature when, eight days later, a mindless assassin in Dallas cut his life short."
It should be noted that in the index under "Kennedy, John Fitzgerald," Dr. Bernstein includes sublistings on "relationship with Congress," "relationship with [Illinois Republican Sen. Everett] Dirksen," "relationship with business," etc., but he does not include listings on relationships with Hollywood sex queens, female suspected Nazi agents, Mafia chieftains or molls.
In other words, Dr. Bernstein separates Kennedy the president from Kennedy the man, which Thomas C. Reeves, in "A Question of Character: a Life of John F. Kennedy" (Free Press, 510 pages, $24.95), contends is impossible.
Dr. Reeves, whose admiration of Kennedy during his 1,000 days knew no bounds, writes that recent revelations and research he has done as a history professor at the University of Wisconsin have forced him to conclude that "many of my youthful observations from the 1950s and 1960s had to be revised."
Particularly, he concludes that because of the flawed values Kennedy and his brothers inherited from Joseph Kennedy -- their driven, piratical, tyrannical, philandering father -- John F. Kennedy lacked the strength of character and sense of obligation to the public needed to attempt or achieve true greatness as president.
Dr. Reeves gives Kennedy credit where he believes credit is due, such as his handling of the Cuban missile crisis. But Dr. Reeves says that in confronting civil rights and other momentous issues, Kennedy seldom displayed principled commitment -- primarily, the author insists, because except for winning at all costs and getting what he wanted, Kennedy had no real 'D principles.
There are no new revelations in Dr. Reeves' book. Rather, from previously published material and archival sources, he has pulled together the many accounts of Jack Kennedy's dangerously indiscriminate womanizing in and out of the White House (Dr. Reeves practically wears out the words "chase" and "chasing" in describing Kennedy's pursuit of women), plus anecdotes about the huge amounts of money Papa Joe Kennedy spent on his son's elections; the strings pulled; the arms twisted; the unholy alliances forged; the coverups and cover stories; the wheeling, dealing, vote buying and vote stealing that lay behind Kennedy's capture of the presidency.
Dr. Reeves does partially buy into the theory, expounded by some Kennedy hagiographers, that Kennedy was developing a larger moral purpose and displaying growing maturity toward the end of his life.
But in contradiction to those who believe JFK would have developed into a true philosopher-king during a second term in the White House, inaugurating an Augustan age at home and abroad, Dr. Reeves says: "It should be noted that Jack was still incapable of monogamy at the time of his assassination. And it was just as likely that news of the dark side of the president's personal and official activities might have ruined Kennedy's second term and brought the nation another kind of grief and mourning than that which tragically did ensue."
Of the two books, Dr. Reeves' is more readable, with its breezy, miniserieslike narrative of Kennedy's devil-may-care life and times. Although many key players in the Kennedy saga are alive and available to be interviewed, both authors confine their research to books, articles, reports and oral histories.
Those tapped by Dr. Bernstein are, like his book, solid and stolid; Dr. Reeves' use of material from various gossipy and kiss-and-tell accounts, such as C. David Heymann's "A Woman Named Jackie," does give one pause. (In his footnotes, Dr. Reeves observes that "Heymann's book must . . . be handled with care. Secret Service officials have informed me that agent ,, Marty Venker, quoted extensively by Heymann . . . did not serve President Kennedy.")