JFK in the White House: 'soaring charm' and a chaotic presidency

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Title: "President Kennedy: Profile of Power"

Author: Richard Reeves

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Length, price: 798 pages, $30

The record of the Kennedy presidency grows inexorably as history demands, correcting the triumph of image over reality. Even John Kennedy was surprised at his early public acclaim. But now history is exacting its due.

When Time drew the inevitable balance after 100 days in 1961, it recorded "setbacks rare in the history of the Republic." The Soviets had put a man in space. JFK had bungled the Bay of Pigs situation, which was a legacy from Eisenhower. Laos was collapsing; we backed an army there that seemed to prefer lovemaking to war. Yet Americans loved Kennedy. The Gallup Poll reported 83 percent favoring a president who had defeated Richard Nixon by only 118,000 votes, of more than 68,000,000 cast. "Jesus, it's just like Ike," Kennedy said. "The worse you do, the better they like you."

In truth, his presidency was chaotic. Richard Reeves has reconstructed it to answer irrefutably the question whether we need another Kennedy book now. That growing record includes memories of survivors candid with age, some belatedly honoring reality, some no doubt protecting their place in history. Archives are opening at many levels.

Mr. Reeves, a columnist and the author of a half-dozen nonfiction works, has exploited the lode with skill and tenacity. He conducted dozens of interviews, prowled the greatest libraries and winnowed through bales of reportage. One delight here is a closing essay by Peter Keating, Mr. Reeves' principal researcher, about lunatic standards of government secrecy and including a bibliography of scores of books about Kennedy and issues of his time.

Mr. Reeves may distress some historians. He freely uses the "Kennedy thought" or "Kennedy felt" device, which troubles even permissive journalists. But his explanation is forthright.

"In the instances where someone's thoughts are mentioned," he writes, "it is because they told me what they had been thinking, or they told someone else at the time, or they recorded their thinking in journals or memoranda." The technique speeds narrative and makes for terrific reading.

This is not a book of startling revelations. But there are fascinating confirmations, elaborations and insights. Yes, the White House ordered or encouraged, not merely tolerated, plans to murder Fidel Castro and Ngo Dinh Diem. Yes, Kennedy was a physical wreck -- far worse than the world knew -- tortured by Addison's disease. Pain dulled his acuity, and so did the drugs that gave him relief.

Mr. Reeves covers only the presidential period, from Jan. 20, 1961, to Nov. 22, 1963, as Kennedy experienced it. There are of course flashbacks as necessary -- to the proposition, for example, that Joe Kennedy stole the election for his son. But generally Mr. Reeves honors his limits. The result is the best book yet about Kennedy in the White House.

Here is how Mr. Reeves judges JFK:

"The man at the center was a gifted professional politician reacting to events he often neither foresaw nor understood, handling some well, others badly, but always ready with plausible explanations. He was intelligent, detached, curious, candid if not always honest, and he was careless and dangerously disorganized. He was also very impatient, addicted excitement, living his life as if it were a race against boredom. He was a man of soaring charm who believed that one-on-one he would always prevail -- a notion that betrayed him when he first confronted the premier of the Soviet Union." Khrushchev of course overwhelmed Kennedy, and mistakenly judged him to be a wimp, during their 1961 meeting in Vienna.

Mr. Reeves' description is hardly puffery, yet the portrait he actually paints is even less attractive. JFK and his men lied routinely for convenience and image as well as policy.The president was insensitive and arrogant -- though unlike brother Bobby, he did not shriek at offending bureaucrats -- even by standards allowing that nice guys rarely become president.

His charm was undeniable. JFK's facade of vigor when he was in agony was remarkably courageous. Although he and Bobby Kennedy were infuriated by unfavorable reporting, they had few occasions to complain. Reporters were entranced, and some forgot every principle of journalism in the glow from the prince.

Women flopped in front of him by the score, courtesans and actresses and the wives of acquaintances. Marilyn Monroe, not long before she died, became a problem by boasting of her affair with the president and claiming that her ministrations made his back feel better.

JFK propositioned on a whim, and was rarely rebuffed. I recall the night a Secret Service agent pulled aside the reporter I was chatting with at a Washington reception. She returned to simper, "He wants me," and left with the agent. Then-journalistic practice overlooked private lives of public people unless behavior damaged public performance. I did not report, as I might have found a way to do, that the Secret Service was pimping for the president.

There were triumphs, of course. The greatest was Khrushchev's retreat in the Cuba missile crisis, though some argue that Kennedy had emboldened Khrushchev by mishandling their )R Vienna meeting and the Bay of Pigs. JFK crushed the steel companies when they double-crossed him on pricing.

Even the building of the Berlin Wall was a perverse success. It was probably the least dangerous solution to East Germany's brain drain. Khrushchev had to act, and anything bolder could have been catastrophic. With perfect cynicism, the administration cheered privately while denouncing the Wall publicly.

But cynicism is best left unpraised. For two years, Kennedy tried to discourage the civil rights movement, fearing alienation of the South from his legislation and re-election. Historians will speculate for more decades about the results had JFK addressed the civil rights struggle.

The greatest disaster, of course, was Vietnam. Partly out of hubris, partly from endless wrongheaded counsel -- much of it deliberately distorted by the generals -- Kennedy sank deeper and deeper into Southeast Asia. Some of the advice was given with at least minimal honesty. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara apparently did not fully realize until after Kennedy's death that his beloved data recording progress in Vietnam were mostly false. Even then, he left the record uncorrected. No credible evidence supports the true believers who argue passionately that Kennedy meant to leave Vietnam without victory.

Mr. Reeves closes with a searing, spare entry from the White House record of what the president said and did each day: "At approximately 12:30 (CST) he was struck by two bullets fired by an assassin. The President was declared dead at 1 P.M. at the Parkland Hospital in Dallas." But it is impossible to leave this book without putting it in today's context.

One lesson of Vietnam was that we must avoid committing forces piecemeal. Another was to honor national interest. We followed those lessons in the Persian Gulf. But now we are in Somalia, piecemeal, without a clear national interest, and we are thinking of doing it in the Balkans. President Clinton says we'll be out of Somalia by next spring, and of course many elements are different. They always are.

One theory of Mr. Clinton's admirers is that George Bush deliberately dumped an impossible commitment on Clinton. Some say Dwight Eisenhower did it to JFK with the Bay of Pigs. But one still wonders whether Ike, whose meticulous organization offended JFK, would have encountered JFK's problems had he remained in office. And one wonders what lessons Mr. Clinton is drawing from his predecessors.

Mr. Trewhitt is a former diplomatic correspondent for The Sun. He teaches journalism at the University of New Mexico.

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