In historical memory we think of them as an embattled band of brothers, a posse of horned-rim intellectuals and pretentious overachievers. In reality they fought like scorpions with each other and, perhaps not often enough, with the president himself. The Kennedy insiders were masters of political infighting,
Robert Dallek, the presidential historian who already has examined the Kennedy years, returns for an encore in “Camelot’s Court,” a look at the advisers to the 35th president, men who became as much a legend as Camelot itself, in part because they wrote so many books about Kennedy, often starring themselves. In an illuminating and often reputation-busting look at these men, Dallek sees “the vanity of egotistical men who felt slighted by any rejection of their outlook when they were pushed aside, and many of them were.”
That remark underlines how unsparing a look at the Kennedy administration Dallek provides. It was often said that Lyndon Johnson knew the weaknesses of the Kennedy team, but few mainstream historians have the Geiger counter for shallowness and fecklessness that Dallek possesses, and in several instances he aims it at the president himself.
He begins with two predicates not always acknowledged: that Kennedy was preeminently interested in foreign affairs (that’s where presidential reputations often are made, after all) and that he hoped his staff would take on “the sometimes thankless work that carried risks to their reputations and peace of mind” (a mostly unrequited wish).
Despite his emphasis on national security, Kennedy entered the presidential transition with “astonishingly little certainty” about whom he might choose to head the State and Defense departments. That may not be where the trouble started, but it indicated the kind of trouble there would be.
He appointed Robert S. McNamara to the Pentagon even though the Ford Motor Co. wunderkind told the president-elect he was unqualified for the job; Kennedy didn’t think the secretary of defense made much difference one way or the other. He settled on Dean Rusk to run the State Department because he regarded the Georgian as “the sort of man who would take orders without complaint,” and in any case he regarded the agency as “a sort of prehistoric beast that lumbered along with no discernible contribution to the national well-being.”
But he knew he wanted Theodore Sorensen and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. on board, mostly because he thought they might constitute what Dallek characterizes as “a kind of intellectual blood bank that provided progressive ideas.”
All this may seem like the notions of an extremely naive man, and a recipe for disaster, and in the beginning, at least, it was both.
Sorensen, along with Kenneth P. O’Donnell, Lawrence O’Brien, Pierre Salinger, and Dave Powers, moved seamlessly from the campaign to the administration, and Dallek’s once-over-lightly approach to them suggests, rightly, that while pols might be part of the palace guard, the principal figure in the administration was going to be Kennedy himself, determined, in Dallek’s view, to show “no hint of a belief that he was too uncertain of himself to exercise the powers of the presidency.”
Dallek, who moves through the Kennedy years in a chronological manner, interspersed with several miniature profiles, is perhaps the least sentimental of all the writers whose books are timed with this fall’s half-century commemoration of the president’s assassination.
Of Schlesinger and his expressed but reluctant support of the Bay of Pigs plan, he says: “It is an example of a brilliant critic who sacrificed his independent judgment to the attractions of continuing access to power.” Overall in his comportment in the affair, Dallek says, Schlesinger “may have ingratiated [himself] with the president but [did] no credit to his historical reputation.’’
But it doesn’t end there. Kennedy clearly resented the notion that Schlesinger had privately opposed the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy: “Oh, sure, Arthur wrote me a memorandum that will look pretty good when he gets around to writing his book on my administration. Only he better not publish that memorandum while I’m still alive.”
Another figure who fares poorly, though perhaps more in Kennedy’s eyes than in Dallek’s, is the much-forgotten but once much-admired Chester Bowles, a voice for a negotiated political settlement in Vietnam. Dean Acheson regarded him as “a garrulous windbag and an ineffectual do-gooder,” which was not inconsistent with the view of both John and Robert Kennedy, who never forgave Bowles for being right about the Bay of Pigs — and then for blabbing all over the capital that he had been.
Unresolved questions hover above any examination of the Kennedy years, especially this one, preoccupied as it is with men who so promiscuously peddled their own versions of what might have been. Dallek believes Kennedy learned much from his thousand days, a period when the phrase “the best and the brightest” didn’t yet have a stinging, ironic ring. “[H]e learned that even the brightest and most well meaning of advisers misjudge a situation and offer poor counsel,” which should have been no revelation, and that the reality is that the are no true experts, “only men and women, with the best of intentions, guessing at what would work.” Good lessons for all presidents.
Ultimately, it was the failure of Kennedy and his Camelot court — and their good intentions and best guesses — to understand the character and the course of the conflict in Vietnam. “No one close to Kennedy,” Dallek writes, “cared to hear dissenting opinions about progress in the war in the press or from embassy officials or military advisers observing the combat.”
The good news always got through, the bad almost never, and so command decisions were made more on the basis of hope than on evidence or experience. We constantly are in search of the lessons of Vietnam, but maybe this is the most important one: In military and political affairs as in economic matters, hope is not a strategy, no matter how smart your advisers are.David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.