Profile in Cowardice: How JFK Had Us Fooled

The Kennedy legacy can be summed up in a single word: “image.” And John Kennedy had the most favorable image any American politician ever enjoyed. While he lived, he seemed dashing, urbane, vital, courageous, even heroic. He had been a war hero, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for history. His wholesome good looks attracted women and were the envy of other men, but he also appeared a devoted Catholic family man. Courtier intellectuals—and a far larger number of would-be courtier intellectuals—sang his praises fulsomely. And when he was murdered, he became a national martyr whose memory was invoked by liberals and even, more recently, by conservatives he himself had stigmatized as “extremists.” His legacy then was one of undefined “idealism.” His brother Robert and Lyndon Johnson fought fiercely over the moral succession.

But even while he lived, there were doubters. Liberals of conviction didn’t trust him; they discerned a lack of real principle in him. Eleanor Roosevelt never got over his failure to denounce Joe McCarthy; Kennedy had missed the Senate’s 1954 censure vote, pleading illness, and remained noncommittal as long as he could. His constant calls for action rang a little hollow, with their talk of “vigor” and “getting this country moving again.” And there were those who sneered that he was nothing more than the puppet of his rich father.

The detractors didn’t know the half of it. Chief among them was the late Victor Lasky, whose book JFK: The Man and the Myth gathered up all the unfavorable information available while Kennedy lived. The book was dismissed by the doting liberals who reviewed it as a “scissors-and-paste job.” The same dismissal is now being applied to Thomas C. Reeves’ A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy (published by Free Press), which has nevertheless moved quietly onto the best-seller lists.

The flippancy was unfair to Lasky. He was countering the carefully wrought “image” with a barrage of uncontested data. Working under the handicap of the special protection Kennedy was still receiving in the media, he was trying to put public knowledge into a whole new perspective. It was a brave effort, and it took remarkable diligence. Lasky had the misfortune to publish his book shortly before the Dallas murder, and he came out looking, if not like a party to assassination, at least a mean-spirited carper who refused to recognize the greatness of his subject.

Reeves, doing much the same thing, has the advantage of three decades of retrospect, which have abounded in damaging disclosures about the whole Kennedy family. Though he is a convinced liberal himself, Reeves has the further advantage that the liberal near-monopoly of published opinion, along with many of its taboos, has been shattered. It is now possible to write with relative freedom on some sensitive subjects. Even liberals can benefit from the new liberty.

The Kennedy saga, as Reeves tells it, is embarrassing. It is the story of how a great nation was had. The worst of it is that it’s an unfinished story. The Kennedy residue is still with us, and we have no guarantee that the experience is unrepeatable. In fact, the many revelations that should have devastated the Kennedy “image” have done little to damage the Kennedy power or undo the harm the Kennedys have done. Edward Kennedy, a man of shameful character, remains one of the most powerful men in the United States, and younger Kennedys are still coming at us at an alarming rate.

The center of the story is not John Kennedy but Joseph. The old man was a Vodigy of ambition who recalls Lyndon Johnson, as depicted by Robert Caro. Like Johnson, he had a powerful will, great cunning, and a sense of purpose uncompromised by any scruples whatsoever.

Snubbed by Boston’s Anglo-Saxon Brahmins, Joe Kennedy resolved to rise as high as he could. He made a huge fortune in bootlegging and other enterprises, married well (he was the sort of man who didn’t seem to care that he was married unhappily), and worked his way into politics.

His personal conduct was reprehensible. Apart from his crooked business dealings, he was indefatigably unfaithful to his wife. During the period of his Hollywood investments he acquired the actress Gloria Swanson as his mistress; when she became pregnant, she got an abortion. He made another mistress part of his household, moving her in with his family for months.

Yet Kennedy never left the Catholic Church; he always attended Mass regularly. He even tried to persuade Church authorities to allow him to keep both a wife and a mistress, an absurdly immoral request that was of course refused. It’s a measure of his arrogance that he actually thought he could get the Church to set aside its traditions and condone his vices.

Kennedy became Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to the Court of Saint James despite his hatred of the English and his Nazi sympathies. Roosevelt saw that he aspired to the presidency in 1940 and cut him down to size. Kennedy then transferred his ambition to his oldest son. Joseph Jr. seems to have been made of the same stuff as his father, but he was killed in World War II, when the plane he was piloting exploded on take off. The old man bitterly blamed his death on Roosevelt, whom he referred to as “the son of a bitch who killed my son.”

John Kennedy thereupon became the reluctant bearer of his father’s hopes. Jack was a sickly boy with a congenital back problem that would later be blamed on his (exaggerated) wartime heroism. When his health permitted, he pursued his only known ambition: chasing women. At Harvard he was an indifferent student, but his father engineered a ghost-written book with his name on it titled Why England Slept and gave it sufficient promotion to make it a best-seller; thus Jack, who could barely spell, became a famous author in his early twenties. After the war he did as his father told him and entered Congress, his affair with a beautiful suspected Nazi agent having been hushed up with the usual well-placed payments. Jack didn’t look ahead, but old Joe did: his eye was always on the White House.

Jack served in Congress languidly, shall we say, but in 1952 he ran for the Senate and whipped Henry Cabot Lodge with the help of what was now the formidable family machine. In 1954, hospitalized with Addison’s disease (which nearly killed him), he ducked the big McCarthy censure vote, pleading illness. (All the other Democrats in the Senate voted for censure, but Joe was strongly pro-McCarthy, so Jack abstained from any public commitment for years.) He—or rather the machine—lied about the illness, saying it was a flare-up of his wartime injury to his back, sustained during his heroics aboard PT-109.

Jack had charm, good looks, and a sense of humor about himself. This seems to be the exhaustive list of his virtues. But his father was assembling a court of intellectuals for him, led by the brilliant young lawyer Theodore Sorenson, who endowed Kennedy’s previously humdrum speeches with a certain eloquence. Out of the Kennedy cenacle came a second book, Profiles in Courage, a series of homiletic mini-biographies of politicians who had stood firmly for their principles at great personal sacrifice; the implication, of course, being that Jack himself was such a man. Against some stiff competition from serious historical works that year, this modest volume won a Pulitzer Prize, again thanks to Joe’s well-placed greenery. The young playboy was now established as a shining intellect of the Senate.

In 1956 he starred at the Democratic convention and nearly became Adlai Stevenson’s running mate. He was now a national figure, ready to make an early bid for the presidency. He had also married Jacqueline Bouvier, whose glamour was a further asset to his career.

It was typical of Jack that he nearly wasted this asset with his relentless philandering. His vice reached its nadir in 1956. Immediately after the convention, he left Jackie at home while he took a vacation on a yacht in the Mediterranean, with a male pal and several girls. (He liked to share his bed with two at a time.) While he was at play, word reached him that his child had been stillborn. He delayed leaving for home for three days. Joe barely succeeded in dissuading Jackie, who had nearly died during the delivery, from divorcing him. Jack inspired much more feeling than he felt.

Publicly, of course, Jack had his image: he was a happy young family man, devout Catholic, war hero, intellectual, and athlete, funneling all his gifts into political leadership. In reality, he was barely keeping up appearances in the role his father had assigned him. “I guess Dad has decided that he’s going to be the ventriloquist,” he told one confidant, “so I guess that leaves me the role of dummy.” If he had strayed too far from his father’s will, Jack would have been without the means to sustain the lifestyle to which he had become accustomed. Though he had one of the Senate’s worst attendance records, the family hirelings burnished the image and created an aura of destiny about him. The speeches Sorenson wrote for him were always full of calls to action and summonses to sacrifice.

Jack’s moment of destiny, such as it was, arrived in 1960. I was 14 then, and I remember being wild about him, like so many young people. His religion was a central issue, and he used it adroitly. His speeches were finely calculated to win liberal sympathy, to activate Catholic loyalty, and to shame Protestants into not holding his faith against him. Little did the public know how true was his pledge that his Catholicism wouldn’t get in the way of his performance.

It was many years later that we learned what had gone into his election to the presidency—mostly his father’s immense wealth (in today’s dollars Joe would be a billionaire), invested with cynical wisdom where it would do the most good. Frank Sinatra and his gangster friends lent a helpful hand in the crucial West Virginia primary and, in November, in Chicago, where their ballot-box mischief may have provided the margin of victory in one of the closest of all elections; Joe Kennedy had mob ties of long standing. Jack’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Lyndon Johnson, saw clearly that his real antagonist was not Jack but Joe. Johnson was enticed to accept second place on the ticket only after a stormy battle behind the scenes at the Los Angeles convention.

Even after the election, Jack was taking orders from Joe. When Clark Clifford urged him not to appoint his brother Robert (who relished the political infighting Jack shrank from) as attorney general, Jack replied, “You’ll have to talk to my father about that.” Unlike Jack, Bobby had their father’s drive and cruelty. But he also had much deeper family loyalty than Jack.

Jack was an insubstantial president. As Reeves makes even clearer than it already was, his chief interest as leader of the free world remained women. Sinatra introduced him to Marilyn Monroe, who was passed on to Bobby when Jack was through with her. She’d been deluded, or convinced herself, that Jack would divorce Jackie and make her First Lady; after that dream ended, she and Bobby once went in disguise to a nudist beach together (just how they managed this, Reeves doesn’t explain).

But the Kennedy image was unaffected by all this. As Bobby crusaded against organized crime (leaving many of the family’s underworld associates feeling double-crossed), Jack and Jackie brought “class” and “culture” to the White House, filling it with a stream of notable musicians, intellectuals, artists, and actors. Only a few intellectuals, left and right, demurred from the media purring over Jack, and they were considered marginal or extreme.

The public, of course, had no inkling of his lascivious private life or his raw private conversation or his view—it would have been astounding then—that abortion was a good solution to “problems.” Yet, these things weren’t entirely concealed. Ben Bradlee of Newsweek (later the editor of the Washington Post) knew all about them, as others must have; he wrote a memoir of Jack, Conversations with Kennedy, that came as a shocking revision of the “image” at its publication in 1974, though it told far less than Bradlee actually was privy to.

The price of proximity was complicity. Those in the press who wanted to be close to Jack had to connive in maintaining the “image.” We will never know how many journalists Joe bought with outright cash payments, but most of those who acted as Kennedy courtiers no doubt did it for nothing more than access to the royal presence. And others followed their lead. Hundreds knew about his rascally amours and his affair with Monroe, but the stories didn’t emerge until long after his death. A generation—now Washington’s senior generation of courtier journalists—was seduced, and they still have a stake in upholding as much of the Kennedy mythology as can be plausibly maintained.

One of the true charms of Kennedy’s memory is his sense of irony about himself. It was both winning and entertaining. But it also served a practical purpose. Seeming to take his image seriously would have been pressing his luck: pomposity or self-importance would have invited the deflation he must have feared. As his remark about being his father’s “dummy” shows, he had no illusions about himself. He played his imposed role uneasily; he was always essentially Joe’s puppet and Joe Jr.’s understudy, pushed unexpectedly onstage. He knew his poses of leadership were all a sort of joke.

Kennedy was the most mendacious president since Franklin Roosevelt, but he lied with a fetching wink to the boys in the front row. He courted the press with private interviews, lunches, conversations, exclusives, leaks. But there were some things even his press pals most likely didn’t suspect. He maintained contact with Sam Giancana and other gangsters, enlisting them in his effort to assassinate Fidel Castro. From the Bay of Pigs invasion to the Cuban missile crisis, his presidency centered darkly around Cuba, and was only beginning to shift toward Vietnam at the time of his death. Though he had a penchant for secret foreign policy machinations, he pursued them indecisively—in contrast to his public image of resolution. He deceived and misled the American public on numberless occasions.

Reeves finds all this troubling, and troubling it is. My summary of the salient facts sounds more damning than his full account does. He clearly likes Kennedy, in spite of his own deep reservations, and he tells the story without malice. But he has some difficulty putting his finger on the moral of the story. Just how is Kennedy’s weak character related to his public performance? Are his personal vices—especially his favorite one—pertinent to a judgment of his presidency?

Reeves rightly points out that Kennedy was vulnerable to blackmail—as various mafiosi, fully aware of the Monroe affair, understood keenly. Had he lived longer, his presidency might well have ended in the most sensational scandal in American history. And at times his womanizing took him to rendezvous where he was unreachable in the event of a sudden military crisis. We were lucky.

But beyond that, the real Kennedy stands in near total contrast to everything he and his sycophants pretended he was, and to everything Americans like to believe about their leaders. Reeves’s copious quotations from Kennedy’s courtiers, especially Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., fill the reader with a mixture of hilarity and contempt. On Reeves’s showing, Schlesinger has a firm grip on the world record for intellectual self-abasement. Read him and roar.

Does it really matter if a president is—”privately”—a tireless lecher? The question is hard to answer firmly in an age when the state itself has blurred the old lines between public and private. (In the liberal order, sex is supposedly a strictly private matter, yet we have public sex education, a public preoccupation with everything from abortion to AIDS, and a drive for “gay rights” that seeks to make private “discrimination,” even if motivated by moral conviction, illegal.)

John Kennedy was the product of an age when presidents were expected to be at least exemplary and preferably heroic. The divinization of the “leader”—as distinct from the mere constitutional executive—prods men into pretense; but in Kennedy’s case the pretense was undertaken with systematic, almost industrial energy. He was trying to fulfill an unhealthy expectation. The effort was bound to be phony, even if it turned out to be far worse than it should have been.

The real scandal is how many people in key positions, in both government and the media, were willingly compromised. They remain compromised. Many in the press tried to atone for their sins by being tougher on subsequent presidents, and Johnson and Nixon, who were easy enough to hate, resented the unfairness of it all, knowing how much Kennedy had gotten away with. There is no easy way to settle such accounts; but then, few journalists have ever been forced to resign in disgrace. What’s depressing, if you think about it too much, is that the Kennedys’ conduct may not have been as reckless as it looks in retrospect. They had a calculated assurance of what they could get away with, based on their moral estimate of the people who knew what they were really like, and the estimate appears to have been all too accurate.

Power corrupts, all right. It corrupts not only those who have it but those who are attracted by it; or maybe it attracts those who are already corrupt in their hearts, before they have had a chance to prove it in action. The Kennedys were shrewd enough to understand both that intellectuals and wordsmiths were political assets and that they had their price, just like union bosses. Joe and Jack assembled a brain trust of brainy trusties.

In their way, Kennedy’s sycophants and press courtiers have gotten away with more than he did. Ben Bradlee never became president, but he lived on, when his friend was dead, to become the very emblem of fearless journalistic integrity standing up to power; Arthur Schlesinger is still going strong, pecking out the lessons of history and discoursing authoritatively on public virtue; Ted Sorenson is still around, knocking down a handsome salary somewhere. As Jack himself said, “Life is unfair.” It was a truth that might have stood as the moral of his amoral life, with a terrible twist at its last moment. As of November 21, 1963, he was about the luckiest boy in American history.

Driving the whole unedifying story was his father’s maniacal ambition. Joe Kennedy lived to see his ambition realized. What he didn’t foresee was that he would live on to see an unbearable aftermath. Barely a year after Jack’s election, the patriarch suffered a severe stroke, whose effects may have been worsened by his wife’s failure to get him immediate medical attention. (Even when he was hospitalized, she went swimming and golfing before she got around to visiting him.) He spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, unable to move or talk, but all too comprehending when Jack was murdered, then Bobby. He was still helplessly lucid when Teddy plunged off a bridge in a car, drowning a girl and ending any prospect of another Kennedy presidency. He had plenty of time to reflect on whether it was all worth it.

  • Joseph Sobran

    Michael Joseph Sobran, Jr. (1946 - 2010) was an American journalist and writer, formerly with National Review and a syndicated columnist, known as Joe Sobran. Pundit Pat Buchanan called Sobran "perhaps the finest columnist of our generation".

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