Intellectualising the glossy

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Power point John F Kennedy with his children Caroline and John F Kennedy (Jr)
Power point John F Kennedy with his children Caroline and John F Kennedy (Jr). Photo: AFP

He was good-looking; he was intelligent; he was born rich; he attended the best schools and arguably, the best university in the world; he married a woman reputed to be one of the most beautiful in the world; she was also rich and intelligent; he was a war-hero; Hollywood hailed him by making a movie about his real-life war exploits; he was immensely popular; he aspired to the world’s most powerful office and he achieved his aspiration; he died young; his death was followed and mourned around the world; it was as if he was privileged even in his death; he became a heroic martyr; the Greeks would have said “he was chosen by the gods; he was blessed with the puff of heaven”. John F Kennedy was, and is, larger than life and certainly his myth prevails over his death.

It turns out that Kennedy was also a writer of repute. He made a place for himself as a scholarly thoughtful historian, who made it to the bestseller lists. A book he wrote as an undergraduate — Why England Slept — made it to the bestseller list and another book — Profiles in Courage — won a Pulitzer Prize. So a book of his “collected letters” must be of interest to all who study the history of the twentieth century and to all who are on the prowl to try and find heroes of the kind Carlyle idealised. It is with this in mind that Martin Sandler, a history professor with the University of Massachusetts, has gone about putting together this book.

Unfortunately for Sandler, there is a phenomenon in history-writing known as “revisionism”. Achilles and Hector could easily be the subjects of hagiographical accounts. It is much more difficult to do that with American presidents, especially those of recent vintage. The attempt to use his correspondence to present Kennedy in consistently favourable light fails, simply because there has been considerable scholarship to show that the Kennedy myth may in fact be a bit of a hoax. It is surprising that Sandler thinks that he can get away by elliptically gliding past the many uncomfortable questions that have been raised over the past few decades about the games that were played in order to create a suspect Camelot in the sixties of the last century on the banks of the Potomac.

It is not just the selection of letters, all of which tend to be “positive” apropos of the subject, but the interjections that Sandler himself makes, which should be a source of cynical amusement for the objective reader. Sandler’s disingenuousness starts in the first chapter. This is what he has to say about John Kennedy’s father: “His father Joseph, after working his way through Harvard, had become a multimillionaire, first by being elected, at the age of twenty-five, as the youngest bank president in America and then by establishing a number of thriving businesses ranging from investment and financial firms to a motion picture company”. Now, from reading this sentence, would anyone have ever guessed that one of Joe Kennedy’s most profitable firms involved the import of “liquor”?

There is no mention of the fact that Joe Kennedy approached Harold Laski to write an introduction for Why England Slept. Laski refused, calling it the product of an “immature” mind and a book, which would never have found a publisher if the writer was not the son of a rich man. The Pulitzer Prize for Profiles in Courage is mentioned with cloying admiration. No reference to the fact that it is now widely conceded that many of the chapters of the book were in fact ghost-written by Ted Sorensen; we are not told that the book in fact was never nominated for the Prize — it won the prize without getting on the nomination list, largely on account of the fact that “papa Joe” lobbied with one Mr Arthur Krock to persuade the Awards Committee to give the prize to “sonny John’s book” anyway.

The trouble with Sandler’s approach is that unless you are a Kennedy groupie, the whole book is a dead giveaway. Quoting selective letters that make your subject look good is never that easy. The written word has a habit of coming back to bite you where you least expect it to. John’s letter to his father giving him political advice can be seen as an expression of filial loyalty. Others will note that early in his life John Kennedy was getting to be quite good at political sophistry. He gives his father uniformly clever (sly?) advice as to how he can defend himself despite being painted into a political corner as an appeaser and a “Nazi sympathiser”. The future President of the US seems to have had a natural gift for spin-doctoring! The letter to Thomas Murray where Kennedy appears to be extremely sober with respect to nuclear arms can make the reader conclude that Kennedy was a peace-lover. The fact is around the same time, Kennedy was running a vicious and largely unfounded campaign against the Republicans for having allowed a non-existent “missile gap” to develop vis-à-vis the Soviets.

Letters from, and to recognised “intellectuals” like Schlesinger and Galbraith are meant to impress us. But some things do fall between the cracks. For instance, Blair Clark has this to say in a letter dated August 1960: “…you come from an impressive political background; I think most intelligent people now look on the Democratic city “bosses” as essential links between the immigrants and the cold and careless political establishment of those days. If there were crooks among them there were at least as many among the bankers and business men…”. John Kennedy doubtless understood. Not only was his father Joe a banker, but his family was very close to Chicago’s democratic boss, Richard Daley, who we now know, almost certainly engineered ballot-box stuffing, which ensured that Kennedy won Illinois and the US presidency. Mr Sandler, your best efforts cannot protect your flawed and questionable hero!

Letters of John F. Kennedy Edited by: Martin W. Sandler Bloomsbury 384 pp; Rs 499
Letters of John F. Kennedy Edited by: Martin W. Sandler Bloomsbury 384 pp; Rs 499

The letters and the numerous telegrams that follow Kennedy’s presidential election are slightly less amusing because they get more and more cloying as the book proceeds. Again, Sandler tells us that “Kennedy’s inaugural address is widely regarded as one of the greatest speeches of its kind every delivered”. When he uses the clause “of its kind”, is he referring to ghost-written speeches, one wonders! The Cuban crisis gets full coverage, mostly by way of telegrams and once more the case is made that our handsome American president both “endured and prevailed”. Alternate versions of that strange superpower encounter are, of course, conveniently ignored. On Vietnam, Sandler tries hard to defend his subject. The wording of Sandler’s question: “Would he have pursued the disastrous course taken by his successors Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon” is Machiavellian. Associating Johnson and Nixon with the word “disastrous” gives Kennedy an alibi. There is no reference to the fact that the foundation for the disaster was created by Kennedy. The person who comes out as prescient is Khrushchev when he writes to Kennedy as follows: “I as well as many other people feel rightly puzzled — how one can support a man like Ngo Dinh Diem with his bloody regime who completely lost the respect of the people?” No Kennedy admirer has sought to explain why the Roman Catholic Diem was first supported with so much firepower and then callously abandoned? Perhaps therein may lie a better understanding of America’s disastrous encounter in Vietnam, and not just in the sins of Kennedy’s successors.

The book is full of letters and telegrams demonstrating Kennedy’s great support for Civil Rights. Of course, it is common knowledge that Kennedy’s greatest contribution to this movement was always and only by way of symbolism. The individual who actually piloted the Civil Rights Legislation through the US Congress and who actually signed it into law was Lyndon Johnson, who to our knowledge never won a Pulitzer Prize, deservedly or otherwise.

But enough of being churlish. Surely, the readers of the book will feel happy to note that Prince Rainier of the Postage Stamp Principality of Monaco sent President Kennedy a telegram congratulating the President and on astronaut John Glenn’s successful space flight. No doubt this telegram, Yorktown, Gettysburg and D-day all put together are sure proof of the greatness of the United States and of its great President Kennedy.

(The reviewer is a Mumbai-based entrepreneur)

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