U.S. presidents are the specialty of historian Robert Dallek.
He’s a prolific author who’s written about FDR, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Reagan and Truman, among others. And his latest book, released this week, continues that tradition.
“Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House" is an up-close look at the elite group of advisors in the John F. Kennedy administration, a circle of men – and they were all men – who collectively earned the nickname “the best and the brightest.”
Robert Dallek speaks with WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer about his new book.
Robert Dallek, a recently retired Professor of History at Boston University who has previously taught at Columbia University, UCLA and Oxford. His new book is Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.
Some presidents hold an endless fascination for Americans: Washington, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and more recently John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. The public’s interest has a lot to do with its craving for heroes or, probably more important, its wish to understand and revel in what constitutes effective leadership. In a nation that often feels adrift in an uncertain world, where domestic and foreign crises repeatedly endanger the country’s well-being, great presidents are a comfort—a sort of salve for the national psyche.
The affinity for presidential heroes goes far to explain a 2010 Gallup poll asking Americans to assess the last nine presidents from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. The survey gave Kennedy an astonishing 85 percent approval rating; only Reagan was in hailing distance of him, with 74 percent. In 2003, having published An Unfinished Life, a biography of Kennedy, I lived with the proposition that you write a book to forget a subject. But the poll rekindled my interest in Kennedy’s leadership. In my first go-round on Kennedy’s presidency, I saw ample reason for enthusiasm about parts of his performance, but 85 percent? Did the public have a better understanding of his leadership than I did? What was I missing? I understand that his assassination at the age of forty-six gives him a special hold on the country’s sympathy. Moreover, his personal attributes and inspirational call for national commitments viewed in contrast to the flawed Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and two Bush administrations have heightened Kennedy’s attractiveness. Still, the public’s conviction that he was so outstanding a chief on par with Washington, Lincoln, and the two Roosevelts is open to question.
Perhaps the best way to understand and assess Kennedy’s presidential performance is through his interactions with the men whom Ted Sorensen, his speechwriter and political adviser, called his “Ministry of Talent.” They were an extraordinary group of academics, businessmen, lawyers, foreign policy and national security experts, and career military officers who advised Kennedy in the many crises they confronted during his thousand-day presidency. Their focus was on the dangers to the country’s safety posed by communist challenges in the Western Hemisphere, Europe, and Southeast Asia. They counseled Kennedy on the critical decisions that could make a difference between war and peace.
The backgrounds, aspirations, convictions, and judgments of the men around Kennedy are an essential part of understanding why and how they advised him.
Each in his own way was a combatant in a struggle to persuade the president that he had the best—if not always the right—answer to the various intimidating challenges they faced at home and particularly abroad, where the danger of a catastrophic war was constantly before them. They fought with each other—sometimes angrily, fearful that the opposing views of their colleagues could lead to disaster. Their passion was the product of genuine concern to serve the country and prevent the ultimate world catastrophe. But it also reflected the vanity of egotistical men who felt slighted by any rejection of their outlook when they were pushed aside, and several of them were. Kennedy took no pleasure in slighting them, but he saw the stakes as so high that he could not afford to tread lightly or put personal feelings ahead of hard decisions. He took comfort from knowing that every administration had its share of conflicts and unhappy advisers and that he had not forced any of them to assume the burdens of office.
Much of the White House tension sprang from the administration’s focus on painfully difficult foreign policy questions. Yet Kennedy could not ignore domestic conflicts. They roiled the nation’s stability and forced the president and Robert Kennedy, his brother and principal adviser, to devote attention to internal problems. The Kennedys were not indifferent to homegrown difficulties, especially the plight of African Americans. However privileged they were, as members of a minority group they despised the prejudice against blacks of segregation and wished to eliminate it. But they saw little chance to advance equal rights through Congress as long as southern congressmen and senators chaired crucial committees. By putting civil rights aside until 1963 or aiming for marginal gains through executive action, they hoped to pass other domestic reforms that could benefit all Americans, including African Americans.
Given existing conditions and the president’s affinity for foreign affairs, however, the administration made domestic change a secondary priority. The main mission of the White House was to inhibit communist advance and avert a nuclear war. Immediately after the Cuban Bay of Pigs failure, in language the latter would understand, Kennedy told Richard Nixon, who shared his conviction about national priorities, “It really is true that foreign affairs is the only important issue for a president to handle, isn’t it? I mean, who gives a shit if the minimum wage is $1.15 or $1.25, in comparison to something like this?” On more than one occasion, Kennedy said domestic politics can unseat you, but foreign dangers can kill you. The extent to which this outlook dominated Kennedy’s thinking is reflected in the many, almost daily, meetings he held with officials from the State and Defense departments, the CIA, and Pentagon as compared to the occasional discussions he had with those responsible for managing domestic affairs.
The Kennedy who will emerge from the pages of this book is an astute judge of character and reasoned policy. He was an imperfect man whose foibles made him receptive to some bad advice that triggered misjudgments. Moreover, although I can imagine different outcomes in a second term, Cuba and Vietnam demonstrated his limited capacity to overcome all the foreign policy challenges of his thousand days. But these shortcomings were only a part of the story. His attribute as a quick learner helped make him an effective leader, particularly in restraining the actions of his military chiefs during crises that could have resulted in a nuclear war. His successes eclipsed the failings of his thousand days.
Kennedy’s interactions with his Ministry of Talent not only enrich our understanding of his presidency; they also serve as useful cautionary tales for voters considering future aspirants to the Oval Office and judging those candidates’ ability to meet the day-to-day problems of governing. Above all, the story of Kennedy and his advisers may remind us that the men and women we entrust with power are talented public servants who occasionally fall short of what we hope they will achieve but deserve our regard for assuming the heavy burdens of responsibility that come to every administration.
This segment aired on October 9, 2013.