The Letters of John F. Kennedy, edited by Martin W. Sandler, Bloomsbury, RRP£20/$30, 384 pages

Yes, like everyone else alive on November 22 1963 I remember just where I was when I heard the news of JFK’s assassination, but that’s neither here nor there. Much more telling is how old I was: 18. When we claimed him as “our” president even though, like most of the world dropping into grief, we weren’t American, we meant that he was the torch carrier, as he had put it in that inauguration speech, of “a new generation”. Even though, as a matter of fact it wasn’t ours at all. Mercifully, we had just missed the war; he had served heroically, and bore the pains and marks of the wreck of torpedo boat PT-109 on his prematurely ravaged body. But he wore that heroism laconically, with the shrug and the toothy grin; closer in temper to MASH than to the military martinets. We thought he had been burned enough by war to flinch from the gung-ho adventurism of the old. And despite the appalling recklessness of the Bay of Pigs, the indeterminate meddling in Vietnam and the brinkmanship of the missile crisis, we continued to think that.

It is true that much of the attraction lay in the symbolism of style: the young leader who made the political establishment look old hat, by refusing to wear one. According to his photographer Jacques Lowe (whose book of freshly revealing pictures of the White House years, My Kennedy Years: A Memoir, was published in September), the headgear aversion during the campaign of 1960 panicked the hat manufacturers of America, who took every opportunity to press fedoras or snap brim trilbies on him at campaign stops.

Kennedy knew better than to hide his wiry Irish mop beneath a titfer. It was the crest, the crown, the brand. Everything about him was calculated to give the impression of an almost casual ease beneath the weight of power: the splashing around on Cape Cod; the kid daughter romping through the Oval Office, the droll wit which came as naturally to him as his habitual satyrism. Of the acute physical pain, the relentless drug treatments, the hospital visits, Addison’s disease, spastic colitis we knew nothing. Horsing around with the brothers and the children on the Massachusetts beach, he was President Fine Fettle, rough-house glamour with the bonus of brains. When we looked around at our own politicians we saw pipes, tweeds, the brandy snifter or the mug of tea. So of course we took his murder personally, angry at being robbed of the merry mind; a big chunk of the future blown away in the Dallas motorcade. Norman Mailer spoke for all of us when he said, “For a time we felt the country was ours. Now it’s theirs again.”

A lot of the Best and Brightest who had worked for and with JFK felt much the same way. Nine months after his death, during the 1964 Democratic Convention that was more like a coronation than a nomination for Lyndon Johnson, you could hear the sound of one hand clapping among the survivors of Camelot. A temporary pavilion had been put up on the seaside boardwalk housing the first efforts to raise money and enthusiasm for the Kennedy memorial library to be built on Boston Harbour. But the pineboard structure quickly took on the air of a shrine for inconsolable devotees who would come and look at the already established iconography of the fallen god: Jack photographed from the rear, facing out of the windows of the Oval Office; Jack with Caroline on his shoulders; Jack wearing a white tie in Paris, Jackie in her Givenchy; John-John in his little tailored coat, saluting the coffin on its gun-carriage.

The day before Johnson’s nomination was made official, there was a drinks reception in the shrine and I was smuggled in by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (later Senator for New York), acting as kindly mentor and credentials-supplier to the cheeky student journalist from Cambridge. They were all there, Camelot in the cold, whether they were working now for LBJ or not. The Boston pols – Kenneth O’Donnell and Larry O’Brien, who had been JFK’s political myrmidons and hatchet brigade and who, like Bobby, scarcely bothered to hide their contempt for the new president, the man Jack had called “Uncle Cornpone”. There too was Ted Sorensen, the “special adviser” and speech writer who had given Johnson on Air Force One some words to say when he took the oath of office, though LBJ understandably balked at “I who cannot fill his shoes must occupy his desk.” There was Arthur Schlesinger Jr, bowtied and bespectacled, the Ivy League historian to whom Jack had taken a special shine and brought into the White House for what history could say to the welter of oncoming crises. Schlesinger was already at work on what would be the president’s literary memorial: the thousand-plus pages of A Thousand Days: John F Kennedy in the White House published as early as 1965.

Schlesinger’s was a mountain of a book but whole avalanches of biographies have rolled down through the years; the prim and the prurient, gossip and minute scholarship, the not quite three years of his presidency and everything before examined more exhaustively than any other figure in American public life except Lincoln. You would suppose there can’t possibly be anything more to add, but author and scriptwriter Martin W. Sandler’s just-published The Letters of John F Kennedy, although padded with some anodyne stuff – writers wanting to know if his teeth were false – manages to reveal some sides of JFK we either never knew or had forgotten.

A letter to his married Danish lover Inga Arvad from his wartime station in the Pacific is a fierce reflection on war as “a dirty business”. He seethes at those who talk easily of “beating the Japs if it takes years and a million men, but anyone who talks like that should consider well his words”. He spares her nothing – the engineer so badly burned when the destroyer hit his Patrol Torpedo boat that his “face and hands were just flesh”. “I don't know what it all adds up to, nothing I guess, but you said that you figured I’d go to Texas and write my experiences. I wouldn’t go near a book like that.”

At the other pole of his sensibility, he sends letters of wry, gently rib-poking fun to the many children who write to the White House. To the son (now a very distinguished economist) of the exceptionally tall JK Galbraith (who offered Kennedy some of the best advice he ever got) he wrote on his ninth birthday: “I understand that you were born in the last year of the last Democratic Administration and are now celebrating your ninth birthday in these first two weeks of mine. I hope that the long Republican years have not hurt you too much, that you will grow up to be at least as good a Democrat as your father but possibly of a more convenient size.”

Reading Sandler’s selection is to realise, wistfully, in an age where the form is all but extinct, how much this president enjoyed writing letters, actual personal communications in which his words might mean a great deal to both the modest correspondent and the leader of the Soviet Union, with whom he had established a direct line of correspondence. So he chose those words with impressive care: punchy or gracious, droll or stern, as he wanted; always the articulate expression of an exacting intellect. And although there have been monumental biographies that have steered a course between uncritical hero-worship and take-down muckraking, and while the assassination provides endless copy for conspiracy theorists (Sandler bizarrely gives space to the notion that the Israel’s Mossad might have had a hand in the death), it is still Schlesinger’s book which, for all its romantic infatuation, gets us closest to the vital essence of Jack Kennedy.

In a wonderful passage framed as Jack setting himself out to Jackie before they married in 1953, Schlesinger has him declare his best quality to be curiosity and his worst irritability: “By irritability he meant impatience with the boring, the commonplace and the mediocre. And by curiosity he meant a good deal more than the purely intellectual trait; he meant the hunger for experience which caused him to demand that life be concentrated, vivid and full.”

“He lived at such a pace,” Jacqueline Kennedy said later, “because he wished to know it all.” It also helps that Schlesinger knew how to write a page-turning narrative, beginning with the snowstorm of inauguration week, 1961: “People abandoned their cars in snowdrifts and marched grimly into the gale, heads down, newspapers wrapped around necks and stuffed under coats. And still the snow fell and the wind blew.” And it ends, also in wintry weather, with the bereft historian mourning the fallen and invoking lines by Stephen Spender: “I think continually of those who were truly great …Who wore at their hearts at the fire’s center.”

But was JFK, in fact, “truly great”? Compared with, say, Washington, Lincoln, FDR and, for many Americans, the president whom Rush Limbaugh calls “Ronaldus Maximus”? More to the point perhaps, has the disaster of Vietnam unjustly kept Lyndon Johnson in the shadow of the Kennedy sunlight, notwithstanding the fact that it was he, not his predecessor, who created Medicare for the elderly, secured the passage of civil rights legislation including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (currently under challenge in the courts)?

On Monday an article by Adam Clymer in The New York Times, headlined “Textbooks reassess Kennedy: Putting Camelot Under Siege” reported a steep decline in posthumous esteem, Kennedy polling well behind Reagan and Clinton in assessments of presidential greatness. Textbooks currently being used in highschool history go out of their way to modify the pieties. The rhetoric, they observe, may have been idealistic but Kennedy was an ice-cold pragmatist, forever calculating the political odds when considering using federal power to advance and enforce civil rights for African-Americans. As for his finest hour, the Cuban missile crisis was of his own making since the Bay of Pigs provided Castro and Khrushchev with the perfect pretext to install missiles on the island. Some of this is right; some of it routine revisionism. The most sober and credible reassessment, including all the information you’ll need (if not all you want) about mistresses and maladies, has been provided by the Yale historian Robert Dallek in his monumental 2003 biography An Unfinished Life: John F Kennedy 1917-1963.

But, 50 years later, is coolness enough when we remember what Jack Kennedy was, and how his appearance and violent vanishing made a difference to the US and the world? Somehow the quality that made him unusual – not his physical but his mental energy, his capacity to listen (everyone close to him noted that) to often contradictory advice and then, at least after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, act decisively, gets lost in the predictable attack on the triviality of glamour.

It’s not hard to find moments when what Kennedy did changed things radically. Not least was his determination to take back from the military civilian control of the decision on when to go nuclear in the theatre of conflict. Since the Pentagon had been publishing strategic guidelines presupposing the viability of a world after a nuclear war, and since some of his chiefs of staff were prepared to contemplate it, much to the president’s dismay, this was no small matter. Whether or not the Bay of Pigs had brought about the placement of missiles on Cuba – and since they were offensive ICBMs, this strongly suggests the botched invasion was a pretext rather than cause – Kennedy’s refusal to order an air strike followed by an invasion but to try the graduated strategy of a naval quarantine spared the world a nuclear war. Revisionists like to stress that this led to the increase, not the decrease, of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, as indeed was the case; but it is a truism worth reiterating that the world has never come that close to apocalypse again.

Certainly he was no Profile in Courage when it came to pressing for the civil rights legislation that would end segregation in schools and discrimination in public places. James Farmer and Martin Luther King complained of his reticence when it came to confronting racial “terrorism”, as they rightly put it, in Mississippi and Alabama. But when Kennedy sickened at images of police dogs in Birmingham chewing at the bodies of demonstrators, he decided to make a speech on television that would adopt the cause of civil rights as a national imperative. Since Sorensen only gave him the text of the speech five minutes before he went on air, Kennedy largely improvised. It was one of the greatest things he ever said or did. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution. The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities …One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not freed from social and economic oppression. And the Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all citizens are free.”

Mere rhetoric, not action? But rhetoric is often the precondition of action. That Johnson enacted Medicare (another initiative first broached by Kennedy to Congress in 1961) and accomplished in civil rights legislation what his predecessor preached does not for a moment vitiate the necessity of that prior persuasion. For all his many failings, and his reliance on political ruthlessness (brought to an art by his brother), Kennedy was full of unmistakable warmth rather than hot air. Whatever else he got called it was never cold fish. The letters sent to children who wrote to the White House were penned by someone who took delight, sometimes promiscuous pleasure, in all manner of human company. That was why he took press conferences more regularly and frequently than anyone since, visibly enjoying their cut and thrust; why he could communicate so effectively on television; why in the end people all over the world on that bleak and horrifying day in November 50 years ago felt they had lost a friend. It was not all cosmetic hokum. To have been beautiful was not his accomplishment; to have been, for the most part, right, certainly was.


Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

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