Camelot’s charge

JFK’s Last Hundred Days: An Intimate Portrait of a Great President, by Thurston Clarke, Allen Lane, RRP£20/Penguin Press, RRP$29.95, 448 pages

John F. Kennedy stands fourth in the league table of US presidents who have had books written about them, behind Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The gap is sure to narrow this year as the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination approaches and there will be few, if any, contributions more entertaining and informative than Thurston Clarke’s comprehensive chronological telling of his last 100 days in office.

If the standard view of JFK is that he was a man of infinite promise but limited achievement, the book reminds us exactly how much did happen in that time span and of how many tantalising hints he left behind about his plans for the future, even foreshadowing the war on poverty waged by his successor. Domestically, Lyndon Johnson accomplished many of JFK’s dreams but very much in his name, with one singular exception: the escalation of the half-joined war in Vietnam that JFK had been inclined to end.

The momentous events recorded in JFK’s Last Hundred Days include the Senate ratification of the limited nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union; the bombing deaths of four black girls in a church in Birmingham, Alabama; Martin Luther King’s unforgettable “I have a dream” speech on the Washington Mall; and the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam, a pivotal event in the evolution of that conflict. Simultaneously, JFK was setting in train a groundbreaking civil rights bill, exploring joint lunar missions with the Russians and making improbable secret overtures to Fidel Castro, just a year after the Cuban missile crisis and two after the Bay of Pigs fiasco.

Clarke, the author of two previous works on JFK, also presents persuasive evidence that the death in early August 1963 of his infant son Patrick, born five weeks prematurely, prompted a sea change in the president’s outlook on life. While always consumed by personal ambition and notions of greatness (he was an avid student of Lincoln, Churchill, Napoleon et al), he started musing about a legacy that would benefit his and all other children and not merely his own reputation.

He gave up his compulsive womanising, even turning down a return engagement with Marlene Dietrich, vowing to keep the White House “clean”. He showed a private tenderness to his wife Jackie, the previous absence of which was masked by the glamour of the Camelot they had created. He did not like but did not object to her taking an extended holiday in September, even though he knew part of it would be spent on the yacht of Aristotle Onassis. She told friends she thought her marriage was on a firmer footing than it ever had been.

Political junkies may also appreciate JFK’s cynical willingness to cut deals to serve an end. A prime example concerned the test ban treaty, which he doubted could pass Senate muster by the required two-thirds majority. The opportunity presented itself when Senator Everett Dirksen, the Republican minority leader and a likely opponent of it, asked him if he could stop the Justice Department from bringing a tax fraud action against Sherman Adams, President Dwight Eisenhower’s former chief of staff, who had been forced to resign for accepting an oriental rug and fur coat from a businessman then under federal investigation.

Dirksen suggested he would give JFK a blank cheque, as would Ike, if he could. In Dirksen’s presence, and from the Oval Office, the president ordered the attorney-general, his brother Bobby, to drop the case. RFK objected vehemently, arguing it would “destroy us politically” to let a tax cheat get off scot free, but JFK pulled rank. The treaty duly got Dirksen’s vote – and Ike’s public support – and passed comfortably. Yet when it came to a similar, if lesser, case against an old personal friend, the president refused to intervene.

It is also fascinating to learn of the extent to which JFK feared a coup by his own military after the resolution of the Cuban missile crisis and over his equivocation about whether the ineffective President Diem of South Vietnam should be removed from power, which the Pentagon deemed desirable because the North was gaining the upper hand. The outright insubordination of Air Force General Curtis “bombs away” LeMay was a constant provocation, as were comments by Edward Teller, the nuclear physicist, and Admiral Hyman Rickover, father of the modern American navy.

The president even confided his fears to Nikita Khrushchev, his Soviet counterpart, who sympathised because he had similar problems of his own. JFK never really faced his generals down but was grateful that Robert McNamara, his secretary of defence, kept them in check. He told his intimate Ben Bradlee, then of Newsweek, later editor of the Washington Post: “The first advice I’m going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that just because they were military men their opinions of military matters were worth a damn.”

That sounds awfully like Ike’s valedictory warning in 1961 over the rise of the military industrial complex. Sadly LBJ did not heed his advice because JFK was not alive to give it (not that the latter had much to do with his vice-president, even leaving him out of the first planning meeting for the 1964 re-election campaign, another sign that he would not have been on the ticket).

Perhaps most poignant are JFK’s private reflections on his own mortality, and the many warnings he received not to go to Texas on that fateful trip. But he felt he was on a roll in the last weeks of his life. The civil rights bill was making progress, the test ban treaty signed, Castro was not discouraging, and he had even conquered the conservative bastion of Salt Lake City with one brilliant speech, its Mormon Tabernacle Choir bursting into spontaneous song. Texas would be a breeze, even if it meant spending a boring weekend at the LBJ ranch, and Jackie would be with him. Now, as Clarke underlines so well, we can still only wonder what might have been.

Jurek Martin is an FT columnist and former Washington bureau chief

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