ASKED THE PRESIDENT
"THIS is the night to go to the theatre, like Abraham Lincoln." The ironic comment was made by President Kennedy on the day Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missile bases in Cuba.
The President knew he had handled the crisis consummately well. He had resisted those who proposed an immediate attack on the bases and accepted the naval blockade. He alone made the decision; there was no time for consultations with allies, for the bases were almost ready for use. It was the right decision.
Kennedy's most notoriously wrong decision was the launching of the Bay of Pigs invasion three months after he reached the White House. Admittedly, he inherited the scheme from the Eisenhower administration, and the Central Intelligence Agency — that powerful and secret manipulator of policy had mounted the plan in such a way that it was supremely difficult to abandon it; but Kennedy accepted the responsibility and gave the order.
"How could I have been so stupid?" he asked over and over again when disaster overtook the scheme. Kennedy was always critical of his own actions.
Now, with the publication of several long accounts by men who worked with him or who watched his progress at close quarters, we can learn more about the man who inspired the western world for so tragically short a time.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, a leading American historian, was special assistant to the President. His account of the Kennedy regime in A Thousand Days is both authoritative and readable (Deutsch, 55s.).
It does not gloss over the mistakes, but it makes Kennedy's personality shine through the period as well as documenting the events. He illustrates the tranquillity of Kennedy's mind; even at the height of a crisis in Cuba or in Mississippi, by recording the wry jokes he made to relieve the tension.
Theodore C. Sorensen's even longer book called simply Kennedy is less incisive in its judgments and in its narrative (Hodder & Stoughton, 63s.). His massive work, nevertheless, will, like Schlesinger's, become a quarry for political students for years to come.
One of the fascinations of American politics is their openness — the secrecy of the Bay of Pigs operation was an exception and it was not to remain a secret for long. In Washington all ranks in the administration are accustomed to talking very freely to newspapermen, and writers of books, too, employ a candour seldom found in contemporary British political expositions.
The White House journalists are very much at the centre of
the political scene, far more so than the political correspondents at Westminster. Hugh Sidey's portrait of John F. Kennedy therefore is no less authentic (Penguin, 6s. 6d.).
Mr. Sidey covered Washington for Time magazine, and has written a vivid account of the New Frontier's brilliant three years. It is excellent value. The many verbatim conversations give one the flavour of the White House, and his narrative transmits some of the excitement which the new men brought to government.
From the mass of detail in these biographies one learns much about the men that Kennedy gathered round him. Of particular significance was our own ambassador, Sir David Omisby-Gore, now Lord Harlech. We can take pride in the weight Kennedy gave to his advice, which seems to have been consistently wise.
Even now it is harrowing to read all these separate accounts of the horror in Dallas, but we can agree with Sorensen that "history will remember John Kennedy for what he started as well as for what he completed . . . People will remember not only what he did but what he stood for . . . : for excellence in an era of indifference—for hope in an era of doubt"
Theodore H. White brings history up to date with a brilliant account of this year's presidential election. The Making of the President—this time Lyndon B. Johnson—is almost as absorbing as the making of his predecessor when told by the same master (Cape, 42s.).
Mr. White has made political novels look very stagey. American politics are extraordinarily sophisticated—and they require sophisticated exponents if we are to understand them. They have been well served in their differing ways by these four writers.
B. C. L. Keelan