President Kennedy: Profile of Power
By Richard Reeves
Simon & Schuster, 1993, 763 pp.
Because it is a story of the highest drama told by a veteran journalist who has dug up all sorts of new information (and from documentary rather than unidentified oral sources), this book makes compelling reading. Reeves' technique is to stick as closely as possible to President Kennedy's point of view. At critical moments, such as the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile crisis or the coup against Diem, Reeves presents virtually every document Kennedy read over a several-day period, and most of what he heard, said or did.
For all the new material, however, some of it significant, Reeves' conclusions are not startling. Kennedy botched the Bay of Pigs because of his inexperience, aggressiveness and a flawed decision-making apparatus. In the missile crisis, he took the gravest possible risk over a relatively small issue and then lucked through. He was the central American agent in the plot against Diem, the point of which was to get on with winning the war.
What is missing here is not the factual content, not who said or did what, but rather any attempt at analysis. Not to excuse Kennedy, but shouldn't the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of Defense and Congress take some of the blame for the Bay of Pigs? With regard to the missile crisis, the author's technique allows him to avoid confronting such questions as: Did Kennedy have a right to make a promise binding on his successors, done without Senate approval, pledging the United States never to invade Cuba? If he had the right, was it wise? Did he miss a unique opportunity to get rid of Castro? Reeves quotes inside conversations that show the Kennedy administration believed Castro could not last another year-three at the most. What were the consequences? Reeves does not speculate. Nor does he ever say directly that Kennedy's goal was victory in Vietnam, that he had no intention of withdrawing and that his commitment reflected that of a large majority of his countrymen. But his documents make it clear that such was the case.
Reeves disapproves Kennedy's womanizing, his ruthless ambition, his lack of principles; but most of all he disapproves Kennedy's penchant for out-and-out lies, private and public. That he gives so many examples will lead some to dismiss the book as mere Kennedy-bashing. That would not be accurate.
More important, Reeves' book leads to the observation that presidential reputations go through some big swings. Truman was at 23 percent approval when he left office; today he is at about 90 percent. Kennedy was at about 50 percent when he was killed; he is all but worshipped today by a majority of the public, especially younger people. Yet with the scholars who look at him in depth, who study the record rather than watch the film clips, his reputation has sunk nearly out of sight. All of which means there will soon be a Kennedy revisionist school, and a big market awaits it.