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President Kennedy: Profile of Power.

This is the best book yet about the Kennedy administration. It is more useful than its most distinguished rivals, Theodore Sorensen's Kennedy and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s A Thousand Days, because it is balanced with a much fuller exploration of the administration's negatives. And Reeves, not having been a presidential speechwriter as Sorensen and Schlesinger were, is not subject to the temptation to present speeches he wrote as examples of presidential thought at its most profound.

Reeves tells the whole story, meaning that to the best of my knowledge he includes all the significant facts. His account is also mercifully short of pontification. There are none of the long boring stretches that remind you of love scenes you saw in movies when you were a kid that made you squirm in your seat or run to the popcorn stand. Occasionally, this is frustrating when you want to know more about what Reeves thinks is the meaning of an event. On the other hand, it may be just as well that he didn't do more of this sort of thing, because he tends to fall into error on the few occasions when he does attempt to explain.

Thus when he disagrees with the view held by both Sorensen and Schlesinger that JFK grew dramatically during his presidency, he's dead wrong. If Kennedy hadn't grown between the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, we wouldn't be here now.

Reeves says Kennedy would have been better off using the Eisenhower decision-making system, which rightly required all the national security officials to be consulted, but wrongly excluded anyone outside that loop. So if JFK had attended to this bureaucratic nicety during the Missile Crisis, for example, Robert Kennedy would not have been there to oppose the bombing of Cuba that was advocated by many of the most influential participants. A president does have to be careful to consult all the obvious Joint Chiefs of Staff-types when he makes a military decision, as Eisenhower correctly criticized Kennedy for failing to do when Kennedy cancelled air strikes during the Bay of Pigs invasion. But he also must make bureaucratic end runs, as FDR did so skillfully, to consult with mid-level dissenting staffers and outsiders whose good sense he values.

Reeves also contends that there wasn't a shred of idealism in John Kennedy. I think it's more accurate to say that Kennedy had an aversion to wearing idealism on his sleeve. As he was growing up, that would have earned the scorn of both his father and his elder brother Joe. But John was not his father or his older brother. He was much more sensitive than either of them, and the actions of his presidency show a devotion to peace, to avoiding wars that could kill thousands, and, even though he liked to say "Life is unfair," I think he had a deep belief in fair play. In race relations, for instance, though trying to be the tough political realist that his father could have admired, he nevertheless usually chose to do the right thing in the clutch. Had he lived, my guess is that he would have been like his brother Robert, gradually less embarrassed by his idealism and more understanding of how the public needed to see that side of him.
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Author:Peters, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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