The Camelot delusion: John F Kennedy’s legacy 50 years on

Tears are cheap and so, to a certain extent, are words. Deeds are what counts and on that score Kennedy’s presidency was a mix of good and bad, says David Runciman.

John F Kennedy in 1961. Photo: Getty

To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace
Jeffrey Sachs
Bodley Head, 272pp, £14.99

JFK’s Last Hundred Days: an Intimate Portrait of a Great President
Thurston Clarke
Allen Lane, 448pp, £20

Luck plays a big part in presidents’ reputations – and not just in terms of what happens while they are in office (wars give presidents a boost; financial crises don’t). There is also the luck of who writes their biographies once they have gone. In this respect, the luckiest president of the past century has been Lyndon Johnson, the subject of a monumental, multivolume labour of love by the pre-eminent political biographer Robert Caro that has redeemed the ex-president’s reputation. Caro’s LBJ emerges as the ultimate fixer, a politician who knew better than anyone how to get his way in the vipers’ nest of Washington. Because of Caro, it’s Johnson’s wiles that people look to when they ask how Barack Obama could do better in his dealings with Congress.

As LBJ’s stock has risen, that of his predecessor has fallen. John F Kennedy has become the man who merely talked about the transformative legislative programme that Johnson turned into reality. Seen in LBJ’s large shadow, Kennedy is a glamorous but slight figure, the crowd-pleasing playboy president. He was brave, attractive and ambitious, yet ultimately ineffectual.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, his admirers are trying to reverse this picture. The anti-Caro story has two basic elements. First, it turns on the assassination. Yes, LBJ did what JFK didn’t but that’s only because Kennedy wasn’t around to finish the job. Kennedy was just growing into his presidency when it was cruelly cut short. Second, the story focuses on foreign policy, which was Kennedy’s strength and Johnson’s weakness. LBJ’s achievements were domestic. The final, as yet unpublished volume of Caro’s biography will have to tell the tragic coda that is the terrible mess Johnson made of Vietnam. Kennedy’s presidency ended at its most hopeful phase, just as he was finding ways to move beyond the stale and terrifying logic of cold war confrontation that had taken the world to the brink of catastrophe in the Cuban missile crisis. In 1963, it looked as though Kennedy had stumbled on the path to a more peaceful future. Johnson was the man who stumbled off it.

Kennedy’s quest for safer relations with the Russians during the last year of his life is the subject of Jeffrey Sachs’s slim book, which celebrates the speeches Kennedy gave in the summer of 1963 about war, peace and the means of moving from one to the other. The centrepiece of this story is the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), a nuclear arms control agreement that Kennedy signed into law in October 1963. It was the proudest achievement of his presidency up to that point.

Sachs believes that this was a sure indicator of things to come, the first step towards stable and secure coexistence between the superpowers. Sachs is an economist, not a historian. His book is not biography but hagiography. He treats Kennedy as a moral visionary, the only man who possessed the gifts of oratory and character necessary to change the course of history at this perilous moment. It is from Kennedy’s example that Sachs thinks we must learn if we are to save ourselves.

His case rests on two assumptions. The first is that treaties matter. The LTBT was only what it said it was: limited. It prohibited further nuclear testing in space or underwater but permitted it underground. It had been watered down from something more comprehensive, first by Nikita Khrushchev’s qualms about international oversight and then by the misgivings of the US joint chiefs about the Russians. Charles de Gaulle refused to sign it. (The French have always been pathetically proud of their nuclear arsenal.)

However, Sachs is probably right when he argues it was a landmark moment. It signalled that the US and the Soviets could agree on something substantial. At the same time, it showed that a US president could get such an agreement past the Senate, which had a habit of shooting down plans for peace (Kennedy was haunted by Woodrow Wilson’s failure to get the Senate to ratify the League of Nations in 1919, with all that followed). Kennedy secured ratification of the LTBT by the impressive margin of 80 votes to 19. It opened the door to the subsequent ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which was approved by the Senate in 1969 and has been vital in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons around the globe.

Sachs’s other contention is that speeches actually matter. This is much more dubious. He believes that Kennedy’s oratory in 1963 – above all, the “peace speech” he delivered at American University in Washington, DC on 10 June that year – was crucial in persuading Russia’s leaders, US politicians and people all over the world that the time was right for a sea change in international affairs. Sachs devotes much of his book to analysing Kennedy’s rhetoric line by line, talking up its logic, its beauty and its power to move. Yet he provides no evidence that it made the vital difference, beyond how it stirred him as a boy and stirs him still. Sachs is not Khrushchev (boy, is he not Khrushchev). His approach is extraordinarily literal-minded: he assumes that politicians say what they mean and then do what they say. When Kennedy says it’s time for peace and then the Soviets sign a peace treaty, Sachs concludes that it must be because they have been persuaded by whatKennedy has said. When Pravda agrees to publish a transcript of Kennedy’s speech, it must be because the Kremlin wants the Russian people to be similarly persuaded. Sachs does not consider that political speechmaking might simply be the ornamental side of political negotiation. It’s the icing on the cake. Sachs mistakes it for the cake.

What his book lacks is any sense of political context. He recognises that it was the near calamity of the Cuban missile crisis that persuaded both sides to look for alternatives. Yet he takes for granted that this took the form of turning away from war to peace. The terror for both sides had been not so much the risk of Armageddon as the temporary loss of control. For a short while, the two superpowers were groping in the dark without anything to cling on to. The LTBT and above all the NPT were ways of reasserting control and putting them back in charge. The treaties limited the ability of others to get nuclear weapons but they didn’t stop the superpowers from ramping up their own arsenals or pursuing proxy wars around the globe.

Sachs wants us to learn from the president’s vision for peace – but if the Cuban missile crisis was, for Kennedy, the precondition for achieving it, how can we follow his lead without a near-death experience of our own? Sachs is surely right that the world needs another prod in the direction of justice. But early-1960s oratory without the early-1960s context isn’t going to do it.

Sachs ignores how Kennedy’s decision to focus on foreign affairs in 1963 was not without cost. It came at the expense of doing other, equally urgent things. The great merit of Thurston Clarke’s account of the last 100 days in office is that it encompasses both sides of Kennedy: the statesman and the chancer; the moralist and the opportunist. Like Sachs, Clarke celebrates Kennedy’s great achievement in getting the LTBT past the Senate. In his account, however, it was done by calling in political favours that could not then get cashed in elsewhere. Forcing the treaty through came at the expense of a concerted push on civil rights legislation: you can’t call in favours twice. It was, Clarke writes, “a choice between ethics and history”. Kennedy, a vain and, when he needed to be, coldhearted man, chose history.

Clarke burnishes the Kennedy image as best he can yet this is still, compared to Sachs’s book, a warts-and-all portrait. We see Kennedy the insatiable womaniser: when, on her first visit to the White House, the 60-yearold Marlene Dietrich tells him she can only stay half an hour, he leads her to the bedroom, saying they had better get on with it. We see Kennedy the bully, the prankster, the whiner and the narcissist. After dinner, he shows his bemused and bored guests the film of his presidential debates with Richard Nixon. He weighs himself after every swim, terrified that he is turning into a jowly, middle-aged man. He turns the charm on and off like a light switch.

Nevertheless, Clarke is convinced that this was a great man cut down at the moment of his greatest potential. He repeats the basics of the anti-Caro line. First, he insists that Kennedy would have passed his own comprehensive civil rights legislation in his second term. Second, he argues that Kennedy had seen the folly of his Vietnam escapade and was determined to get out: he was just waiting for the right moment, which would come with his re-election.

Is this plausible? Presidents invariably think they will achieve in their second term what they failed to do in their first but it rarely happens like that. First terms are when the heavy lifting gets done. Kennedy kept talking up what he was going to do – “after 1964” became his mantra in 1963 – but he was also an inveterate ditherer who made sure there was always a get-out clause. Would it ever have been the right moment to cut his losses in Vietnam? And there is no evidence that he knew how to get round the openly racist Southern bloc in the Senate. In 1963, he sounded more like someone who had parked comprehensive civil rights legislation than a politician who knew how to accomplish it. The day after his peace speech, he gave a powerful talk on civil rights – but he also told black civil rights leaders that they should learn to be more like the Jews and focus on education as the path to improvement.

As distasteful as it is, think what Obama’s reputation would be if his first term had been cut short three years in and Joe Biden had inherited the keys to the White House. The messy compromise of health-care reform would be viewed as the first step on the road to a much more comprehensive triumph. Obama would be the man who was going to get out of Afghanistan once and for all, who was going to make the tough but moral choices on terrorism, drones and Guantanamo, who was waiting to use his re-election to face down Congress. His second term would be reimagined as the promised golden age, instead of what it looks like today –a hard, joyless slog to nowhere in particular. There is no reason to suppose Kennedy’s would have been any different.

Clarke also wants us to think that Kennedy was about to repair his marriage when his life was cut short. In August, the Kennedys had lost their son Patrick, who was born prematurely and died after a few days. Like the Cuban missile crisis, the terror and pathos of this event had the effect of drawing the warring parties together. Would it have lasted? Given the character of the protagonists, that seems unlikely. Kennedy was a sentimentalist, capable of great warmth and emotion, but he was also a selfish brute, and marriage lasts a long time. His last 100 days were probably the best of his marriage as they were of his presidency. Still, it was only 100 days.

Clarke cites as evidence of how much Kennedy meant to people and how much his passing mattered that, in an unsentimental age, when it was unusual to shed tears in public and unthinkable for many men, so many cried when they heard of the president’s assassination. A Gallup survey disclosed that 53 per cent of Americans had wept in the days following his death. Clarke claims that there is nothing comparable to this. But there is. Countless Britons cried in the days after the death of Diana, another glamorous and empathetic narcissist. They shed tears because ordinary people felt a connection to the princess and shared a feeling that her death represented the loss of some unspoken promise. That doesn’t make the promise real. Tears are cheap and so, to a certain extent, are words. Deeds are what counts and on that score Kennedy’s presidency was a mix of good and bad, like most of the others.

David Runciman is a professor of politics at the University of Cambridge. His book “The Confidence Trap” (Princeton University Press, £19.95) will be published in October