- - Wednesday, May 17, 2017


By Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie

Simon and Schuster, $28, 448 pages

He was handsome, wealthy and irresistible to many women, yet what lay beneath the charm was perhaps one of the most cold-blooded politicians in American history.

On the road to the mythical political kingdom of Camelot, veteran political writers Thomas Oliphant and Curtis Wilkie take readers on a journey through primaries, conventions and feuds driven by steely ambition and, of course, the fabled wealth of Joseph Kennedy.

John F. Kennedy was not averse to taking risks to further his political hopes yet he was also capable of defying the arrogant father who demolished his diplomatic reputation when he betrayed respect for Hitler and his Nazis in the approach to World War II.

The book is most impressive for its meticulously detailed approach to the fierce Kennedy drive toward the ultimate goal of the presidency. Yet the authors caution, “In the end his five year quest for national office just barely succeeded.” It was that tough a fight and JFK was that tough a man. “In political terms all that traveling, speaking maneuvering and writing enabled his ‘positives’ (fresh, vigorous, new thinking, Catholic, activist) to keep his ‘negatives’ (inexperienced, unknown risk, bigger government, Catholic) at bay.”

And that is taking into account Kennedy’s remarkable extramarital misadventures like his dalliances with actress Marilyn Monroe, a brothel keeper known as Alicia Darr and Pamela Turner, who became a member of Mrs. Kennedy’s staff and was never heard from again after her marriage to an investment banker. Ted Sorensen, author of many Kennedy comments, was quoted as observing that Kennedy “never permitted the pursuit of private pleasure to interfere with public duty.” Jacqueline Kennedy is quoted as responding to that with “no one has ever so understood and so expressed all the facets of that unforgettable elusive man.”

The authors chronicle the determination and political brutality of the primary campaigns, including Kennedy’s efforts to ingratiate himself with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was initially unimpressed with him, and his great battle with Lyndon B. Johnson over the vice presidency. Robert F. Kennedy had fierce hostility toward the Texan, but his brother displayed the capacity for ice-cool reality that was to carry him through even bigger crises than Johnson’s ego. He recognized what LBJ could do as well as what he could not do — and he used it to his own advantage.

The Kennedy-Johnson debate which, according to the authors, “destroyed the last vestige of Johnson’s campaign for the nomination” was described in lurid terms by Houston PR agent Jack Valenti who became one of LBJ’s most loyal supporters. He praised Kennedy as having “just tore Johnson a new a — hole” with that performance.

It is noted that the history of Johnson’s selection as Kennedy’s running mate is still shrouded in dissenting accounts from the different camps involved. These were “examples of the distrust, deviousness and deceit practiced by both sides.” On the other hand, the authors observe with practiced irony, “in the world of Boston and Texas politics, duplicity was never considered a mortal or even a venial sin.”

And Sam Rayburn, the legendary Texas politician, eventually came to acknowledge and admire JFK’s style as a speaker and debater. As he put it, Kennedy “ate ‘em blood raw.”

According to the authors, however, there was no heroic contest between Kennedy and Nixon during that final critical debate. “It was not a one-sided contest between a gallant gorgeous Kennedy and a Nixon who looked liked he’d been living on the streets.”

The authors emphasize Nixon’s “cogent” grasp of national affairs. The debate was partisan and predictable except for one important point that involved Nixon’s opposition to initiatives providing aid for the elderly as well as increased educational help. Directly asked by Kennedy his current reaction to these points, Nixon gave a telling answer “I have no comment,” he said. It clearly mattered.

The polls told the story of how close Kennedy’s victory was. The candidates were statistically tied 48 to 47 percent for Kennedy. “A draw if indeed it was a draw, was a victory for Kennedy,” said Ted Sorensen who understood the handicaps of Kennedy’s inexperience.

It was also Sorensen who most clearly perceived the importance of Kennedy’s understanding of crisis. For 13 days in October 1962, Kennedy used the attributes he displayed during his campaign marathon to keep confrontation with the Soviet Union from becoming a nuclear war. As Sorensen put it. “We’re still here.”

• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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