BOOK REVIEW: ‘JFK’s Last Hundred Days’

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By Thurston Clarke
Penguin Press, $29.95, 432 pages

A more appropriate title for this book, one of the first released to mark the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, might have come from the last line of Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises”: “Isn’t It Pretty to Think So?”

Mr. Clarke, a widely published and well-considered author of works of both fact and fiction and an unqualified admirer of Kennedy, sets out to persuade us that in those areas where JFK’s performance was less than admirable, he was either moving closer to perfection during those last 100 days or intending to begin doing so right after the trip to Dallas.

For instance, Mr. Clarke assures us, JFK was in the process of renouncing his chronic womanizing and concentrating on being a good family man. Mr. Clarke’s only evidence for this is that Jackie Kennedy told a friend that she felt it to be true. If she says she felt it, then she did. But that’s all it proves, and the whole subject is really none of our — or Mr. Clarke’s — business.

Mr. Clarke’s method is chronological, with selective quotes, snippets and gossip from published and unpublished works, letters, documents, reminiscences, reconstructed dialogue, conversations and a great deal of hypothesizing, all held together within a loosely constructed narrative and authenticated with an odd and somewhat hard-to-use system of citations.

The result is often less than convincing. On Vietnam, for instance, we’re told that JFK intended to conduct a “a very profound review” of our role and presence there, thus supporting the claims of Camelot veterans and liberal Democrats in general that had he lived, he would have ended the war he began.

Where’s the evidence? All the supporting quotes and observations are based on intuitions and feelings rather that any solid facts; and so thin is the evidence that he’s forced to give us Walter Cronkite’s opinion: “I have always believed that had he [Kennedy] lived, he would have withdrawn those advisers from Vietnam.”

However, pace Walter Cronkite, he didn’t, and there were no signs during those last days that he intended to do so. Instead, LBJ followed his lead, picked it up and ran with it in the direction the best and brightest Kennedyites laid out, and finally dropped the whole mess into the lap of Richard Nixon, who, with the help of Henry Kissinger, cleaned it up.

In fact, in the whole area of foreign relations, the Kennedy image requires considerable burnishing if he is to remain the liberal beau ideal and those Camelot survivors are ever to redeem themselves. To this end, Mr. Clarke skims lightly over such acts as the sanctioned assassinations of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother. There was also the Bay of Pigs, memorably described by Theodore Draper (not quoted by Mr. Clarke) as “one of the most rare events in history — a perfect failure.”

In domestic matters, Mr. Clarke tends to slight the contributions of Lyndon Johnson, who was often treated with contempt and derision by the young Kennedyites. When he succeeded to the presidency, Johnson managed to push through Congress the great wash of Great Society legislation that is often partially credited to JFK and treated as part of his legacy, although he would never have been able to get a fraction of it passed.

In one strained and somewhat embarrassing scene, Mr. Clarke has Kennedy peering out a White House window during the first March on Washington, gripping the window sill “until his knuckles turned white,” and saying to a black White House doorman, “Oh, Bruce, how I wish I was out there with them!”

And why not? It was, after all, just a short limousine ride away. But in fact, JFK had done everything politically possible to discourage the marchers from coming to Washington in the first place, and from staying long once they got there.

In short, he didn’t want to be associated with the march at all. It would hurt him in the South. Few people remember today — Mr. Clarke touches on it briefly — that in 1963, there was a rising conservative tide. Sen. Barry Goldwater was seen as a fresh and imposing candidate, running closely in the polls, with JFK steadily slipping.

Goldwater ended by running against a ghost, and losing badly. Had JFK lived, it’s just possible he could have lost. Had he won re-election, his ability to enact Great Society-style legislation would have been sharply circumscribed. And in the end, we might well all have been better off as a nation.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).

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