THIS BOOK, like the life it depicts, is necessarily in-
conclusive. It is a serious attempt to tell the story of the Kennedy presidency objectively. Yet it cannot be definitive because all the archives are not yet open. Anyone writing about President Kennedy still must rely at times on secondary sources. But Robert Parmet presents enough new evidence to demonstrate that the adulatory biographies need changes. His book is neither adulatory nor revisionist but an attempt at history. It falls short of its goal, partly because of restrictions in the archives, partly because the author relies too heavily on the memory of those who knew Kennedy, partly because Kennedy himself never fully defined his true positions and partly because of the author's sometimes pedantic style.
Because no president can accomplish very much very fast, Kennedy's rank among the presidents will always be debated. He had very strong points and serious weaknesses. His mind was superb, and he was a thoughtful reader. He was political to the core, more Irish, as Robert Frost hinted, than Harvard. He combined cynicism with idealism. He demonstrated statesmanship in acknowledging his responsibility for the Bay of Pigs disaster, and he showed that he understood the imperative need for caution and restraint during the Cuban missile crisis. That alone will give him a place in history.
It is ironic that this president, whose key words, as Parmet notes, were "challenges," "vigorous," "fight" and who argued that a president "should exercise the fullest powers of his office," was often more in tune with his Republican Secretary of the Treasury, Douglas Dillon, than with his New Frontiersmen. Kennedy was bold in expression, cautious in action. "Kennedy didn't march," Parmet says with respect to domestic policy. "He tiptoed." A further irony is that Kennedy was bitterly attacked by the liberal wing of his party for choosing Lyndon B. Johnson as his running mate. Yet LBJ proved to be the bolder of the two in pushing domestic reforms, especially in the field of civil rights.
Kennedy was always conscious of the narrow margin by which he won in 1960; he was always on guard with respect to issues and personalities he believed would affect reelection in 1964. He was determined to hold the South and to assuage as many business leaders as possible. He was aware, as he should have been, of his tenuous support in Congress.
It all seems a long time ago--yet just two decades ago John Kennedy was still in the White House. The world and this nation have changed dramatically. We think today we live in dangerous times, and we do. But are the Cold War, subversion, the concern with guerrilla war, quite the national preoccupations they were in 1961 and 1962? In 1961, serious presidential advisers discussed the possibility of war in Laos, which they thought could also mean war with China, and they raised the possibility that the nuclear bomb might have to be used. Laos? It is hard to believe today.
Kennedy had only one good thing to say about the Bay of Pigs disaster--it had made him realize that he should not send troops to Laos. Yet, afraid that President Eisenhower, who had warned him about the serious situation there, might criticize him as an appeaser, Kennedy persuaded British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to write a letter to the former president urging him not to criticize Kennedy for not fighting harder to protect Laos.
Today many critics describe the Kennedy inaugural address as the embodiment of Cold War dreams. Parmet is careful to explain that at the time there were few criticisms. The inaugural expressed the mood of the time. It was welcomed even in Moscow, where Izvestia printed the full text.
Parmet devotes considerable attention to two personal aspects of the Kennedy presidency that were carefully camouflaged at the time--his health problems and his pursuit of women. It is clear that the public was deceived about the extent of the president's back problems and about the need for steady cortisone dosages to control Addison's disease. That there were disagreements among the several doctors who treated the president was only hinted at while he was in the White House. Parmet shows that these disagreements were bitter and led to the replacement of the president's first White House physician, denials to the contrary notwithstanding.
Also at the time there were hints about the president's pursuit of women. But only J. Edgar Hoover's network had the evidence, and when he learned of the president's relations with Judith Campbell, now Judith Campbell Exner, he apparently confronted the president. According to Hoover, she was also an associate of two hoodlums involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Fidel Castro. If all that had been known at the time, it could have led to impeachment charges. Parmet says that there were many other women and that there were threats of divorce from Mrs. Kennedy.
Finally, there is the unanswered question of what Kennedy would have done in Vietnam beyond what he did in his lifetime. Some Kennedy associates have maintained that he would never have become so deeply involved as President Johnson became. There are respectable arguments both ways. Kennedy almost certainly would have handled the domestic political crisis with more skill than did Johnson. Kennedy would have been more pragmatic--cynical if you will--about shifting course if he had believed a shift desirable. "Still, for him to have withdrawn at any point short of a clear-cut settlement would have been most unlikely," Parmet concludes from the available evidence.
Did John Kennedy write letters? Or did he conduct all business by telephone? Earlier presidential biographies have relied heavily on letters. Historians have not yet had access to these files and we do not know whether they contain material that would provide answers to many questions raised in this revealing biography.