When the instant legends about John F. Kennedy began to form upon his assassination, James Reston commented that the novelists would have a field day with the events of Kennedy's life and presidency long after the historians had finished their assessments. Here we have a fictional depiction of the seminal event of the Kennedy era -- the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war -- and a more savage rendering of the Kennedy myth is hard to imagine.

The John Kennedy who emerges from Douglas Terman's briskly paced, tautly written spy thriller is cowardly and publicly interested in seeming to be morally justified while actually concerned most with political appearances, not the long-term consequences of his actions. Instead of the cool, brave political leader who faced down the Russians and forced the withdrawal of secretly placed offensive Soviet missiles from Cuba, thus leading to an easing of world tensions and better prospects for peace, Terman's Kennedy (and Kennedy's advisers) are weak. They allow themselves to be outfoxed by the Russians. They knowingly permit the Soviet buildup in the Caribbean, with Castro's Cuba as its central base, to continue. They wittingly, for political reasons, permit the communists to win a shell game that gives the Russians the upper hand in exercising nuclear blackmail by leaving offensive missiles hidden in Cuba despite what the world thinks happened then.

This portrayal of Kennedy more resembles the view of the strident anticommunists who shouted at him during his presidency to display "less profile, more courage" than of the young World War II hero who captured the country's imagination and personified the coming to power of a new generation of Americans "tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace."

As a vehicle for this tale, Terman creates three characters who represent the complex strains of Cuban-American life as Cuba changes from the corrupt Batista era to the hoped-for reforms promised by Fidel Castro and then falls into another civil war fueled by the feelings of a revolution betrayed. George Brocassie and his adoptive brother Julio Alvarez are Americans of mixed Hispanic ancestry whose fathers were miners together in Cuba. They and the woman they both love, Alicia Helvia, had fought as guerrillas with Castro; then they separate, Brocassie joining the anti-Castro forces seeking to redeem the promise of a progressive new Cuba, Alvarez staying with Fidel and becoming a top intelligence operative for him.

When we first meet Brocassie, Terman's hero, he has survived the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion and now, a year later, is in Cuba on a top-level intelligence mission to investigate reports of a massive buildup of secret Russian weapons. He believes Alicia has died. While he flees pursuing Castro forces, Brocassie muses:

"He knew now that he had stayed in Cuba for these last two years, not for the counterrevolution but only because of her death. He had talked, like the rest of the counterrevolutionaries, of finally overthrowing Castro and reclaiming a free Cuba, but the Bay of Pigs had killed the dream. Kennedy, at the last moment, had pulled back from his commitment like a frightened dog fleeing a loud noise. Still, Brocassie had fought on, but only because he was fighting for a cause she had died for, no longer questioning the rationality of it."

Terman is good. He writes crisply and well; his story moves, and he shows a talent for mood and scene. His understanding of the mentality of the Cuban protagonists, freedom fighter and revolutionary alike, is insightful. He's especially convincing in conveying the complexities of the shadowy world of the intelligence operative, whether CIA or KGB, and obviously writes from personal acquaintance with the weapons systems and advanced push-button technology of the nuclear age. Terman also shows a gift for narrative and plot. In choosing the missile crisis, that ultimate frightening confrontation of the last generation, as the thread for a tale of intrigue and highest life-and-death stakes, he has the elements for a great espionage novel.

Yet in the end all his narrative strengths and story line potential disintegrate in a blast of ideological bombast and tough-guy patriotic posturing. In a final scene, Brocassie's cynical American intelligence boss sums up Kennedy's failure of will and instinct for political expediency by saying:

" 'Oh -- just one more small detail. Kennedy pledged never to invade Cuba with U.S. troops but he made a big deal of telling the Russians to keep their hands off Berlin.' He stiffened, saluting an imaginary flag. 'Land of the free and home of bravado.' "

Too bad JFK didn't push the button back then. That really would have given us all something to salute.