The Unmaking of the President

Benjamin Barber

  • The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power by Garry Wills
    Atlantic/Little, Brown, 310 pp, $14.95, February 1982, ISBN 0 316 94385 1

At the end of the last century, a Princeton historian with a taste for politics looked back over the thirty years which had elapsed since Lincoln’s death, surveyed the lacklustre Presidents who had come and gone and the tyrannical Congressional committee chairmen who seemed often to govern in the President’s stead, and issued a clarion call for a new politics of Presidential leadership. The book he wrote, Congressional Government, did not yield immediate results: the Madisonian constitutional system had, after all, been devised to protect the nation against a too powerful Presidency. Nevertheless, the next fifteen years witnessed the startlingly vigorous administration of Teddy Roosevelt, the beginning of a long process of whittling Congressional committees down to size, and an opportunity for the zealous historian – Woodrow Wilson – to put his theory into practice as the 28th President of the United States.

Wilson’s Presidency was compromised by a world at war and marred by the reach of his own urgent ambition. Still, Wilson set the tone for the new power-seeking, crisis-invoking Presidencies of the 20th century when, in his first inaugural address, he proclaimed:

This is not a day of triumph; it is a day of dedication. Here muster, not the forces of party, but the forces of humanity. Men’s hearts wait upon us; men’s lives hang in the balance; men’s hopes call upon us to say what we will do. Who shall live up to the great trust? Who dares fail to try?

The new stewardship of daring was to become the hallmark of modern Presidential politics. The aim was to overcome the hobbling lethargy of a government too divided to govern in a new century in which permanent crisis seemed to render the safe, deliberate pace of the Madisonian formula obsolete. Yet daring or no, the great inertial system of the Constitution – of checks and balances, of party government and bureaucracy, of judicial obstructionism and Federal decentralisation – continued to impede the efforts of Wilson to make the world safe for democracy, and of Franklin Delano Roosevelt to make economic and social justice a Presidential responsibility and a public trust. As recently as 1940, Harold Laski was still crying out for leadership, leadership, leadership, and insisting, against Madison’s caution, that ‘power is also opportunity, and to face danger with confidence is the price of its fulfilment.’ His polemical text, The American Presidency, concluded with a plea to give to the President ‘the power commensurate with the function he has to perform’. Only in this way could what he termed ‘the American adventure’ hope to continue.

When, twenty years later, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first American President born in this century, stood and took the oath of office it seemed to many of his fellow countrymen that the stewardship of daring had finally found its vindicator. The great adventure was once again underway and this time the power would be found – through or in spite of crisis, within or against the system – to deliver the nation over to destiny: the Camelot for which its long history as a chosen land had been a preparation. This was a President, young, manly, determined and vigorous, who would work miracles. With the sons of Harvard and Yale at his feet, historians and intellectuals his companions and advisers, he would never negotiate out of fear, even at the risk of nuclear war, and never fear to negotiate, even at the risk of peace. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Test Ban Treaty were twin feats of a single charisma.

A thousand days later the President was dead in Dallas: the myth of Camelot had the martyrdom which would make it the American legend of our times. The atmosphere of legend is thick and heady: in the vapours it left behind, the stewardship of daring was transmuted into the politics of hubris. In place of Wilson’s impotent President arose the Imperial Presidency. Within ten years, the crisis of Presidential power had become a crisis of national spirit of which Vietnam, urban breakdown, political assassination, Federal wiretapping, campus chaos, a Presidential Enemies List and Watergate were only the most melodramatic indicators. So shaky had the Presidency become that neither of Kennedy’s immediate successors served what should have been their normal terms – Johnson repudiating a life of successful power-brokering and exiling himself to Texas to avoid what he was certain would be defeat in the race for a second term, and Nixon eluding impeachment by a hair. The two decent men who followed, Ford and Carter, seemed trapped in a torpor of virtue, trying hard to restore integrity to the Presidency by offering the nation homilies in place of the decisive policies it was demanding.

It is around these themes of the 20th-century Presidency in crisis that Garry Wills has spun his crowded, gossipy, acerbic, disorganised, penetrating, repetitious, altogether fascinating tale of the family Kennedy. At its best, The Kennedy Imprisonment is a meditation on Presidential power as prescient as Wilson’s and as pointed as Laski’s. Wills is a brilliant seminarian turned sceptic, and a savvy journalist turned historian who has written with acuity on Madison and Jefferson and on Jack Ruby (the assassin of Kennedy’s assassin) and Richard Nixon. He is the closest thing the New World has to a Chesterton or a Burke. Who better to reflect on the relationship of sin and power, of eros and daring, of charisma and catastrophe, than an American pilgrim whose journey has taken him from William Buckley’s conservative bastion at the National Review to Harold Hayes’s soft-core liberal stronghold at Esquire, and from a Jesuit seminary to the Henry Luce Chair of American Culture and Public Policy at Northwestern University? At its worst, however, Wills’s book is merely a tawdry broadside, returning with too much pleasure to scandals uncovered by others with too little caution. The pilgrim dips his pen into the noisome ink of the Hollywood gossip-monger, until he himself stinks of the odours he means us to associate with the Kennedys. Wills leads us into the world of Presidential power by the back door. Mimicking a Norman Mailer or a Frank Sinatra, he creates a world of booze and balls and broads and brawls which seems to be as seductive to him as it was to Joe Kennedy and his ambitious sons. The trashy novel in which Wills has – he might say ‘necessarily’ – wrapped his thoughtful meditation on power is particularly regrettable because it has enabled critics to ignore the meditation and focus on the gossip. American reviewers have contented themselves with rehearsing the scandals lifted in turn by Wills from sources such as Joan and Clay Blair’s The Search for J.F.K.

To be sure, the bits are juicy: Joe Kennedy propositioning his sons’ girlfriends and introducing Gloria Swanson into his household as if she were a maiden aunt rather than his mistress; Arthur Krock, eminent pundit, first procuring girls for the Kennedy boys, and later arranging to purloin a Pulitzer Prize for Jack’s mediocre thesis, after Krock himself had rewritten it and had it published and publicised (as Why England slept); President Kennedy in bed with Mafia mistresses such as Judith Campbell and stars such as Angie Dickinson, wondering if he was as good as Frank Sinatra; the sisters and wives being driven slowly to drink or to seed or to bedlam; ‘honorary Kennedys’ fighting over the reputation of their fallen leader, facing each other over the political barricades in 1968 while Eugene McCarthy mocked Bobby to his face, shouting, ‘I’m Jack Kennedy!’ and getting all the Kennedy generation kids to believe him; Ted Kennedy fleeing in panic from Chappaquiddick, where his Presidential hopes lay expiring next to Mary Jo Kopechne in the murky midnight waters of Poucha pond.

Yet, in fairness to Wills, the muck goes with the territory. His theme is how eros serves image and image serves charisma and charisma serves daring, so that he cannot meditate for very long on power without getting mired in eros. Moreover, his story necessarily starts with Joe Kennedy Sr, that patriarch of ‘strong will and low tastes’, and can hardly be written on virgin parchment. Joe Kennedy lusted for the Presidency himself, but F.D.R. put him out of action by sending him to the Court of St James (where his semi-English airs and his ambivalence about fascism were not altogether unfashionable), and he had to be satisfied with passing on the ‘discipline of lust’ and the ‘cult of courage’ to his sons. With Joe Jr dead in the war, it was left to Jack to realise his father’s ambitions. By the time he reached the White House, the family inclination to see womanising as another form of power and politics as another form of womanising had become a philosophy of political power.

Wills sees John Kennedy as the first in a succession of Presidents who looked outside the normal channels of command to establish their control over government and policy. Kennedy and his staff were full of contempt for Eisenhower, with his stultifying procedures and his petty military regard for proper channels. New frontiers meant overstepping old boundaries, and John Kennedy’s administration quickly became a hothouse, not only of new ideas and innovative programmes like the Peace Corps, but of extra-legal strategies like Operation Mongoose (committed to the assassination of Fidel Castro) and extra-institutional ‘special groups’ trained in counter-insurgency and the guerrilla tactics of covert war. The Green Berets thus occupied a special place in the Kennedy hall of pride, despite the regular army’s distaste for the inegalitarianism of élite units and for the potential political abuse of forces which lay outside the regular chain of command. Jack gave the Green Berets their name, and Bobby kept a dapper green cap in a prominent spot in his Attorney-General’s office.

The Bay of Pigs disaster was a direct consequence of these attitudes. It was conducted so secretly that most of the CIA had no idea what their special-operations man Richard Bissell was up to and the Air Force had no knowledge of the landing plan until the ill-trained exiles were actually going ashore to death and imprisonment: the adventure ‘was a James Bond exploit blessed by Yale, a PT raid run by PhDs’. Far from being the unfortunate leftover of the Eisenhower Administration Kennedy apologists later tried to make it, ‘it was the very definition of the New Frontier.’ The charismatic style was central to the Kennedy vision of power: the President had to take on Nixon, take on Big Steel, take on Castro, and take on Khrushchev, as personal adversaries to be vanquished in a contest of manhood. ‘Power was one,’ writes Wills, ‘power over women, power over Khrushchev.’

The case in which Kennedy’s philosophy of daring is most clearly seen is the Cuban Missile Crisis. The confrontation was to a degree the result of Khrushchev’s miscalculations, although Wills is right to think that Castro’s insistence on the ‘defensive’ mission of the warheads looks much more reasonable now, in the light of what has been learned about Kennedy’s covert campaign against Cuba, than it looked at the time. However it came to pass, the final showdown was something straight out of Gunfight at the OK Corral, a macho Western in which not blinking sometimes seemed more important than avoiding nuclear war. Critics within the Administration who grew nervous in the course of this fateful game of nuclear chicken were ridiculed for ‘grabbing their nuts’, while Jack Kennedy, even as he joked about how much room there was in the White House bomb shelter, proclaimed with deadly earnestness: ‘If Khrushchev wants to rub my nose in the dirt, it’s all over.’ Happily for the world, Khrushchev was not playing the tough commissar in a Cossack Western of his own. He blinked, ate dirt and backed down, leaving the capacity of the White House bomb shelter to be tested by some later moment in history.

Wills goes on to argue that Vietnam was an outgrowth of the same mentality. The hagiographers have – again – tried to push responsibility back onto Eisenhower (although he had refused, against his advisers’ counsel, to come to the aid of the French at Dien Bien Phu) or forward onto Johnson (although ‘Johnson’s war’ was enlarged and prosecuted by Kennedy appointees claiming to represent the late President’s will, and Bobby himself did not go over to the Peace side until 1966). In any case, it is hard to believe that a man who had been taught since birth that there is no greater sin than losing, who pursued his feud with Castro to the death – Johnson later complained that Kennedy had been running ‘a damn Murder Incorporated in the Caribbean’ – and who took Khrushchev and the rest of the world to the nuclear brink rather than compromise on one single point during the Missile Crisis, might have cut his losses and withdrawn in defeat from a war in Vietnam to which his own pet Green Berets had been committed. To do this, Wills argues, Kennedy would have had to cease behaving like a Kennedy. The prison Joe Kennedy built around his boys never would have permitted it.

The Kennedy imprisonment is for Garry Wills a matter of living ghosts. The old man hovers everywhere over the boys – fuelling Jack’s recklessness, firing Bobby’s piety, swallowing up Ted’s ambition. Then there are the ghosts of all the dead brothers and sisters whom the survivor cannot leave behind. ‘Once brother drew on brother for fresh strength,’ writes Wills, ‘now brother drains brother, all the dead inhibiting the one who lived on.’ All the daring reaps a harvest of death, the gunslingers inviting the gunslingers, so that Ted ends up ‘an aging gun-fighter’ every punk would like to take out – politically or figuratively or literally – waiting and waiting, sure that ‘they’re going to shoot my ass off the way they shot Bobby’s.’

Yet however poignant the Kennedy story is in its last years, it will not do to pin responsibility for the crisis of the modern Presidency on the Kennedy imprisonment alone. As Wills occasionally hints but then seems to forget, the American Presidency is itself a prison. Presidents have always had to compete with the lustre of legendary predecessors: Grant and the hapless, faceless little men of the 1870s and 1880s unable to live up to Lincoln’s martyred image, Kennedy himself and all his successors right down to Ronald Reagan vying with F.D.R. for a place in Presidential history – Reagan cultivating Rooseveltian images and taking on Rooseveltian airs even as he tries to dismantle the Rooseveltian social programme. The imprisonment of American Presidents has, however, been literal as well as figurative. To be elected President of all the people is never again to see any single American person other than the appointed retinue of courtiers, assistants, supplicants and security men who constitute the American royal court. It is to become a prisoner of images and thus of the media which control images. The packaging and selling of the President neither began nor ended with John Kennedy. With astronauts and sports heroes as well as actors issuing Presidential murmurs from their increasingly numerous havens in the Senate, things are clearly going to get worse.

And then there is the imprisonment about which Wills’s book is really written, the imprisonment that leads him beyond the Kennedys and their charisma to meditate on Presidential power itself: the imprisonment of the executive branch of the most power-needy government in the world by a Constitution and a political history which leave it impotent in the face of its difficulties. This is the greatest conundrum of America’s odd history as a democracy – too much executive responsibility, too little executive power. President Ford liked to say that a President who could give the American people all they wanted was a President who could take from them all they had. Wills’s history of the Kennedy abuse of power confirms that a President strong enough and charismatic enough to subdue Congress, overcome the individual States, and circumvent the inertial bureaucracies which impede his purposes, is a President who has learned the several trades of tyranny. To accomplish democracy’s burgeoning modern agenda seems to demand subverting democracy’s traditional constitutional processes. Without Kennedy’s stewardship of daring there would have been no Bay of Pigs, no Martin Luther King wiretaps, no covert special action groups, no nuclear showdown at the OK Corral: but there also would have been no Test Ban Treaty, no war on Jimmy Hoffa, no Civil Rights Act, no Alliance for Progress, no Manpower Development and Training Act, no rising hope in the young that this was a country which also belonged to them. Americans have always asked of their Presidents more than their liberties could afford. To preserve the Union, Lincoln was prepared to bargain away his commitment to Abolition, and in the course of the war he suspended the constitutional right to Habeas Corpus. Wilson’s campaign for a democratic world included precautions against ‘sedition’ which created the first great American Red Scare at a tremendous post-war cost to civil liberties. Roosevelt imperilled the very foundation of the separation of powers when he threatened to pack the Supreme Court and subordinate the gray old men to the will of the White House.

Wills’s meditation on power carries him up to but not into and out the other side of this paradox of power. He is deeply suspicious of Kennedy’s brand of leadership and attacks the social science theories of Presidential power from which it was drawn and which it in turn fed. Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt’s terse celebration of power used and power enjoyed, chosen by Ted Sorensen to be The Prince of the Kennedy Administration, is mocked, and James David Barber’s typology of Presidential Character put down. Yet Wills has no theory of leadership to put in their place or to challenge James MacGregor Burns’s subtle, historically-embedded account in his recent Leadership. For Wills, Burns belongs among the Kennedy hagiographers. Wills is a revisionist who prefers Eisenhower’s caution to Kennedy’s daring. From the point of view of the safety of liberty, this would seem a prudent choice. But how is policy to be made and crisis to be overcome if democracy is deadlocked by the separation of powers and the inability of a President to control the Congress or even his own party? The British system of cabinet government assures both accountability and efficiency: the Presidential system guarantees neither. The President being, as Laski noted, neither prime minister nor king, he is vested with all of the symbolic patriarchy of the world’s highest office, but few of its requisite powers. He reigns in the mind of assassins who treat him as the Father of the country, but he barely rules at all in the minds of Congressmen, who disdain his programmes and undo his policies.

In Explaining America, Wills argues that Madison actually understood the need for centralised power and wished to guarantee the safety of liberty less through the division of power than by the promotion of public virtue. But what is a President to do? The strong ones imperil democracy, the weak ones paralyse it. Somehow the capital of Camelot always turns out to be Saigon or Havana, and reaching it turns out to require undercover counter-insurgency operations as well as imagination and daring. As Wills wisely writes, ‘we mainly spread havoc under Presidents we love.’ Those chief executives who forgo the magic journey are praised by Wills for their prudence (conservatism in service to liberalism, as it were), but the nation’s business accumulates, and the need for a saviour to rescue the people from lethargy waxes.

America today appears to be approaching such a moment. Reagan’s tinsel charisma is fading like the late-night television movies in which he can still be seen playing the assorted cowboys and good guys on whom his Presidency is fashioned, and the people are growing restless, casting around once again for that elusive midnight rider who, astride a great white horse, will take them charging into a new dawn. This is why Wills’s perfectly reasonable dismissal of Ted Kennedy’s future, like so many perfectly reasonable historical prophecies, may be premature. Kennedy electrified the Democratic Party’s otherwise sallow mini-convention this summer; scarcely a week later, he left the National Association of Colored People’s annual meeting on its feet, cheering. Wills quotes one of John Kennedy’s mistresses as saying: ‘The old man would push Joe, Joe would push Jack, Jack would push Bobby, Bobby would push Teddy, and Teddy would fall on his ass.’ But with all that pushing and the American yen for adventure, Teddy might yet land, if not on his feet, nonetheless in the White House.