Garry Wills, ‘The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Medita­tion on Power’ (05/82)

One reads that for the so-called neoliberals—men like Democratic senators (and presidential hopefuls) Gary Hart, Bill Bradley, and Paul Tsongas—the legacy of John F. Kennedy continues to define the possibilities of reshaping politics and public life in this country. What can this mean? It means, Garry Wills implicitly argues in his new study of two generations of Kennedy men, nothing: political nihilism. It means that the holding of power itself is understood to create politics, which is understood as the opportunity to exercise power. It is a politics without values—ethics as a Mobius strip.

One can see this in the neoliberal embrace of the idea of compulsory, universal “national service.” The country neither wants nor needs such a thing, and it is a contradiction of the values on which the country was founded—but it is the logical extension of “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” except that you don’t get to ask. One can see it in the confused career of Bobby Kennedy, who responded to the failure of the American adventure in Viet Nam with sequential offers to become ambassador to Saigon in order to win the war and to become president in order to surrender it. One can see it in the pathetic 1980 campaign of Teddy Kennedy, who after a long and distinguished tenure in the Senate—after staking out solid positions on dozens of vital issues—responded to the question of why he should be president with non sequiturs, mumbles, and finally a blur about “leadership.” Leadership, Wills makes clear, is what the Kennedys always promised—that, and the sense of open possibility that is an inevitable by-product of nihilism, at least until the chickens come home to roost.

The Kennedy Imprisonment is not a deeply engaged, profoundly challenged and challenging work on the level of Wills’s Nixon Agonistes—still the best book on Nixon, even though it was published in 1970. Despite a memorable demolition job on James Barber’s stupidly reductionist Presidential Character (Wills remains unmatched as an adversary of bad social science), as political theory, as a serious reexamination of such concepts as charisma or power, The Kennedy Imprisonment doesn’t exist. As a psychological study it is shallow. As a narrative it is impatient: you can read it in a few hours. Sometimes the book is impatient even with its own analysis: Wills’s claim that JFK’s view of world affairs was primarily based in an adolescent fixation on the writings of John Buchan (author of The Thirty-Nine Steps and, according to spy novelist Eric Ambler, a cryptofascist) is not a subversion of JFK’s myth so much as it is a subversion of the practice of history—nothing is that simple.

Wills writes less as a historian than as an outraged citizen. He is revolted by his material—Joseph P. Kennedy’s rejection of his Irish heritage and JFK’s identification with upper-class Britons, the satyriasis of the Kennedy men, their mindless cult of expertise, Kennedy dishonesty (JFK’s false claim to have written Profiles in Courage, for ex­ample), the Kennedy substitution of droit du seigneur for democracy—and no matter how many holes this revulsion leaves in the book, in the end it is liberating. All the anti-Kennedy research, memoirs, and thinking—from Victor Navasky’s Kennedy Justice to Judith Campbell Exner’s kiss and tell—has been gathered in one place, and to confront it is to curse. The knowledge one gains may be the knowledge of how easily and how com­pletely one can be fooled—a reader ought to leave this book on guard.

To be made to read, word for word, the supplicating garbage White House journalists (not to mention such literary savants as John Hersey and Norman Mailer) turned out on JFK, as they tried to write up to the Ken­nedys’ concept of their mission, is to be forced to reject certain illusions one might have bought at the time, and might still buy. Here is Theodore H. White, from his acclaimed The Making of the President, on JFK in the Oval Office: “The telephone is silent—it rings with few or no incoming messages, it quivers, generally, only as he exerts his will through it.” And here is White on JFK in—well, in what? “For the laws of Congress cannot define, nor can custom anticipate, the unknown—and this is where the great presidents must live, observant of the law yet beyond the law, Chief Executive and High Priest of American life, at once.” This, it ought to be recognized, is very close to the language of fascism. (In the case of the telephone bit, it’s also the language of ESP—poor Ike, he only dialed.) Wills forces the reader to recognize that it is language that JFK and his lieutenants elicited, that was perfectly in tune with their image of action. And that image of action, Wills reminds the reader, was most often described as “exis­tential”—a classy buzzword that meant, if it meant anything, that such action derived its values and its purposes only from itself.

This is context: the story proceeds, or rather crumbles. To read, even if once again, how there was little at stake in the celebrated Cuban missile crisis of 1962 save that bankrupt sense of action, here translated into a version of the Kennedy sense of manli­ness—and by this point the Kennedy sense of manliness is properly colored by Kennedy satyriasis—is to gain an enormous appreciation for the limits that Congress and public opinion have since imposed on the conduct of foreign policy. To follow the account of JFK’s and RFK’s patrician incomprehension in the face of the demands of black Americans is to think that the current administration’s subversion of civil rights differs from the original Kennedy position mainly as a matter of bad PR. To compare the Reagan-Haig record on Nicaragua to that of JFK and RFK on Cuba (not just the 1961 invasion and the 1962 attempt to redress its failure, but the numerous attempts to assassinate Castro, which only those who believe in the Easter bunny still think were carried out without JFK’s and RFK’s knowledge) is to be violently sobered. Certainly, Reagan may yet destroy Nicaragua, as Nixon destroyed Allende’s Chile—but I am speaking of timing. The Kennedy sense of power, and of action, made it imperative that power be exercised, and action taken, immediately and continually—because it was only in such a manner that Kennedy hegemony could be justified. Teddy Kennedy’s hapless grasp at “leadership” in the face of a record of true accomplishment is a tinny echo of his father’s and his brothers’ voice of sordid glory.

There remain two major problems with Wills’s book, holes for which his revulsion is not a bridge. No matter how empty their conception of politics, the Kennedys wrought changes in American life that are unmistakable. They promised, proved, or suggested that in politics any heresy, any rebellion, any apostasy might bear fruit. They did this through image and through an unconscious public perception of their nihilism: JFK as a young man for whom anything was possible, RFK as a confused rebel who suggested that anything was immediately possible, and Teddy Kennedy as an inheritor, helplessly carrying the seductions of his brothers like physical attributes. The politics may have been false, but they had real effects: among them, the explosion of noninstitutional politics of the 1960s. Many have linked this explosion to the affirmation of rebellion in rock ‘n’ roll, and the confluence makes sense: if JFK was an almost-Elvis in 1960, provoking both women and men, then by 1968 RFK was the real thing, a political Elvis—just as by the end of the year Elvis revealed himself as Bobby Kennedy with a broken, impassioned ballad about social justice, “If I Can Dream,” which was written little more than a month after RFK was shot to death. By that time the streets were full of furious legatees of both. Wills is not interested in such speculations; he wants the story behind him.

The second hole in Wills’s book is more glaring, and more revealing of its intellectual narrowness—especially in comparison to Nixon Agonistes. That book takes Nixon as a representative man, and struggles to understand how the figure of Richard Nixon could both reflect and pervert the American experience. The Kennedys are presented as an anomaly. One can learn something about Lincoln, or Wilson, or, for that matter, John F. Kennedy from Nixon Agonistes; there is no such illumination in The Kennedy Imprisonment.

Wills is our most convincing defender of Eisenhower, and he contrasts Eisenhower’s understanding of what it meant to work as chief executive with Kennedy’s to great effect: the world as a field of limits versus the world as a field of action. Yet the CIA purges, conducted with Eisenhower’s full approval, of moderate reformist regimes in Iran and Guatemala—events we are still paying for, and, to put it mildly, that Iranians and Guatemalans are still paying for—are noted and dismissed in a word. JFK’s assault on Cuba, which produced no such results, is presented as far more invidious—as if it was worse because it was more spectacular; as if, to get down to it, it was worse because its style was worse. And that turns the Kennedy defenders’ last-ditch apologia into the basis of Wills’s attack on them.

There is a continuity in the blindness of American domestic policy, and in the arrogance of American foreign policy—a continuity that goes back to the Constitution’s three-fifths solution to the problem of how to count slaves in the census and to the Mexican-American War of James Polk—that Wills ignores in his eagerness to rid us of our illusions about the Kennedys. His book will have its deserved effect if it convinces us that the presidency of John F. Kennedy, and the attempts at restoration that have followed it, were illusions. It will be equally destructive if it convinces us that the arrogance and blindness of JFK’s administration, and the more seemly but still fundamentally empty attempts at restoration that followed it, were not part of a larger tale—if his book convinces us that the Kennedy adventure was somehow unconnected to, a contradiction of, the possibilities of arrogance and blindness of power politics in America, anyone’s America.

de Stijl
State’s Evidence, by Stephen Greenleaf (Dial, 324 pages, $15.95); Death Bed, by Stephen Greenleaf (Ballantine, 240 pages, $2.50 paper; forthcoming in June); Grave Error, by Stephen Greenleaf (Ballantine, 231 pages, $2.50 paper). These are very good mysteries. They feature John Marshall Tanner, middle-aged San Francisco private eye, and you’re sorry when they end. The ambience of Northern California is closely observed for its own sake, and all sorts of sociological types (from old campus radicals to newly born-again Christians) are brought to life; both lend real authority to arbitrarily conceived plots and main characters. Greenleaf has a penchant for awful metaphors, and he throws in too much Gothic horror at the climaxes—there’s so much evil tumbled into the finale of Grave Error I almost missed the clincher; the ultimate crime is tossed off like a third martini—but only pedants will care. The books catch you up, and the solutions, which pointedly solve nothing, leave you hanging—fading nightmares.

The Brink, by N.J. Crisp (Viking, 296 pages, $14.95). A top-notch European espio­nage thriller. The U.S.S.R. penetrates the computer that controls all continental nuclear weapons—and begins setting them off, in a configuration that makes it appear that the West can no longer control its own arsenal, thus allowing a Soviet invasion of West Germany. The United States washes its hands of the whole matter; the seconds tick down. And the hero doesn’t even get the girl.

Cockburn Sums Up, by Claud Cockburn (Quartet, 270 pages, $17.95). The memoirs of the late Communist journalist—author of Beat the Devil, foreign correspondent for the London Times (for which he covered the crash of 1929 from New York), columnist for the Daily Worker, Punch, and Private Eye, and, before the war, editor of his own powerful, mimeographed political scandal sheet, The Week—and the most purely pleasurable book I’ve read since Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. Fifty years devoted to work seeking its cutting edge gave Cockburn a voice one can listen to long into the night—unless, I suppose, one is its target, as was Anthony Eden, a future prime minister pinned by Cockburn in 1945: “a perpetually young man who spent a long life trailing a brilliant future behind him.”

Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, by Donald Johanson and Maitland Edey (Warner Books, 409 pages, $9.95 paper, illustrated). Far superior to Richard Leakey’s recent books, this is a well-argued, at times bravely complex account of the discovery and study of the 3.5-million-year-old Australopithecus afarensis, the earliest protohuman to have emerged from the fossil record. Most notable is the chapter on the origins of bipedalism; most disconcerting are the drawings of fossil reconstructions, which show a head that is unquestionably not human on a body that unquestionably is.

De Stijl, 1917-1931: Visions of Utopia, edited by Mildred Friedman (Abbeville, 255 pages, $24.95 oversize paper). Today it may seem as if de Stijl—“the Style,” a Holland-based art movement of straight lines, right angles, and primary colors—has been re­duced to the Rubik’s Cube. This superbly designed and printed book (the catalog for the de Stijl exhibit now at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.) is a testa­ment to how much energy and commitment was once elicited by those narrow limits. More than a dozen exceptionally readable essays cover the movement from all sides, and the illustrations and portfolios, many in color, range from the dazzling to the deca­dent: while de Stijl paintings and especially the amazing Café Aubette, designed by de Stijl founders Theo van Doesburg, Jean Arp, and Sophie Tauber-Arp in 1926, still shine with freedom, thought, and wit, a 1924 plan for a shopping mall looks like the great dead place of modernism. And there is, in the “Echoes of De Stijl” section, one lovely touch that sums up the movement as well as anything: Ray Johnson’s 1967 Mondrian, a collage tribute to the best known of the de Stijl painters. It’s little more than a few lines, a few shadows, a photo of the artist, and, slapped beneath it, these words: IT WAS AN ITSY BITSY TEENY WEENY YELLOW POLKA DOT BIKINI.

Burn Down the Night, by Craig Kee Strete (Wainer Books, 288 pages, $6.95 paper). Flush from moving 750,000 copies of No One Here Gets Out Alive, a curdlingly bad Jim Morrison biography, the publishers—one small part of the conglomerate that handles the record catalog of the late Lizard King—are back with a follow-up. What’s the angle? Why, an “autobiographical novel” by one who knew him when. This means, presumably, that questions of verifiable fact are even less at issue than the first time around—or that sufficient years have passed for art to replace mere journalism. Given that the first sentence of the book is, “It was the kind of party where the host cuts the hearts out of small children and inserts a Coke bottle in the red-rimmed hole to amuse his guests,” and given that neither you, I, nor the author has ever been to such a party, it must be art.

California, May 1982

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s