November 14, 2013

Robert Dallek on Three Last Questions about JFK

Kennedy is so leery of the possibility that there could be a nuclear conflict. This was the greatest horror to him. Indeed he says to this young mistress, this Mimi Beardsley who spends one night ...

Kennedy is so leery of the possibility that there could be a nuclear conflict. This was the greatest horror to him. Indeed he says to this young mistress, this Mimi Beardsley who spends one night with him at the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis — he says to Mimi: “I’d rather my kids be Red than dead.” He never could have said that in public, but that was his, one might say, revisionist thinking. Because he had begun as a Cold Warrior, you see. And he becomes more mindful of this idea he’ll be the one who’ll be responsible if there’s a nuclear war. It will go down in history as John Kennedy, the Cold Warrior who killed hundreds of millions of people.

You know, at the beginning of his term he wants to rein in the military, who control nuclear weapons, or the local commanders. Mac Bundy tells them they could touch off nuclear war if there’s an incident with the Soviets. So Bundy calls up the general at the Pentagon and says: we want to see the nuclear war plan. And the general says: we don’t show that. Bundy says: you don’t understand, I’m calling for the President. Anyway, they give Kennedy a briefing. They talk about how they would drop 170 atomic bombs — nuclear weapons — on Moscow alone. And they would kill hundreds of millions of people in Russia and Eastern Europe, China. And as Kennedy walks out of the room, he says to Dean Rusk: “And we call ourselves the human race.”

Robert Dallek in conversation with Chris Lydon, November, 2013

Robert Dallek brings passion and a sympathetic curiosity to my last three simple questions about John F. Kennedy — subject of Dallek’s mainstream classic: An Unfinished Life.

First question: really, why do we love JFK so, for a brief and thoroughly scary term in office? We love him more than Ronald Reagan and much more than the other modern presidents.

Second question: what was our reckless playboy president really up to, at the core of his purpose, his being?

Third question: why can’t we know who killed him? The official answer is: a lone-nut assassin did it; three out of four of us don’t believe it.

DallekProfessor Dallek’s answers aren’t simple, and they’re not exactly what I was looking for. But they do connect in a plausible whole, with feeling. Dallek is reminding us us that JFK, off the record, was a pillow-talk peacenik. With his 19-year-old mistress / intern, in the presidential bed during the Missile Crisis, Kennedy spoke the words “better Red than dead” that were officially forbidden during the Cold War. The best way to see Kennedy’s last year, Dallek says, is as an all-out peace campaign against nuclear suicide. JFK was at war with his own CIA, and a lot of his own generals, who were “nuts,” he said. But Dallek won’t say, doesn’t believe and would hate to discover that it was the spies and generals who set up him up for murder. Dallek told me we love Kennedy for his star-crossed glamour – for so many accidental things like the fact that we never saw him grow old. But he leaves me wondering if we don’t all cling to the Kennedy memory much more for the basic reason Dallek admires him above all – that he stared down a very possible nuclear catastrophe; that he broke the nuclear madness of 50 years ago with his melancholy realism about war.

Check out the other reflections we’re recording on the 50h anniversary of John Kennedy’s death. James Douglass, in JFK and the Unspeakable, argues that Kennedy was killed by the war establishment for his turn to peace. Jeffrey Sachs in To Move the World sings the praises of the Kennedy / Sorensen “peace speech” at American University, but doesn’t want to consider a connection with Kennedy’s death. Stephen Kinzer in The Brothers can imagine putting Kennedy’s CIA nemesis Allen Dulles on the list of assassination suspects — but doesn’t see the evidence for prosecution. And by all means add your own thoughts on about John Kennedy’s life, death and legacy in a comment here.

October 27, 2013

JFK on poetry and power: a cub reporter’s account

On this Indian Summer weekend 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy delivered a memorable reflection on poetry, power and the American promise. JFK’s part in dedicating the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College turned ...

On this Indian Summer weekend 50 years ago, President John F. Kennedy delivered a memorable reflection on poetry, power and the American promise. JFK’s part in dedicating the Robert Frost Library at Amherst College turned out to be his last public performance in Massachusetts. At the Boston Globe I was a cub reporter just a year out of Yale when I got my first presidential assignment.
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Launches New Library

Kennedy at Amherst Honors Poet Frost


AMHERST—President Kennedy paid tribute here Saturday to the late Robert Frost and his work, a contribution, he said, “not to our size, but to our spirit, not to our political beliefs, but to our insight, not to our self-esteem, but to our self-comprehension.”

For the President, who received an honorary doctor of laws degree from Amherst, and took part in the groundbreaking ceremony for the college’s new $3.5 million Robert Frost Library, it was an unusual day of departure from the problems of politics and policy.

“This day devoted to the memory of Robert Frost,” he told the special degree convocation, “offers an opportunity for reflection which is prized by politicians, as well as by others.”

Main themes of his speech were the role of art in the life of the nation and the redeeming influence of poetry on power.

“Our national strength matters,” he told his audience of 2700 In Amherst’s Indoor Athletic Field and hundreds more who watched him from other buildings over closed-circuit : television, “but the spirit which Informs and control sour strength matters just as much.”

“This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society.”

Mr. Kennedy, who was a close friend of Frost in the last few years o! the poet’s life, accepted Frost’s proclaimed
vision of “poetry as a means of saving power from itself.”

“When power leads man towards arrogance,” Mr. Kennedy said, “poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and the diversity of his existence, “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic truths, which must serve as touchstones of our judgment.”

Mr. Kennedy made it clear later in the morning’s ceremonies that he saw in Frost’s poetry, not an antithesis to power, but a complement.

In his remarks at the groundbreaking, the President regaled the thousands who stood around him, with recollections about Frost’s “hard-boiled” approach to life and his hopes for the United States.

“He once said that America is the country you leave only when you want to go out and lick another country. He was not particularly belligerent in his relations, his human relations, but felt very strongly that the United States should be a country of power and force, and use that power and force wisely.”

frost-smThe President added with a broad grin, “He once said to me not to let the Harvard in me get to be too important. So we have followed that advice.”

Archibald MacLeish, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet joined President Kennedy in receiving an honorary doctor of laws and. in honoring Frost.

MacLeish spoke on the mystery of Frost’s theme, and the legacy of the poet, which goes beyond the quantity of his reputation and the number of people who knew his name or recognized him on the street.

MacLeish said that only “months after his death, the ‘public image,’ as the industry would call it, has begun to change like the elms in Autumn, leaving enormous branches black and clean against the sky.”

Borrowing a line from Amherst’s poetess, Emily Dickinson, MacLeish called Frost “too intrinsic for renown—intrinsic for renown to touch. , Something in the fame resists the fame, as burning maple logs—rock maple anyway—resist the blaze.”

When Frost talked of what honor meant to him, he spoke of leaving behind him: “a few poems it would be hard to get rid of.”

“Poems are speaking voices,” MacLeish explained. “A poem that ls hard to get rid of is a voice that is hard to get rid of. And a voice that Is hard to get rid of, is a man.

“What Frost wanted for himself in the midst of all that praise was what Keats had wanted for himself in the midst of no praise at all: To be among the English poets at his death—the poets of the English tongue.”

He added later: “To be among the English poets is to BE—to go on being. Frost wanted to go on being. And he has.”

A large part of President Kennedy’s remarks at Amherst were devoted to the responsibility of private colleges to the country.

His invitation to speak at Amherst Saturday had come from the chairman of Amherst’s Board of Trustees, John J. McCloy.

“When the chairman of our Disarmament Agency Committee,” the President said, “who has labored so long and hard—Governor Stevenson’s assistant during the very difficult days at the United Nations during the Cuban crisis, a public servant of so many years-asks oil invites the President of the United States, there is only one response. So I am glad to be here.”

Citing Amherst’s long tradition of public service, Kennedy reminded his audience, “privilege is here, and with
privilege goes responsibility.

“There is inherited wealth in this country and also inherited poverty,” Mr. Kennedy stated, “and unless the graduates of this college and other colleges like it who are given a running start in life—unless they are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy the understanding, the compassion—unless they are willing to put those qualities back into the service of the Great Republic, then obviously the presuppositions on which our democracy is based are bound to be fallible.”

By the time the President and the officers of the college went outside for the groundbreaking, a warm sun bathed the campus of Ivy dressed red brick, where Robert Frost taught and lecture off and on from 1917 until his death.

Podcast • October 5, 2013

James Douglass: JFK and the Unspeakable, Part Two

James Douglass is laying out a version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that is sickening, in every way outrageous, but not exactly unfamiliar. In JFK and the Unspeakable Douglass makes it the story a plot ...

James Douglass
is laying out a version of John F. Kennedy’s assassination that is sickening, in every way outrageous, but not exactly unfamiliar. In JFK and the Unspeakable Douglass makes it the story a plot inside the national security apparatus and the Central Intelligence Agency to kill the president and stop his turn toward peace, toward ending the Cold War with the Soviet Union and exiting the war in Vietnam.

The very thought is appalling and should be unbelievable — of an anti-democratic insurrection that could go unacknowledged and unpunished in the United States for 50 years. But James Douglass is not alone in his suspicion. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., nephew of the president and son of his Attorney General, has called the Douglass version the best book on the subject. In a remarkably under-noticed public conversation in Dallas last January — hosted by Charlie Rose of PBS, but not broadcast — RFK Jr. recounted his father’s view that the Warren Commmission inquiry on JFK’s assassination “was a shoddy piece of craftsmanship.” Further, he said, the Kennedy family long ago rejected the official finding that Lee Harvey Oswald was the “lone assassin.” His father was “fairly convinced,” said RFK Jr., that others were involved. “Organized crime, Cubans?” Charlie Rose asked. “Or rogue CIA,” RFK Jr. answered.

In this second half of our long conversation James Douglass is recounting disparate voices — of a Trappist monk, a dissident film-maker, and JFK’s White House counsellor — that contributed to his reconstruction of the narrative. Douglass is building obviously on Oliver Stone’s film “JFK” (1991), both celebrated and pilloried, which made it the story, in effect, of a military coup. Is it fair, I ask Douglass, to think of his book as “Oliver Stone with Footnotes”? Not really, Douglass says. He is indebted to Stone for endorsing his work, but mainly for the film that prompted Congress to liberate a flood of evidence that Oliver Stone hadn’t seen when he made his movie.

Douglass seems to me over-correct or perhaps coy in protecting the confidence of the late Ted Sorensen, JFK’s alter-ego and wordsmith. Six months before Sorensen died three years ago, he initiated contacts with Douglass, “spoke supportively” of his book, and shared views of the assassination story that he did not want to voice in public. “Why not?” I ask. Because, Douglass says, the speechwriter credited with the noblest lines of Kennedy’s “peace speech” at American University in 1963, wanted to focus on Kennedy’s legacy, as if his murder five months later were not the centerpiece of our awful inheritance. We are still confounded by the silences in this saga.

Strange to say, the most memorable witness to the mystery of JFK in Jim Douglass’s telling is the monk and venerated author Thomas Merton, observing Kennedy from afar a year before the president was killed. In the remoteness of the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, Thomas Merton, two years older than the Catholic president, was watching Kennedy carefully and not without sympathy: “… he is, without doubt, in a position sometimes so impossible as to be absurd,” Merton wrote in 1962. But facing the “suicidal moral evil” of nuclear war, Merton measured Kennedy without great confidence either.

I think he cannot fully measure up to the magnitude of his task and lacks creative imagination and the deeper kind of sensivity that is needed. Too much the Time and Life mentality, than which I can imagine nothing further, in reality, from, say, Lincoln. What is needed is really not shrewdness or craft, but what politicians don’t have: depth, humanity and a certain totality of self forgetfulness and compassion, not just for individuals but for man as a whole: a deeper kind of dedication. Maybe Kennedy will break through into that someday by miracle. But such people are before long marked out for assassination.

Thomas Merton in a letter to his friend W. H. Ferry, quoted by James Douglass in JFK and the Unspeakable, p. 11.

Merton’s prophecy provides the framework of the Douglass narrative which I read and reread, and find inconclusive but compelling. Douglass is not casting John Kennedy for sainthood but he is telling the story as holy tragedy, in which JFK with enormous courage accepted a miracle knowing that the price might be his life.

Is there an under-50 reader or listener, I wonder, who feels with my generation that we’ve all been orphaned by our enforced ignorance around the crash of John Kennedy’s vision?

Podcast • October 2, 2013

James Douglass: JFK and the Unspeakable. Part One.

James Douglass is bracing us to reimagine John F. Kennedy around the 50th anniversary of his “rendezvous with death.” He’s encouraging us to face what has seemed to me a central question — not so ...

James Douglass
is bracing us to reimagine John F. Kennedy around the 50th anniversary of his “rendezvous with death.” He’s encouraging us to face what has seemed to me a central question — not so much the “Who Killed JFK?” bumper-sticker, but more “Why can’t we know?” The answer, Jim Douglas says, is “unspeakable.” He’s adopting a code-word that the late Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton applied to the eternal enemy, “the void,” darkness iself, “systematic evil that goes beyond the imagination.” Douglass’s “unspeakable” is the multifarious modern Satan which took the form of a movement in the upper reaches of Kennedy’s own national security state to kill the president as he made a radical and inspired turn toward peace. He has written a conspiracy book with a scholar’s footnotes and a theological subtext. And a robust Oliver Stone endorsement.

Douglass’s JFK and the Unspeakable is a meticulous compilation of Kennedy and assassination studies. I came to it late, five years after publication, on the recommendation of friends sharing a precious secret. It’s a shocker that has the air, throughout, of a deeply serious inquiry. Jim Douglass has his own temperate, good-humored air. Born in Canada, he’s lived many years in Birmingham, Alabama as a Catholic Worker peace activist and soup-kitchen friend of the down-and-out, all the while teaching himself how to research and write history.

unspeakable coverThe story, like the book title, has two main axes. Jim Douglass’s JFK is far from the oversold man of “vigah,” the reckless bounder of Camelot. He’s been a sickly, often bedridden child, seared by war in the Pacific, mortally threatened by Addison’s disease. He was “dying all his life,” as Douglass puts it in conversation. “He had a raven on his shoulder.” Over-familiar with the last rites of his church, JFK came to politics and daily life for the “fullest experience possible… able to live on the edge because he was ready to lose it all.” He is making a profound turn in the last year of his life and presidency. Trapped and embarrassed by the CIA’s blundering invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in April, 1961, then shaken to the core by the near-catastrophic Cuban missile crisis in October, 1962, Kennedy was deep in back-channel dialogs with Nikita Khrushchev by 1963, closer in spirit to the Russian chief than either felt to their own military men. In the definitive American University “peace speech” of June, 1963, Kennedy was searching for a politcal path to ending the Cold War, and astonishingly negotiated and passed a nuclear test ban treaty that same summer. All the while, Douglass writes, JFK was continually reciting a favorite poem, Alan Seeger‘s “I have a rendezvous with Death,” to his wife and his 5-year-old daughter Caroline, who once stunned Kennedy’s national security council by reciting the poem start to finish in mid-meeting. Kennedy himself left behind hand-written notes to himself, quoting Abraham Lincoln: “I know there is a God — and I see a storm coming; If he has a place for me, I believe that I am ready.” This is the man awakening that Jeffrey Sachs celebrated with me at the JFK Library last Spring, but Jeff Sachs declined to connect Kennedy’s turn, or that American University speech, with Kennedy’s undoing. As Jim Douglas remarked to me, “Jeff Sachs wrote JFK without the Unspeakable.”

The other axis of Douglass’s narrative is the secret apparatus of the national security state after World War 2. After the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the forced retirement of CIA chief Allen Dulles, Douglass pictures JFK at sword-points with his spies and special-operations team, also with famous hawks like General Curtis LeMay among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dismayed that Kennedy hadn’t attacked the Russian bases in Cuba and itching, several of them, to launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. It’s Douglass’ argument, with a lot of circumstantial evidence behind it, that well into 1963, the security chiefs dug in to protect their power and their worldview. Practiced and proficient in covert coups and “plausible deniability,” they snuffed out John Kennedy with masked forces and much the same sang froid they’d directed against Iran’s young democracy in 1953 and against Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in January, 1961, just days before JFK’s inauguration. “Who Killed JFK?” has always been the wrong question, James Douglass is telling us, because it comes to focus on the shooters.

The question of what killed John Kennedy and why he was killed focuses instead on the evidence we have that the shooters are almost irrelevant. But the system is very relevant… The relation above all of JFK to his government is at the heart of it. The nature of the question will take us so far into what Thomas Merton called ‘the unspeakable’ that we’ll almost feel we’re lost in darkness as we’re seeing the light.

James Douglass in Birmingham with Chris Lydon in Boston, September, 2013.

This is the second, not the last, of our Kennedy conversations on the 50th anniversary of his death, and there will be other angles of inquiry. But doesn’t it feel better to open with a writer who challenges so much received opinion and our deepest sentiments about the man and our government?

Podcast • June 25, 2013

Jeff Sachs on JFK’s last year: Between Doom and Miracle

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal. ...

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

President Kennedy’s “peace” speech., Ted Sorensen’s favorite, at American University, June 10, 1963

Jeff Sachs
will remind you, first, of the loopy vertigo of the JFK years, through the “annus mirabilis” that ended in assassination. From the prophet’s vision of the Inaugural speech (“For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life…”) it was 100 days to the blundered mugging of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Then it was 600 days to the brink of annihilation in the Cuban Missile Crisis. But at 1000 days, as if by a miracle, the president had made a resolve to “move the world” onto a plausible path to peace.

Jeffrey Sachs, the global economist of hunger, health and the human emergency, makes a striking personal turn in his fervid rediscovery of John F. Kennedy 50 years later: To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace. Ours is a public conversation at the JFK Library in Boston, opening the semi-centennial reflections on the 35th President. It’s not exactly history or biography that Sachs is giving us, but really one hyper-kinetic and troubled public man’s ardent close-reading of another. JFK’s “peace” speech at American University 50 years ago this month is the critical Sorensen-Kennedy text. Senate ratification of Kennedy’s Test Ban Treaty with Nikita Khrushchev is the under-appreciated monument to the era. And still I’m pressing a what-if question prompted by James Douglass’s under-noticed inquiry, JFK and the Unspeakable: what if it was precisely President Kennedy’s turn to peace — to ending the Cold War, to leaving Vietnam and learning to live with Castro and Cuba — that got our 35th president killed?

jfk amuJames Douglass’s view is a version of Oliver Stone‘s in the movie JFK: that President Kennedy was targeted for death by the security establishment of his own government. What Douglass adds to Stone is the Christian mysticism of Thomas Merton, who wrote at the time that John Kennedy, like peace-makers before and since, had been marked for assassination; but also that he was summoning a miracle to stave off Armageddon.

Jeff Sachs finesses the question of a conspiracy to kill JFK, but he agrees that Thomas Merton gave us the “moral narrative” that runs under the story of Kennedy’s last year, no matter who it was that ordered his death.

We came — it’s trite to say, and impossible to fathom — we came within one shot of ending the world on several occasions. It’s unbelievable. It is a miracle that we got through this; there was no right to expect it… It’s not that JFK woke up exactly, because he was awake. But he stopped stumbling. And he absolutely said, in October: ‘I’ve got to lead.’ He took the decision of leadership. And that is part of what I’m arguing for because I don’t find that our politicians lead very much these days. You know, I voted twice for President Obama but I don’t believe he leads. So I believe this is relevant now. You have to take risks. I was very unhappy with a line in President Obama’s speech in Jerusalem two months ago — another fine address, because our president can give a wonderful address. But it’s the difference between making a wonderful address and making peace that bothers me. In that address President Obama actually said to the young people in Jerusalem: don’t expect politicians to lead; you have to demand for us to lead! John Kennedy did not say to the people on June 10, 1963: ‘I’m just going to sit there till you start demanding peace.’ He said: ‘We have to find the courage to move to peace.’ He didn’t say, ‘you have to make me do it,’ or ‘I’m going to follow what you say,’ which is what President Obama literally said in Jerusalem. I don’t mean to pick on him, but we’re not going to get peace in the Middle East until he leads. That’s the difference here. It was the decision to lead, but it was also of course this incredible deep realization that there were two people who had stared into the darkness like no one else in human history. JFK and Nikita Khrushchev felt that bond as deeply as you can with another human being. They knew that each was threatened by dark forces around them. They were beseiged by their hard-liners. In this sense that [Douglass] book is right — that Kennedy had to overcome a profound sense of pessimism and recklessness in order to get this done. If you had just gone with the military, they’d have destroyed the planet ten times over, no question about it.

Jeffrey Sachs in conversation with Chris Lydon at the JFK Library, June 2013.

Podcast • June 4, 2013

JFK & his Papa: David Nasaw’s light on The Patriarch

David Nasaw’s smashing biography of The Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy smashes not least the legend of a giant gap between cranky father and radiant presidential son. JFK himself gave some substance and flavor to the ...

JFK & JPK 63

David Nasaw’s smashing biography of The Patriarch: Joseph P. Kennedy smashes not least the legend of a giant gap between cranky father and radiant presidential son. JFK himself gave some substance and flavor to the legend in a delicious impromptu line in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s court account of A Thousand Days. The story was that late in the 1960 campaign, when the Jack and Bobby Kennedy were both extending themselves to keep Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail in Georgia, King’s venerable namesake, “Daddy” King of Atlanta, a lifelong Republican, announced that he’d never thought he could vote for a Catholic… “Imagine Martin Luther King having a bigot for a father,” JFK said, in Schlesinger’s telling. The line JFK added “quizzically,” was “Well, we all have fathers, don’t we?”

The gap was broader than that. Joe Kennedy had been an outspoken isolationist even as Franklin Roosevelt’s ambassador to Great Britain; he was a Neville Chamberlain appeasement guy while JFK was learning to love Churchill’s rhetoric of indomitability. Joe Kennedy, tainted by soft-core anti-Semitism, was “absolutely, totally opposed” to the war in which his 3 older sons raced to enlist.

So the differences are sharp and significant, but in the masterful researches and close readings of David Nasaw, the continuities are clear, too, and for a new century maybe more telling. Joe Kennedy’s was ready to “make a deal” with Hitler in 1939-40 on the realistic reading that England was not prepared to defend itself in battle. This became JFK’s college thesis and first book, Why England Slept, an echo of his father’s analysis.

The flip side of Joe Kennedy’s appeasement policy was his zeal to negotiate a rescue of European Jews and a peace that would have saved Europe from war’s devastation. Nasaw is emphatic in our conversation on the point that Joe Kennedy knew more, cared more and was ready to do more about the Jews’ predicament than either Roosevelt or Churchill. The instinct for negotiation shows up, of course, in JFK’s inaugural doctrine: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” And it’s confirmed in all the posthumous evidence of JFK’s mostly secret scurrying in his last year of life to make back-channel peace with Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro — to end nuclear testing, to withdraw US forces from Vietnam, in truth to cancel the Cold War. Both father and son can be read (in part anyway) as rueful, near-radical peaceniks up against the merciless war habit.

Joe Kennedy could count the price of war in his own family. “I hate to think how much money I would give up rather than sacrifice Joe and Jack in a war,” he wrote his father in law in 1937. John Kennedy, in the American University Speech in June, 1963 which now sounds like the heart of the man and his most precious legacy, spoke with the same poignancy in plain language: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Podcast • December 23, 2010

David Bromwich on the “Disappointment in Obama”

David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, reads Barack Obama like a book — as if he were a book, that is. With the novelist Zadie Smith, he often seems to me the ...

David Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale, reads Barack Obama like a book — as if he were a book, that is. With the novelist Zadie Smith, he often seems to me the only commentator worth reading on Obama, precisely because they bring literary tools and imagination to a man who’s himself an almost literary invention. Professor Bromwich takes the study of our president, in effect, out of the White House press room, out of “political science,” whatever that is, into English class. The first premise is that language — scripted and impromtu — reveals the man. “Close reading” suggests further that something about his language is at the core of the low-lying invasive fog of “disappointment in Obama.” In the Bromwich reading, President Obama is “an unusually forceful politician, especially from a distance,” who underestimated the difficulty of his task and “characteristically overrates the potency of words, his words,” to get the job done.

“What he did in the first few months of his presidency, Professor Bromwich is observing in conversation, “was lay down any number of pledges — what the British call ‘earnests’ — of his good intentions about Guantanamo, about Israel and Palestine, about nuclear proliferation, about the environment… It was a wonderful list, and he made pretty good but very general speeches on all of them. I believe he supposed — semi-magically — that from the inspiring force of his speeches, a groundswell of support would arise from the bottom that made him do it. There something fantastic, something delusive, and something unreal about that idea of his role.”

DB: In an improvised moment in this latest campaign, October 2010, Obama talked about taxes and tried to be very understanding toward the Tea Partiers and other anti-tax fanatics and said something like, “That’s in our DNA, right? I mean, we came in because folks on the other side of the Atlantic had been oppressing folks without giving them representation…” Folks? … What was he trying to say? He was trying talk about George III, the tyranny of Britain in the colonial days and Taxation Without Representation. Those are specific names and references every literate American would have recognized, but Obama doesn’t descend into them, or rather doesn’t ascend to them, even though it’s ascending to an ordinary middle level. It was as if he were talking to rather primitive and silly and uninformed people. He has another register which is rather technocratic.

On the Health Care Bill he could talk about the need to “prioritize” and “incentivize” and “watch the trend lines” and so on. So these are two very different idioms. I think the technocratic one is Obama’s natural speaking manner most of the time, most of the day in his presidency, because those are the people he’s around. He learned to talk in the surroundings of the legal academy, corporate life and around bankers and technocrats, and on an honest day he’s one of them.

CL: You caught my attention in the London Review of Books many months ago just with the observation that he can sound like the president of the Ford Foundation, or something. It’s the sound of a vaguely anonymous board room voice, an intelligent mind among a lot of intelligent minds, representing some kind of anonymous consensus of the good people.

DB: Yeah. That’s sort of the good and competent elite who are meant to run things. I call him a Fabian non-socialist for that reason. The Fabians – H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw among them – believed in the reform of society by a group of technocrats, from above, in the direction of equality, but not with much consultation of the populace. And there’s nothing at all low about Obama, nothing the least bit vulgar or ill-bred. In fact, if he had just a dash of vulgarity it might increase the democratic quality of his charm.

He has said the Health Care Bill was a piece of “signature legislation.” That phrase caught my ear. It’s the sort of phrase that would be put into a write-up on the recipient of an honorary degree in a law school or university. And in fact, of course the Health Care Bill was anything but a signature piece of legislation; it worked through many committees, got delayed by Max Baucus and that search for bipartisan consensus, for months delayed by Obama’s personal wait for Olympia Snowe who never came across, and so on. If he had a signature, we don’t know what it looked like… And yet I think for him it was just one more exertion of this neutral, rather impersonal vocabulary that he’s very used to and that you read on the blurbs of semi-thoughtful best sellers.

What can any of us tell about a man’s character, talents, intentions from his words?

David Bromwich is finding the president more detached, perhaps dissociated, than the man he voted for and roots for; a man who’s elegant but not warm; who’s theoretically humble but practically haughty; a gifted writer and speaker who has a hard time naming the thing he’s talking about by its name; a man still hungering for approval and even legitimacy; a politician who does not enjoy the basic friction of politics. John F. Kennedy’s famous news conferences, Bromwich observes on listening again, were “full of human moods and quirks.” JFK spoke rapidly, “as we all do when we’re concerned to say what we really think.” President Obama, by contrast, very rarely ad-libs and speaks “very slowly, deliberately, often even brokenly — not for lack of linguistic skill but for lack of contact between him and what he really wants people to be able to hear of him.”

How strange, if Professor Bromwich is right, that a president who saw himself early, and successfully, as an author, who is still celebrated for his eloquence, is stumbling now on his own use of words.

Podcast • February 2, 2009

Obama Channels John F. Kennedy: Brown Bag (III)

Revisionist Cold War historian James Blight — the scholar behind Errol Morris’ “Fog of War” documentary with Robert McNamara — drops a resonant thought I’d never considered: that every day of John F. Kennedy’s presidency ...

Revisionist Cold War historian James Blight — the scholar behind Errol Morris’ “Fog of War” documentary with Robert McNamara — drops a resonant thought I’d never considered: that every day of John F. Kennedy’s presidency was a centennial anniversay of a day in Abraham Lincoln’s term.

And he’s constantly asking Ted Sorenson, his principal adviser, to go to the Library and find out how he can take something from the American Civil War, that horrible scene — 600,000 Americans killed. ‘How can I take that and use that for my purposes now? Because I want to avoid that! There must be something in that for me.’

Professor James Blight of the Watson Institute at Brown in conversation with Chris Lydon for Open Source, January 28, 2009.

The question in this conversation is how President Barack Obama can use the Kennedy record for his purposes, and what JFK might say to BHO if he had the chance. Jim Blight cuts through the personal and romantic connections between the two princely presidents — the two young and inexperienced Senators, so attractively bright and writerly, each with his detached, anthropological eye. The hard point is that Obama like Kennedy inherits a military machine already in high gear, with a momentum driving escalation in Afghanistan entirely analagous to the pressure toward war that Kennedy resisted in Cuba, Berlin and Southeast Asia. What Kennedy would say to Obama would begin with “all war is stupid,” as Kennedy wrote from his PT boat (before it was rammed by Japanese) in 1943. Jim Blight’s guess is that Kennedy would go on:

“Look deeply into what you’re actually deciding — to send a lot of people miserably to their graves. Furthermore, and this is the essence of it for Kennedy, you have no idea what you’re getting into. You have no idea how this could escalate beyond your control. You have no idea how politically unmanageable it’s going to get for you, or how quickly it is going to happen… When somebody comes in and tells you you have no more options other than to send troops into a battle zone: don’t believe it… Find another way out. Take your time.”

James Blight imagining John F. Kennedy’s counsel to President Barack Obama.

Podcast • October 6, 2008

Virtual JFK: Vietnam (and us) if Kennedy had lived

Find a way to see Virtual JFK — a documentary film chasing a what-if riddle — and have your own presidential debate before choosing between John McCain and Barack Obama. The question in Virtual JFK ...

Find a way to see Virtual JFK — a documentary film chasing a what-if riddle — and have your own presidential debate before choosing between John McCain and Barack Obama.

The question in Virtual JFK is whether President Kennedy, had he lived, would have withdrawn from war in Vietnam in 1965. It is at least arguable that what hangs on the answer is nothing less than the fighting (mostly losing) “counter-insurgency” doctrine that has fired up American foreign policy for nearly half a century, and that accounts for the “permanent war” dread through the Bush years and beyond.

Presidents matter, and presidential temperament is decisive: these are the fundamental premises of the film, and the moral for voters this year. Koji Masutani, 27, made Virtual JFK with his Brown University professor of history and international relations, James Blight. Together they have chosen six “crises” from the early Sixties in which restraint prevailed: the Bay of Pigs fiasco in which Kennedy blocked US Marines from saving the misbegotten mission; the flare-up and ceasefire in Laos in Spring, 1961; the Berlin crisis over the Soviets’ wall in August, 1961, when JFK pulled US tanks out of sight; Kennedy’s early rejection in 1961 of his generals’ plea (including his favorite, Max Taylor) for military intervention in Vietnam; the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, talked down by a “cautious, skeptical” president; and the secret staff planning in October, 1963 to start drawing down the American advisers in Vietnam.

It is clear to Jim Blight, anyway, that JFK’s instinct and persistent pattern were to avoid the war option, to say “no” to his generals, to engage his own restless, combative mind in peaceful, face-saving alternatives. Kennedy was a multilateralist, a man with a delicately balanced reading of an interconnected world. He did not hesitate to speak of his and our responsibility to “mankind” and “the human race.” He would have welcomed “the global test” of American policies. He spoke of “adversaries,” not “enemies.” He dealt with interests, not “evil.” He said: “I hope I am a responsible president. That is my intention.”

Koji Masutani

What the contrarian viewer sees as well is that JFK was up to his neck, at least, in Cold War reflexes. Those wacko nuclear bomb shelters were “useful… important,” he says in a press conference. Kennedy bought the domino doctrine that the fate of Southeast Asia was all or nothing, and he sold the silly simplistic line that nasty “guerrilas” were disrupting a peaceful democracy in South Vietnam. In his lesser moments Kennedy can sound shockingly close to George W. Bush, needling up fear and hostility around catch-phrases like “the most dangerous time in the history of the human race.” But then, what if it really was?

The seductive beauty of Virtual JFK is watching the play of doubt and responsibility, learning and wit on the weathered face of a 45-year-old war hero who is, unbelievably, the president of the United States.

KM: Imagine sitting in an editing studio in the dark for three years, hours and hours a day, having grown up with parents who are not American… I am listening to Kennedy, a president who is articulate, essentially disarming. I found this very surprising, as if he was an alien. I am just surprised that we have been here before: muddled in a war that can’t fully be explained. In the second part, we get in to Lyndon Johnson, someone who uses the kind of rhetoric that George Bush uses today, in absolutes.

JB:It’s so interesting because Johnson’s tapes are phone tapes and it feels like you’re sitting right there with the man himself. For the first three or four months, the phone tapes with McNamara show that McNamara, in a sense unconsciously still thinks he’s talking to Kennedy because he keeps interrupting him, and that is not something that is done with Johnson. He also keeps bringing data to bear on the situation, and Johnson doesn’t want to hear that either… until about March when…we did a rough calculation: about 50% of McNamara’s interventions after that are “yes, sir.” There is no known instance of a conversation with Kennedy that we have on tape where Kennedy talks and McNamara says “yes, sir.” It’s McNamara talks and Kennedy asks questions and then thinks about it…

KM:Kennedy required competitive information. At every meeting Kennedy wanted to hear from people who disagreed with him, and then under Johnson there was evidence that he wanted a consensus to take place before the meeting occurred…

Koji Masutani and James Blight of Virtual JFK in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 29, 2008

Koji Masutani conceived his movie before the shape of the 2008 race was remotely clear. The movie never mentions Barack Obama, but one feels that Obama has been growing into the Kennedy role. Ted Sorensen, who wrote many of Kennedy’s best lines, isn’t mentioned in the movie either. But Sorensen figures largely in our conversation here:

James G. Blight

So [we asked] Ted [Sorensen, Kennedy’s former speechwriter] what is it about Barack Obama that reminds you of your former friend and boss. He said, “it’s this: his first reaction will be to think, to consider. It will not be to strike out to strike out at the first opportunity, it seems to Ted, and it seems to me, frankly. That doesn’t make him a ditherer, not a person who is incapable of making a decision, but a person who wants to hear as many points of view as are relevant to the situation as possible and then to move forward and to try to do the least harm. Not an ideologue, not going to try to democratize the world and the moon and Mars and everything with it.” The point of leadership, he said, according to Kennedy, was to do as little harm as possible. And he thinks that Obama has kind of internalized that.

James Blight of the Watson Institute at Brown University and Virtual JFK in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 29, 2008

Podcast • March 17, 2008

Cuba on our Minds (III): David Kaiser’s JFK

The journalist and diplomat William Attwood is the exceptional spirit in David Kaiser‘s new history of the JFK assassination, The Road to Dallas. Attwood leaps off the page as a man of imagination and mettle ...

The journalist and diplomat William Attwood is the exceptional spirit in David Kaiser‘s new history of the JFK assassination, The Road to Dallas. Attwood leaps off the page as a man of imagination and mettle who (on a first reading) might have saved the Kennedy brothers and redrafted hemispheric relations.

Out of LOOK magazine and the Adlai Stevenson campaigns in the 1950s, Attwood came into the Kennedy administration as JFK’s ambassador to Guinea in West Africa, with a long-standing free-lance interest in Cuba. In late October, 1963, Attwood was looking for high-level permission to renew a conversation with Fidel Castro in Havana, specifically to pursue indications from Castro that, as Kaiser writes, “if the United States would lift the economic blockade against Castro, he would evict the Soviets from Cuba.”

But nobody in the Kennedy command was interested in anything that sounded like a relaxation of hostilities with Castro after the Bay of Pigs fiasco (April 1961) and the Missile Crisis (October 1962). In the fateful autumn of 1963, McGeorge Bundy in the White House, Robert Kennedy himself and the chiefs at State, Defense and the CIA all “agreed that it would be better for Attwood to return to private life before meeting with Castro.”

A golden opportunity so narrowly missed, as I remark here in conversation with David Kaiser. But Kaiser, the much-praised historian at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I, brings me up short. I’d mistaken a double twist in his book. Kaiser says: “The men who wanted to kill JFK” — notably the Mafia and the fiercest of the anti-Castro Cubans in the U.S. — “would not have been pleased by any attempt to normalize relations with Castro. On the contrary…” JFK might have sealed his fate more certainly by encouraging Bill Attwood’s detente initiative.

In a round of conversations about the obsessive lure of Cuba, this is a historical digression on the eternal question of Who Killed JFK. We seem to be coming closer to the eternal answer, with Cuba at the core.

Our guest David Kaiser argues (to me, persuasively) that Lee Harvey Oswald was the triggerman and fallguy for a diversified conspiracy of men and interests that wanted President Kennedy dead. Oswald was the “who” that killed Kennedy, but the historian’s emphasis after nearly 50 years is on the “what” that killed him. In a story crackling with lethal ironies, the “what” was the convergence of two passionate public campaigns of the late 1950s and early 1960s. The first, by the mob-infected Kennedy brothers, John and Robert, was to crush organized crime in America. The other, initiated by the Eisenhower administration, was to eliminate Fidel Castro and Communism from Cuba, by virtually any means imaginable, including assassination by American mobsters. Oswald, in David Kaiser’s telling, was a multi-purpose assassin who with minor shifts of circumstance might have shot Castro before he ended up shooting Kennedy. But he seems to have been working the mob’s plan on November 22, 1963; and of course it was the mob’s man Jack Ruby who, two days later, shot Oswald in Dallas police custody to shut him up.

It is still a hair-raising tale of a host of men — Richard Helms, Sam Giancana, Jimmy Hoffa, Loran Hall, Carlos Marcello, David Atlee Phillips among the scores — with Cuba and killing on their minds. “Where did these men find the audacity to kill a president of the United States?” Kaiser asks. He believes JFK had compromised his immunity by taking girls from Frank Sinatra and by playing the assassination game against Castro. He argues that RFK lost official immunity by the recklessness of his vendetta against Jimmy Hoffa. “All these men knew that Hoffa’s comment about the attorney general — that Robert Kennedy would not rest until Hoffa was behind bars — was true for them as well. These were desperate times that called for desperate measures?”

Kaiser clarifies the story of a crime, the killing of a king, that — as Olive Stone’s JFK suggested — touched each of us, and the country, with some of Hamlet’s madness.