Books: So, You Want to be President?

Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House


“He can’t do that to me.”

Such was JFK’s response when he was told at 8am, while still in bed in pajamas, reading the morning papers, about the missiles in Castro’s Cuba.

He, of course, was Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet Premier and Kennedy’s chief antagonist.

Kennedy’s exclamation underscores how often he was operating on the defensive, playing catch up, or both.

It’s an oft repeated theme in Robert Dallek’s 2013 book focusing on Kennedy’s advisers and the problems he faced.  Dallek has written widely on presidents and may be best known for An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy and his several books on LBJ.

Camelot’s Court covers the usual suspects: Bay of Pigs, Berlin, Vietnam, Civil Rights and the Missile Crisis and  it is presented in a compelling and personal way with forays into Kennedy’s private conduct and affairs.

Kennedy’s response when he found out that the Soviets had resumed atmospheric nuclear testing: “F–ked again.  The bastards, that f–king liar.” [Khrushchev]

It seems that second only to the Soviets as a constant source of tension were the US Joints Chiefs who pushed Kennedy on the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam.  Kennedy inherited his chiefs from Eisenhower and he was less than pleased with them.  The feeling was mutual.

Dallek underscores that JFK felt deceived by both the Chiefs and the CIA over the failed Cuba invasion.

“All my life I’ve known better than to depend on the experts.  How could I have been so stupid, to let them go ahead?”

And Kennedy on the Chiefs, “Those sons of bitches with all that fruit salad just sitting their nodding, saying it would work.”

Importantly, Kennedy adopted a posture of being skeptical of inside advice while seeking outside observers who could be more detached in their views.

Some of his closest advisers were not even of his own choosing.  He felt compelled to satisfy both the liberal and conservative wings of the Democratic party while recruiting Republicans such as Douglas Dillon as Treasury Secretary.

Kennedy was bored with domestic policy and lackluster on civil rights.  Martin Luther King said that JFK lacked  moral commitment.  Kennedy used his brother Robert to try and calm the roiling waters of civil rights to no avail.  The marches and boycotts continued as civil rights leaders refused to back off on the public pressure that would eventually win dividends.

Kennedy was cowed or awed by (racist) Southern committee chairman in Congress.  He preferred to avoid antagonizing them since they could stop legislation he felt was essential.

You can sense Kennedy’s palpable frustration over Vietnam.  He was whip-sawed by his own advisers, some like Marine General Victor Krulak on the one hand who thought victory inevitable while others painted the opposite portrait of defeat sensing that South Vietnam was not winnable.

Dallek gives a documented view of a president’s powers wholly circumscribed by politics, precedent  and the potent fear of communism.  Kennedy had limited room to maneuver on critical issues such as the Soviets, civil rights and Vietnam since his presumed allies (liberals, joint Chiefs, State Department) were just as often adversaries with their own goals and constituencies.

Dallek reminds us again that to be president is to be besieged, frustrated and very lonely, Marilyn Monroe notwithstanding.

Camelot’s Court:  Inside the Kennedy White House

Harper Collins


$32.50, Hardback



1 Comment

  • Glenn says:

    Kennedy’s experiences and the environment with his close cabinet members is reminiscent of those Lincoln faced during his time in office.

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