Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Monday, November 18, 2013

Life of JFK7: Kennedy's Many Posses

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was born to a crowd, lived and died in crowds but throughout his life spent long stretches of time alone in hospital beds and sick rooms, fighting off life-threatening illnesses.

He learned along the way what the successful do, to delegate parts of himself to trusted associates, to create diverse posses of political advisers and helpers, ranging from the Irish Mafia of his family’s Boston days and his Navy crony Red Fay to the intellectually elite like historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and his ultimate alter ego Ted Sorensen.

In the White House, they would say, "When Jack is hurt, Ted bleeds," and loyalty was certainly a Sorensen trait, but there was much more. JFK called him his “intellectual blood bank.”

Sorensen stubbornly refused to confess he had ghost-written "Profiles in Courage," the Pulitzer Prize book about political courage that first brought JFK to prominence, admitting only he had helped with research and editing.

As for the famous line in the inaugural, "Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country," Sorensen would only say with a smile about its origin, "Ask not."

Theodore Chaikin Sorensen provided Kennedy not only with words but with the heartland ideals that came from his own heritage as a Nebraska "Danish Russian Jewish Unitarian" born to a staunch Republican and a Feminist mother.

When they met, JFK told him, "I’m not a liberal," and he wasn't but, over the years with Sorensen's influence, grew beyond the confines of his own background of great wealth and privilege into the man the world remembers now.

Over time, I got to know and work with Ted on many projects, including Robert Kennedy's memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and became enough of a friend to be invited to his wedding reception.

He was a soft-spoken, gentle man but a fierce idealist who did not let age and infirmity slow him down. Five years ago, nearly blind, he was out campaigning for Barack Obama, in whom he saw many of Kennedy’s qualities, and he could still write a great speech line: "Don't worry about my eyesight,” he told crowds about George W. Bush. “I have more vision than the President of the United States."

Kennedy knew historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. from his Harvard days and recruited him for the White House as a scholar in residence. He could see that the Bay of Pigs invasion would be a disaster and afterward reproached himself for being too intimidated to speak up and try to stop the train wreck.

Afterward, JFK tweaked him about his failure, saying Schlesinger "wrote me a memorandum that will look pretty good when he gets around to writing his book on my administration. Only he better not publish it while I'm still alive!”

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Schlesinger kept reminding the President of the lesson they had both learned and served him well during those harrowing days.

On the subject of memoirs, in 1962 when Ike's former speech writer Emmet Hughes wrote a tell-all book about his Eisenhower days, Kennedy was appalled.

According to Sorensen, Kennedy thought Hughes "had betrayed the trust of Republican officials by quoting their private conversations against them" and told his White House staff, "I hope no one around here is writing that kind of book."

No one did. Both Sorensen and Schlesinger wrote doorstop volumes about JFK’s White House tenure without a hint of gossip. Loyalty did not stop at his death.

The Kennedy White House played the press like a jukebox. Pierre Salinger, a brass-tacks former reporter and editor, courted friendly media at private lunches and dinners. He knew in detail about everyone’s deadlines.

At one of those dinners I broached the idea of a joint press conference with Kennedy for editors of the largest women’s magazines to answer questions about fallout from nuclear testing and the test-ban treaty with the Russians that would need public support for ratification by the Senate.

Salinger accepted on the spot. Lining up the magazine editors would be harder.

Next: Kennedy at his peak.

1 comment:

Murr Brewster said...

What I would most like every detractor to state is what he or she is defending about the current system. It's got it all, right down to the death panels. We know what you're against (frankly, a colored guy in charge)--what are you for?