President Kennedy: Profile of Power

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9780671648794: President Kennedy: Profile of Power

An objective view of John F. Kennedy's presidency offers insights into the Bay of Pigs crisis, the civil rights battles, his commitment toward Vietnam, and other key events. By the author of American Journey. 75,000 first printing. Tour.

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About the Author:

Richard Reeves is the author of presidential bestsellers, including President Nixon and President Kennedy, acclaimed as the best nonfiction book of the year by Time magazine. A syndicated columnist and winner of the American Political Science Association's Carey McWilliams Award, he lives in New York and Los Angeles.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

January 19, 1961

In the weeks between his election and inauguration as the thirty-fifth President of the United States, John F. Kennedy spent as much time as he could relaxing in the sun at his father's house in Palm Beach, Florida. On the first Saturday night of December, at a casual dinner in the big kitchen with a few friends and members of his campaign staff, someone asked him whether he was nervous about his first meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower, the next Tuesday. Kennedy jumped up laughing. "Good morning, Mr. K-e-e-nnedy," he said, imitating Eisenhower, who sometimes mispronounced his name. Then he swept an imaginary hat from his head, bowed, and said: "Good morning, Mr. Eeeee-senhower."

Three days later, the forty-three-year-old President-elect, the youngest ever elected, was driven to the North Portico entrance of the White House to meet the seventy-one-year-old President, the oldest man ever elected. Kennedy opened the door of his limousine before it had even stopped and bounded up the six stairs alone, carrying his hat. He caught Eisenhower by surprise. The President, attended by a covey of aides, whipped off his own hat and started to reach out his hand, but Kennedy beat him to the handshake, too. "Good morning, Mr. President," he said.

"Senator," Eisenhower replied. The Marine Band struck up "The Stars and Stripes Forever."

It was the first formal encounter between two men of surpassing charm from different generations. The cameras clicking furiously were focused on the two most famous smiles in the land. The general who had commanded all of the Allied troops in Europe during World War II was born in the nineteenth century. At Kennedy's age, he was a major in the Army. His famous grin and calm public manner had convinced many of his countrymen that he was a nice guy and a lousy politician. Those who knew him well thought the opposite. Kennedy lived along a line where charm became power. Men and women fell in love with him. And politics, the career he had chosen, was a business that magnified charm and institutionalized seduction.

Kennedy and Eisenhower had a certain contempt for each other. Kennedy's campaign attacks had been muted and indirect because of Ike's popularity, but Eisenhower still took them personally. Privately, Kennedy called Ike "that old asshole," the wisecracking Navy officer mocking the commander. Eisenhower, using words of his generation, had called Kennedy "that young whippersnapper" or "Little Boy Blue."

The two men had met for the first time fifteen years earlier in Potsdam, Germany, at the end of World War II, but General Eisenhower did not remember being approached by an ex-lieutenant, junior grade, who was working as a special correspondent for the Hearst newspapers. And Senator Kennedy's status in Washington before the 1960 election might be measured by the fact that he had never met with the President in eight years in the Senate.

Their meeting on December 6 was officially unofficial. No notes were taken and no aides sat in. The senator looked at the President's bare desk as they sat down and asked him where he put his papers. Halfway through the question, he realized there were no papers. Eisenhower did not work that way. He did not like details and he preferred talking to reading.

They talked for more than an hour, mostly about national security and foreign affairs. Eisenhower realized quickly what was on Kennedy's mind and he didn't much like it. His questions were about the structure of decision making on national security and defense. It was clear to Ike that Kennedy thought his structure was too bureaucratic and slow-with too many debates and decisions outside the President's reach and control. Eisenhower thought Kennedy was naive, but he was not about to say that, and so he began a long explanation of how and why he had built up what amounted to a military staff apparatus to collect and feed information methodically to the Commander-in-Chief and then coordinate and implement his decisions.

"No easy matters will ever come to you as President. If they are easy, they will be settled at a lower level," Eisenhower told him. It was not an idea that appealed to Kennedy. He wanted to see it all.

"I did urge him to avoid any reorganization until he himself could become well acquainted with the problem," Eisenhower dictated to his secretary later. But clearly Kennedy was not interested in organization charts, or in organization itself, for that matter. Ike's bent toward order was exactly the kind of passive thinking he wanted to sweep away. He had no use for process, with its notemaking, minute taking, little boxes on charts showing the Planning Board and the Operations Coordinating Board. He did not think of himself as being on top of a chart; rather, he wanted to be in the center, the center of all the action.

The other matter the President wanted to discuss was "burden-sharing." Alone and in a shorter session with Cabinet members that followed, Eisenhower told his successor that it was time to start bringing the troops home from Europe. "America is carrying far more than her share of free world defense," he said. It was time for the other nations of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to take on more of the costs of their own defense. Their economies were more productive than ever in their histories and the costs of American deployment were creating a trade imbalance, draining gold from the United States Treasury. Americans, in uniform and out, were spending and buying more overseas than foreigners were spending here. Kennedy nodded. Eisenhower sounded just like his father, who had always drummed into him that nations are only as strong as their currencies.

At the end of the day, the two men had impressed each other in a grudging sort of way without really agreeing on much. Kennedy was surprised to find Eisenhower so knowledgeable, but that confirmed his conviction that Eisenhower's problem was that he had not understood the real powers of the office. Ike, too, found Kennedy surprisingly well informed about many things, but being President was not one of them.

Kennedy told his brother Robert, who had waited in the limousine, that he knew now how Ike had become President; there was a surprising force to the man. Eisenhower wrote almost the same words about Kennedy in his diary that night, though he worried that he did not begin to understand the complexity of the job. It seemed to him that Kennedy thought the presidency was about getting the right people in a few jobs here and there.

He got it. Kennedy believed that problem solving meant getting the right man into the right place at the right time. If things went wrong, you put in someone else. His man for the transition from candidate to President was his personal lawyer, Clark Clifford, who had served on President Truman's staff. In August, three months before the election, Kennedy had said to him, "I don't want to wake up on November 9 and have to ask myself 'What in the world do I do now?'"

But he did wake up as President-elect asking that question, surrounded by transition memos -- literally surrounded, because he liked to work in bed -- from Clifford, from college professors, from national security intellectuals and high-minded social reformers, from management consultants. Most of it was a waste of time: lists of three hundred appointments that could be delayed until after the inauguration were not worth much to a politician whose first priority was to begin a new campaign to win over some of the 34 million people who voted against him.

Kennedy had celebrated victory in his house at Hyannis Port with a joke about his wife and Toni Bradlee, the wife of a friend, Ben Bradlee, the Washington bureau chief of Newsweek magazine. Both women were pregnant. "Okay, girls, you can take out the pillows now. We won!" But he looked tired and subdued when he met with four hundred reporters in a National Guard Armory near Hyannis Port. "The New Frontier" the candidate had proclaimed during the campaign was approached rather timidly that morning. He announced that his first telephone calls as President-elect had been to the crustiest dons of Washington's old frontiers: J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, and Allen Dulles, director of the CIA. He had asked them both to stay on.

Then he had to lie. When a reporter asked about rumors that he had Addison's disease, an adrenal gland failure often considered terminal, Kennedy replied without hesitation, "I never had Addison's disease. In regard to my health, it was fully explained in a press statement in the middle of July, and my health is excellent." The campaign statement was not true. Kennedy had received the last rites of the Catholic Church at least four times as an adult. He was something of a medical marvel, kept alive by complicated daily combinations of pills and injections.

The necessity to project an image of tirelessness during the campaign was a tremendous physical strain on Kennedy -- and a personal triumph. But he was a wreck when it was over. Sometimes he was barely coherent in the month after the election. He spent most of November and December at the Palm Beach house his father had bought for $100,000 in 1933. There, and later at his house on N Street in Georgetown, he began to put together a government, beginning with Clifford's simple memos, which read like high school texts and were basically lists from McKinsey and Company, the management consultants who had done an almost identical transition study for Eisenhower in 1952. "The occupants of 71 to 74 positions in the Executive Branch and agencies will vitally influence the President-elect's power to govern," one began. "The most important posts are State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, and the UN."

Kennedy interviewed strangers for hours every day -- falling asleep during an interview with a candidate for Secretary of Agriculture-trying to decide whether to give them some of the most powerful jobs in the world. "We can learn our jobs together," he told one, Robert McNamar...

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