John F. Kennedy: Charm or Character?

Forty-five years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, speechwriter Ted Sorensen has written Counselor: A Life on the Edge of History, his fourth book sanctifying the thirty-fifth president and only Catholic to occupy the White House. Mr. Sorensen’s devotion to the memory of his sainted hero is embarrassing. Like a court troubadour, he continues to sing of “Camelot,” ignoring the mountain of documents exposing the earthier side of President Kennedy and his administration. That side is so well known by now that it is difficult to know how Sorenson or his publisher, in good conscience or even in mere good sense, let these pages see the light of day.

He truly believes that President Kennedy was a philosopher-king who embodied nearly every virtue. In addition to being “honest, idealistic and devoted to the best values of the country,” J.F.K. “never lost his temper…was most always calm…was superb at handling criticism… [and] unfailingly deferential and respectful of all women.”

Despite this implausible hagiography, occasional lapses into candor in Mr. Sorensen’s memoir undermine the myth of shining-armor he has been polishing since November of 1963.

As for honesty: Sorensen admits that Kennedy suffered from the adrenal insufficiency known as Addison’s disease and concedes that J.F.K. and his inner circle were “generally misleading on the matter;” that, in fact, there was a “conspiracy to conceal” the president’s condition.

Mr. Sorensen also reveals that J.F.K. was not the sole author of Profiles in Courage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book published solely under then Senator Kennedy’s name. “I did the first draft of most chapters,” says Sorensen, and “privately boasted or indirectly hinted that I had written much of the book.” Such a confession is startling and confirmed by the further admission that he had an agreement with Kennedy to split the royalties fifty-fifty.

As for idealism: Mr. Sorensen concedes that the censure of Senator Joe McCarthy was “an issue [J.F.K.] wanted to duck” and he admits, in this regard anyway, that he “cannot in good conscience” defend his hero.

As for devotion to best values: Sorensen writes that J.F.K.’s references to God in speeches were “more a matter of political convention than religiosity.” And he admits that with regard to sexual ethics the President “was not exercising due caution in his private life,” as, for instance, when he had an affair with mafia chief Sam Giancana’s mistress, Judith Exner.

As for J.F.K. never losing his temper and superbly handling criticism, Sorensen appears to have forgotten that President Kennedy constantly complained to editors about news stories critical of him. In 1962, the thin-skinned president cancelled the twenty-two White House subscriptions to The New York Herald Tribune and in 1963 unsuccessfully pressured The New York Times to remove correspondent David Halberstam from his Vietnam post for writing unflattering stories.

Midway through his book, perhaps realizing he’s on thin ice, Sorensen confronts the character issue directly and asks “Was J.F.K. a moral leader?” His answer: “[He] was in my book a moral leader regardless of his private misconduct. Public officials should be judged primarily not by their Puritanism in private, but by their public deeds and public service, by their principles and policies.”

This is the Bill Clinton school of ethics, and it goes against the historic norm.

For centuries, character – “the actualization of the human potential for excellence” – was seen as the prerequisite for anyone interested in public service. Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, the Renaissance humanists, and the American Founders all agreed that character matters; that it is essential for public officials to cultivate the moral virtues of justice, courage, honesty, patience, and temperance. For them, a leader with character is one who can keep irrational appetites under control in both public and private life.

Presidential historian James David Barber concurs. In his classic work, The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House, Barber describes character as:

. . . the way the President orients himself towards life – not for the moment but enduringly. Character is the person’s stance as he confronts experience. And at the core of character a man confronts himself.

Barber argues that a president’s personal history—his lifelong character traits—is key to predicting presidential performance.

How does John F. Kennedy measure up to these standards?

Another J.F.K. biographer, Thomas Reeves, has reached this conclusion about Mr. Kennedy:

Jack was pragmatic to the point of amorality; his sole standard seemed to be political expediency. Gifted with good looks, youth, and wealth, he was often, in his personal life, reckless, vain, selfish, petty, and lecherous. Jack’s character, so much a reflection of his father’s single-minded pursuit of political power and personal indulgence, lacked a moral center, a reference point that went beyond self-aggrandizement.

These character traits not only explain Mr. Kennedy’s reckless sexual behavior in the White House, but also his approval of assassination plots and clandestine activities, and his manipulation of reporters to whom he gave classified documents in return for good news stories.

The record shows John F. Kennedy was not the philosopher-king the “Camelot School” would have us idolize.

Sad to say, it appears an infatuated Ted Sorensen has mistaken Kennedy’s superficial charm for true character.

George J. Marlin, Chairman of the Board of Aid to the Church in Need USA, is the author of The American Catholic Voter and Sons of St. Patrick, written with Brad Miner. His most recent book is Mario Cuomo: The Myth and the Man.