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What Died (or Didn't) in Dallas and L.A.? : THE KENNEDY LEGACY A Generation Later photographs and captions by Jacques Lowe, text by Wilfrid Sheed (Viking Press: $24.95; 192 pp.) : ROBERT KENNEDY IN HIS OWN WORDS The Unpublished Recollections of the Kennedy Years; foreword by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., edited by Edwin O. Guthman and Jeffrey Shulman (Bantam Books: $22.50; 493 pp.)

August 28, 1988|David Toolan | Toolan is an associate editor of Commonweal magazine and the author of "Facing West From California's Shores" (Crossroad).

Dallas, Tex., Nov. 22, 1963: We all know exactly where we were when it happened, when the pageant ended. For the next four days, we all watched--dazed, disbelieving, profoundly shaken--as the greatest funeral since F.D.R.'s riveted the nation to its collective TV set. I still hear the drum roll, see that riderless horse, the veiled widow reaching out to touch the casket. What had we lost?

Revisionist historians have chipped away at John Kennedy's monument, charging he was sadly timid on domestic policy and too bellicose in foreign affairs. J.F.K. promised; L.B.J. delivered, etc. And we all now know that Jack was a philanderer (with a Mafia moll no less). Neither of the anniversary books under review offers to restore the Kennedy myth to its outsize, pristine vigor, but each, in its way, revives the image of great political leadership.

"Robert Kennedy in His Own Words" is no stylistic delight to read but packed with information about the inner workings of the 1960 campaign and the Kennedy White House, it allows readers to form their own judgment. The book consists of interviews with a stoic, somewhat embittered Robert Kennedy, conducted soon after the President's assassination by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Anthony Lewis, John Bartlow Martin, and John F. Stewart for the oral history project of the Kennedy Library. Everything is there: the inside story of the Vienna summit, the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, Cuban missile crisis, a defiant Gov. Ross Barnet in Mississippi, the Alliance for Progress in Latin America, civil rights legislation, the US Steel rollback, the Test Ban Treaty, the plot to overthrow Diem in Vietnam. And besides, matter for the gossip column: What the President thought of Adlai Stevenson, Dean Rusk (not much), Lyndon Johnson and De Gaulle (respected), and how Luther Hodges was appointed secretary of commerce (hilarious).

For all the "nothing but the facts" style and awkward grammar, the detail makes this book a fascinating study in the craft of governing. One is reminded, especially in connection with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, of Henry Kissinger's dictum that knowledge of the facts on which to base decisions is often inversely proportional to the scope of action immediately called for--and when that knowledge becomes available, it is often too late.

Yet one comes away from this book with the sharp sense of what doers the Kennedy team were, and of how things get done in the political arena--despite adversaries, limited information, and to an amazing degree because of indefinable human qualities like sound judgment, poker tactics, and the subtle man-to-man creation of mutual trust. When it came to negotiating passage of the Civil Rights Bill, for instance, you find J.F.K. and R.F.K. impatient, not with conservative Republicans like Sen. Dirksen, but with Democratic liberals who seemed bent on losing for the sake of some Platonic ideal. The interviews correct the record: These scions of Grandpa Fitzgerald didn't act out Arthurian romance (the image of Camelot was Jackie's, in a remark to Theodore H. White a week after Dallas).

The President and his alter-ego brother emerge as remarkably free of self-serving ego, keen in their judgment of men (women hardly figure here), and above all awake on the job, prudent, and supremely happy at being able to accomplish something. The charges of domestic timidity and overseas belligerence don't hold up. To the question of what J.F.K. liked most about the job, his brother answers: "He could have influence. It's the Greek definition of happiness: 'exercise of vital powers along the lines of excellence, and life affording them scope.' And that's what it was. It was happiness."

Jacques Lowe's candid photographs in "The Kennedy Legacy" capture that happiness, the glow of men doing well what they loved--in the 1960 campaign, Hyannisport holidays, emergency Cabinet meetings, J.F.K. and R.F.K. intently conferring, the President alone in his office late at night. The images catch the passion, exuberance, and intensity of those days.

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