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JACK BE NIMBLE : A QUESTION OF CHARACTER: A Life of John Kennedy, By Thomas C. Reeves (The Free Press: $24.95; 491 pp.)

June 23, 1991|Jack Beatty | Beatty is a senior editor of the Atlantic Monthly

'The real Kennedy--as opposed to the celebrated hero espoused by the Kennedy family, the media and the Camelot School--lacked greatness in large part because he lacked the qualities inherent in good character. While he had ample courage and at times showed considerable prudence, he was deficient in integrity, compassion, and temperance."

That judgment of John F. Kennedy comes near the end of this thorough, scholarly, not always fair thematic biography. I found it depressing and did not want to be persuaded by it, yet I think that Prof. Reeves largely makes the case on which his harsh judgment rests.

The John Kennedy who emerges from these pages was not a man of good moral character. He was not reared to be good but to win. His father dominated him, infecting him with his ruthless amorality. As for his mother: "My mother was either at some Paris fashion house or else on her knees in some church," he told a friend. "She was never there when we really needed her. . . . My mother never really held me and hugged me. Never! Never!"

From this lack of a satisfactory emotional connection to his mother flowed one of the character defects in Reeves' list--John Kennedy was incapable of sexual temperance. He could not bond with his mother, and he could not really do any better with the women in his adult life, though after the death of his newborn son, Patrick, in his last year, there was a new closeness between him and his wife.

Perhaps if he had lived, that closeness would have led him to swear off lechery in the name of love. But he did not live, and Reeves, who notes the change in that last year, is able to fill many pages with amorous adventures and few pages with examples of family love.

Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was the source of his son's lubricity. "Dad told all the boys to get laid as often as possible," John Kennedy reported to Claire Boothe Luce. "I can't get to sleep unless I've had a lay." To judge from the prostitutes, waitresses, secretaries, actresses and other men's wives who claim to have had sex with him, he can have had few sleepless nights. He was with a blonde sailing off the coast of France while his wife was giving birth to a stillborn child.

One source quoted by Reeves--who is too ready to believe too many of these stories--says that he had a sexual encounter with a call girl 90 minutes before his first television debate with Vice President Nixon; another source says that he had a tryst with an unnamed woman the night of his inauguration. Marilyn Monroe was among his lovers, as was a woman (Judith Exner) who was at the same time sleeping with him and with a Chicago gangster. Much of this is known. Reeves merely collects the (damning) information compiled over the years by others, many of whom had axes to grind.

All this was and is a source of pain to Jacqueline Kennedy, and no doubt to his grown children as well, who must see their father's character assailed in books without end (two more biographies are due next year) and in reviews of those books. But does any of it matter in our estimate of Kennedy as President?

Inevitably, yes. Perhaps it's infantile of us, but we think we ought to look up to our Presidents. And it is not possible to admire the vain, self-absorbed, shallow, misogynist depicted in this book.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover knew about the liaisons of the Kennedys (for lubricity was, and apparently still is, a family trait--handed down the generations with the money). They could hardly object to his wiretapping of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his harassing of King and his associates. Hoover had the goods on the Kennedys--though, to be fair to Hoover, he claimed that the wiretapping of King had been Robert Kennedy's idea.

John Kennedy was thought to be an idealist; in fact he had contempt for idealists, and beyond that, he had no firm inner core of moral conviction about any public issue, So argues Reeves. The President's lack of integrity manifested itself, he argues, in Laos, where Kennedy launched a "secret war" against the Communist-controlled government that was "illegal, immoral, dangerous, and a far cry from the idealism so often expressed in the President's formal speeches"; in Cuba, where the President "ignored the legal and moral objections" to a U.S.-assisted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and subsequently unleashed "Operation Mongoose," a clandestine program aimed at the assassination of Cuban President Fidel Castro; and in Vietnam, where the President was implicated in the coup that led to the assassination of President Diem, a long-time U.S. ally.

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