The story broke in August. I was working on an academic article about Richard Nixon in post-Watergate American culture (forthcoming). When not working not working on the article, I actively avoided Nixon-related stories in the news media and on the Internet: not an easy feat in August 2014, the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. Then again, it was a little easier than I would have liked. The stories, like coverage of the JFK assassination’s fiftieth anniversary the year before, were pretty scarce and uneven. Inevitable, I suppose. In two years, Hillary Clinton (nominee presumptive) will cast a ballot for herself as president of the United States. What a dim memory her husband’s impeachment seems already. Ex-senators Trent Lott and Tom Daschle recently visited South Dakota State University, where I teach, to wax poetic about the post-ideological, post-historical nineties: a time when, to hear them tell it, the two great American parties apparently worked together in constant harmony, tossing aside profligate “political differences” for the good of God and country. One recalls the many obituaries of Ronald Reagan that read as if Tip O’Neill and the Gipper played “government” each day before retiring together to a pub in the evening to share pints and sing Irish drinking songs. Our national history is like an elementary school recess period; we will not allow anything vaguely resembling a row on the playground.
And so intelligent Americans consistently misremember, or are compelled to misremember, events the nineties and eighties: events that they witnessed firsthand. How much dimmer Watergate must seem to those who lived through it. My mother watched the hearings as a junior high student while earning babysitting money; tough times, stagflation. I recently quizzed her on the names “John Dean” and “Sam Ervin,” which elicited vague recognition but no concrete memory of the basic contours of the only scandal to prompt an American president to resign. The players themselves did little better. During the first week of August 2014, Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein appeared on NPR, the CBC, and the BBC, describing the events of 1973-1974 – and their role in those events – less convincingly and with less interesting conclusions than they had at the time. PBS News Hour managed to assemble a nice roundtable featuring Timothy Naftali (Nixon aficionado and NYU professor), Beverley Gage (the best historian of post-1945 America working today, currently at Yale), Pat Buchanan (Pat Buchanan), and Luke Nichter, a Nixon scholar and professor at Texas A&M – Central Texas whose July 29 2014 book The Nixon Tapes provides one of the most thorough single-volume accounts of the 37th president’s self-recordings. The main topic: who remembers Watergate? What was the big deal? Nixon wasn’t such a bad guy after all, right?
Journalist Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate was published the same day as Nichter’s volume. A few weeks later, after journalists and Nixon buffs ruminated and digested Hughes and Nichter’s work, stories began to pop up across the Internet highlighting new revelations from the transcripts. In particular, a revelation from Hughes provoked strong reactions. Salon featured a dramatic excerpt from Chasing Shadows, featuring a scene that prompted George Will to accuse Nixon of treason. These stories did not receive much fanfare, but the headlines were sensational. New Watergate bombshell! The scandal behind the scandal! Nixon guilty of treason! Even George Will admits it! For most intelligent Americans, the story had all the impact of a new Bee Gees single. But for those who, like me, think and talk and read and write about Richard Milhous Nixon with an almost neurological compulsion, something exciting had happened.
Here’s the short version. One of Hughes’s transcripts (July 15 1971) features Nixon explicitly ordering a break-in at the Brookings Institute. This is notable for one major reason and a couple minor ones. Major: it’s the only time on the tapes we hear Nixon directly order a break-in. Minor: breaking into Brookings is a pretty big deal, and explicitly ordering such a break-in directly is a pretty big deal, especially for Nixon, a master of suggestion and the subtle cue. But there were few obvious reasons for Nixon to give such an order in 1971; the Watergate break-in seems rational by comparison (Democratic National Committee, election year, etc.). One is forced to assume that Brookings had something that Nixon wanted very badly, although Nixon does not quite say.
Hughes argues that this transcript represents the genesis of the plumbers/Watergate/resignation. We are unlikely to find another such explicit order to break into an august enemy think tank; this seems to represent the moment when things went a little crazy for Nixon. Most coverage of Hughes’s book focused on this sensational thesis, that the Brookings affair wrought Watergate.
The evidence against the thesis is very strong: the origins of the Nixon administration’s culture of surveillance are far too numerous and diffuse to reduce to a single event. But even for Hughes (who at times seems to use the word “Watergate” simply to attract a general audience – and why not?), the fact of Nixon ordering a break-in is less compelling than the fact of Nixon ordering this break-in. The ostensible purpose was to blackmail former president Lyndon B. Johnson with documents, located at the Brookings Institute, that revealed Johnson’s plan to broker a surprise Vietnam peace settlement by October 1968. Peace in Vietnam would have significantly boosted Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s chances of succeeding Johnson. Proof of such chicanery would have given Nixon political leverage over Johnson. But, as Hughes writes, Nixon’s staff (including Henry Kissinger, who participated in the fun) doubted that Nixon’s burglars would find anything useful at Brookings. And why would Nixon want leverage over an unpopular ex-president?
From Chasing Shadows:
At that point, Nixon just wanted the former president to hold a press conference denouncing the leak of the Pentagon Papers—not much of a motive to commit a felony. … [And the] potential downside was enormous—impeachment, conviction, prison, disgrace—and the upside was questionable at best. If Nixon were the kind of president to conduct criminal fishing expeditions for dirt on his predecessors, his tapes would be littered with break-in orders. But Brookings is the only one.
There is a rational explanation. Nixon did have reason to believe that the bombing halt file contained politically explosive information—not about his predecessor, but about himself.
The reason, Hughes argues, is that Nixon hoped to obtain documents implicating himself in the failure of the 1968 Paris Peace Talks. Allegations that Nixon had sabotaged the peace process would emerge and grow in the decades after Watergate.
George Will’s review of Chasing Shadows shifted the focus from Hughes’s thesis to his data, new data which, Will argued, implicated Nixon in “treason” (Will’s word choice received more attention than his argument). While other journalists focused on Hughes’s link between the new data to Watergate – his attempt to carve a “Rosebud” out of a few seconds of tape – Wills argued that the real story had been missed. Hughes provides very strong, if very indirect, evidence of what we already almost knew about Paris 1968: that, to bolster his chances of becoming president, Nixon sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks that would have almost certainly ended the Vietnam War by early 1969. All the other “White House horrors” – Watergate, ratfucking, domestic espionage, “the Canuck letter,” even Allende – pale in comparison to this.
According to both Hughes and Will, Nixon gave an irrational order: break into Brookings and steal documents. Why? To blackmail Johnson? The risk was too great, and they might not even find the documents they wanted. There must be another, more rational reason. According to Hughes, Nixon must have been looking for files implicating himself in sabotage, files that he could obtain by no other means, files that his enemies at Brookings might have possessed: “Ordering the Brookings break-in wasn’t a matter of opportunism or poor presidential impulse control. As far as Nixon knew, it was a matter of survival.” This reasoning (in short, that Nixon would not have behaved irrationally) was strong enough to convince Will to charge a Republican president with treason.
I disagree not with Will’s conclusions, nor even with his reasoning (though depending on Nixon to make rational decisions is frequently a losing game), but with his confidence in this new evidence to make the case for treason.
All responsible historians and Nixon buffs know that Nixon betrayed Johnson and sabotaged the Peace Talks; we also know that Nixon ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institute. The question has always been how well we know. How much data to we possess? How much must we rely on reasonable inference? Who said what, when, where, and why? We already knew that Lyndon B. Johnson probably had direct evidence of Nixon’s involvement – but Johnson’s evidence has never been recovered, and Nixon denied any involvement in the Peace Talks to Johnson’s face. So when a Nixon scholar claims to have evidence of the 1968 sabotage, it’s a big deal. Thanks to Hughes, we have some new data. Nixon ordered the Brookings job. We know no that with 100% certainty. We always suspected, but now we know. But we can still only infer, with great confidence (approaching knowledge), that he sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks. Such great confidence that I’m willing to say “I know.”
But Hughes hasn’t found the smoking gun that Will and others are made it out to be. Will’s article and Hughes book are both padded with backstory and dot-connecting that aren’t derived directly from the tapes or from the public record.
Hughes would argue that the 1968 sabotage was Nixon’s greatest secret, that he built a citadel of surveillance and paranoia around himself in order to protect that secret, and that Watergate must necessarily be understood as an outcome of this secrecy. I agree that Nixon’s sabotage of the Paris Peace Talks were probably his greatest secret – but we have not heard Nixon himself admit that. That’s the nature of secrets and the nature of Nixon. And Nixon is nothing if not resistance to simple casual analyses. One simply cannot imagine a Nixon White House sans paranoia and plumbers, with or without the Peace Talks scandal, just as one cannot imagine Nixon as a consistent ideologue or as a good friend or as a convincingly honest man.
We will probably never get that piece of hard evidence – the fact in a pumpkin patch, the smoking datum – that proves Nixon intentionally sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks and deliberately extended the Vietnam War until October 1972 for political purposes. We don’t need such concrete evidence, really – the historical evidence against Nixon is about as strong as historical evidence gets. In lieu of a taped confession, we must content ourselves with reasonable inference based on hard data. And Hughes’s transcript is one more very hard datum to add to the pile, shedding a little more light on Nixon’s most heinous crime; undue focus on Watergate and the plumbers distracts from the fact that Nixon committed his most evil act before he was even president. We should be interested in the 1968 Paris Talks not because they led to Watergate and resignation. We should be interested because they represent a devastating lost opportunity to end the wickedest war in American history.
In yesterday’s post, I wrote that presidents should not be judged as individuals but as metonyms for a complex of policies, persons, and decisions. The problem with this sensible approach to presidential history is that you can’t really make lists comparing and ranking presidents across decades.
And on President’s Day, that’s no fun.
Given that my ability to talk about the presidency with any credibility is more or less limited to the 20th/21st century, I will confine the scope of my list to the eighteen presidents whose entire tenure took place within those two centuries (i.e., I’m excluding William McKinley, who was assassinated in September 1901, and including George W. Bush). I will also write two lists: one for the greatest presidents since 1902, one list for the worst.
And here’s the real catch/compromise: both lists will include all eighteen presidents.
I will write one list with the disposition of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and one with the disposition of Christopher Hitchens. I will write one list judging the presidents by the mean of their greatest accomplishments and the other by the mean of their failures. The results will be two very different lists. Great presidents will also be terrible. Presidents ranked in the middle of one list will rank high, or low, on the other.
In the interest of brevity, I have attempted (attempted) to summarize their accomplishments and failures in one or two or five sentences (although I’ve allowed myself the option/luxury of separate “foreign” and “domestic” categories). The conversation can continue in the comments, if you like (I’ve written plenty that doesn’t appear here, so fire away!).
I’m posting List #1 today. List #2 is coming soon.
The Greatest Presidents since 1902
1. Lyndon B. Johnson
Domestic: Upon assuming office, Johnson called Martin Luther King Jr. and said, “I’m going to try to be all of your hopes.” In the subsequent two years, Johnson did more for black civil rights than any other U.S. president before or since, including Lincoln. The 1964 Civil Rights Act alone earns him first place.
Foreign: The best we can say about LBJ’s disastrous, oscillating Vietnam policies is that he inherited it from a reckless president and, by 1968, was closing a deal on a genuine ceasefire (a deal that was sabotaged by #4).
2. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Foreign: He led the United States through the most volatile and sensitive years of the Cold War – the most dangerous period of the 20th century – with nary a misstep.
Domestic: Eisenhower consolidated and retained the best elements of the New Deal while encouraging economic growth on an unprecedented scale. If there was any doubt before, Eisenhower made clear that FDR’s reforms were a permanent part of American life. He was arguably our greatest “peacetime” president, if you consider the Cold War “peacetime.”
3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
Domestic: What we call “the New Deal” was a complex of not-always-interrelated policies – some good, some bad – the net impact of which mitigated the worst effects of the Great Depression. Easy to forget: FDR essentially governed as a centrist during a period of social unrest and dangerous extremes, when socialists and fascists alike had loud voices in American streets.
Foreign: He deliberately kept the United States out of World War II until the last possible moment, and then fully committed all the resources of the U.S. to the war.
4. Richard Nixon
Foreign: Who made your cell phone?
Nixon governed at the precise moment the rest of the world recovered from World War II, when America’s economic standing was most vulnerable. Nixon understood this. He envisioned a “post-America” world when Fareed Zakaria was learning to read, and – 1970s oil crises aside – he succeeded. When Bob Dole eulogized his mentor by declaring that “the second half of the 20th century will be known as the age of Nixon,” he was only wrong in saying “will,” rather than “should.” We’re living in Nixon’s world, a 21st century where the United States – no longer the world’s lone superpower (that lasted like five years) – is nevertheless positioned very, very nicely.
Meanwhile, Nixon and Kissinger made pragmatism cool, shaving the ideological edge off anti-Communist rhetoric in the U.S. and paving the way for critical compromises, important treaties, and the much beloved Reagan-Gorby relationship.
Nixon essentially won the Cold War.
Domestic: Most of his economic reforms reflected his foreign policy (i.e., to ensure the U.S. is economically well-positioned for the next fifty years). His administration accomplished many liberal goals that Democrats had struggled to accomplish (e.g., creation of the EPA), but on more moderate terms.
5. Theodore Roosevelt
Domestic: The iconoclast in me wants to take the cult of TR down a peg (and down several notches on this list). He feels like an overrated president to me. But his progressivism and trust-busting were so impressive and critical given the times, and the precedents they set were so far reaching (for good and ill, but mostly for good), that I can’t place him any lower.
Plus: people who gush over National Parks today are irritating, but people who opposed National Parks back then were more irritating.
Foreign: Whenever a U.S. president brokers the end of a war, it’s a good thing. I confess I find TR’s foreign policy a little confusing. He’s often wrongly blamed/given credit for “American imperialism” or U.S. interventionism, but American adventures overseas date back to Thomas Jefferson at the latest. We forced Japan out of isolation when a guy named Millard Fillmore was president. But TR amplified and clarified the foreign policy of his predecessors, to be sure, and is probably best imagined as a conduit between the quiet, sneakier, “we have half the globe to ourselves” foreign policies of the 19th century, a period when much of the world could be ignored, and the fully-engaged, globalized foreign policies of 20th century administrations.
Also, he had a personality.
6. Woodrow Wilson
Domestic: People forget that the income tax was levied to help offset tariff reform, which would have drastically improved the United States’ position in the global economy, had the nations of Europe not decided that a devastating world war, an unprecedented socialist revolution, and the collapse of four empires was a quicker way to improve everyone’s position in the global economy (or at least level the playing field).
Either way, the United States came out on top. And Wilson’s model of governance endured. If Teddy Roosevelt transferred prestige and power back from the legislative to the executive branch, Wilson molded that power into its current form. With the Federal Reserve, et al, Wilson consolidated the Progressive reforms of the previous two administrations into a new, permanent system of government that, like it or not, produced the most prosperous nation and the most prosperous century in the history of civilization. (One major depression < four wildly unprecedented economic booms.)
Foreign: He tried his hardest.
8 (tie). Ronald Reagan
Foreign: As more documents are declassified, we see how cautious, sensitive, and covertly pragmatic was Reagan’s approach to the Soviet Union…even in his first years as president, when the collapsing Soviet Union’s internal politics were extremely dangerous and volatile. Reagan’s anti-Communism extended only to small, inconsequential nations. When the time came to end the Cold War, he did virtually everything right. Even his intransigence served a purpose, providing Gorbachev leverage against the Soviet equivalents of, well, Ronald Reagan.
Domestic: People made money.
8 (tie). Bill Clinton
Domestic: Like Wilson after TR/Taft or Eisenhower after FDR/Truman, Clinton consolidated and blunted major reforms implemented by the opposite party. By the end of his two terms, any serious opposition to neoliberalism in his own party was long dead. He raised taxes during a period of unprecedented economic growth, eventually generating the surplus that Republicans were always talking about (like Nixon: “what they put forward, I put through”). On almost everything but income taxes, Clinton was more Reagan than Reagan. The so-called “Reagan Revolution” ought to be renamed the “Reagan-Clinton Revolution.”
Foreign: By the time he took office, it was too late to reverse the political collapse of post-Soviet states/satellites. He responded to terrorist attacks as violations of international law, worthy of a military response but not full-on all-in total warfare. Y’know, the good old days.
9. Harry Truman
Domestic: Truman put the civil rights of black Americans on the Democratic agenda, risking his re-nomination over an unpopular plank that would lead to the 1964 Civil Rights bill. People give JFK credit on Civil Rights, when he was essentially the weakest link in a chain between Truman, Eisenhower, and LBJ.
Truman successfully transitioned the U.S. economy from a war to a peacetime economy, leading the nation through the 1946 recession and fears that the United States would share the British postwar experience (where recession persisted well into the 1950s).
Foreign: Truman’s is the hardest foreign policy to assess. He ended the war with Japan and helped rebuild what would become one of the world’s most successful democracies. He fired a psychotically dangerous and dangerously popular general, at great political risk.
The atom bomb was an extension of Roosevelt’s Japanese war policies; Roosevelt didn’t build the bombs not to be used. In my mind, there’s no exchange rate on human life. Death by an atom bomb is no more evil than death by firebombing (and firebombing was far more destructive), so I don’t hold Truman in special contempt merely because he used atomic weapons. (Hindsight helps: he apparently set no precedent for U.S. or Soviet leaders, and we survived the Cold War without a nuclear exchange. If Truman had pulled the trigger on an apocalyptic war, perhaps I’d assess Hiroshima differently.)
Did Truman avert war with the Soviet Union or a Soviet invasion of western Europe? Probably not. The U.S.S.R. was too weak to do anything but heave threateningly at its borders. Were the policies that framed what we’d eventually call “the Cold War” prudent and successful? Today I wish we’d favored engagement over containment; but at the time, containment was viewed as an alternative to direct conflict. Is it a victory when you save Berlin but lose half of Germany? I don’t know. Truman essentially created Israel, a fact that should inspire pride but inspires ambivalence in many. Even his greatest achievements in foreign policy make you wince from time to time.
10. William Howard Taft
Domestic: Scaled back TR’s reforms without abandoning the Progressive project. He made Progressive reforms more palatable to the business community, who by 1909 felt alienated and antagonized, and would have mobilized against further executive interference and reversed TR’s best reforms had Taft not essentially held out an olive branch (a branch that cost him a second term).
11. Warren G. Harding
Domestic: an underrated president. Elected to reform the excesses of the Progressive era, which he began to do…and his reforms would have been more moderate than Coolidge’s excessive inaction. If Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover had gone to President Harding, rather than to President Coolidge, to warn of recklessness on Wall Street, Harding might have listened. Harding’s famous scandals are overplayed and meaningless.
12. Herbert Hoover
Domestic: He did what he could. He intervened in the economy as the Depression worsened. Most of his stimulus policies were adopted by FDR and incorporated into New Deal programs. If FDR had been elected president in 1928, he would have lost in 1932, too.
13. George H.W. Bush
Domestic: Americans with Disabilities Act. Try getting around New York City in a wheelchair in the 1970s.
Foreign: Asserted strong civilian leadership over the military (military historian Thomas E. Ricks calls Dick Cheney the greatest secretary of defense in the modern era for this reason). Demonstrated how to fight a short, quick, effective war after the Cold War.
14. John F. Kennedy
Foreign: he taunted Khrushchev over and over, and when Khrushchev responded by installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, he didn’t overreact. He got scared, he calmed down, and he behaved soberly at a very, very critical moment. I give him credit for that.
15. George W. Bush
Domestic: Made earnest attempts to reform Social Security, education, and a few other things.
Foreign: Excellent work in Africa. Convinced recalcitrant extremists in the Republican party to chill out about AIDS, other social issues.
16. Calvin Coolidge
Domestic: People made money.
17. Gerald Ford
Domestic: Inspired John Updike to write, “What was unthinkable under Eisenhower and racy under Kennedy had become, under Ford, almost compulsory. … [W]as there ever a Ford Administration? Evidence for its existence seems to be scanty.”
18. Jimmy Carter
Foreign: One rarely wants to praise a president for instigating a war, but rumors of the Carter administration’s hand in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan – that they exacerbated conditions in Afghanistan and prompted the flailing Soviet government to make a rash and ultimately fatal decision, to “give Russia their Vietnam” – if true, well…it’s the sort of thing that, if Reagan had done it, Republicans would never stop celebrating.
And although Carter deserved some credit for the Camp David Accords, most of the credit and all of the risk belonged to Sadat.
This is part of an ongoing series about 20th century American presidents, what they did, and how we think and talk about them. Each essay can be read on its own, but if you wish to see the others, click here.
1. Presidential History: from the Academy to the Public
On December 15 1996, JFK hagiographer Arthur Schlesinger Jr. used the pages of the New York Times Magazine to work through some daddy issues.
Arthur’s father, Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger Sr., was one of several historians who in the 1920s and ‘30s helped develop, defend, and establish what would become the default methodology in U.S. history departments. These historians – influenced by post-Marxian social theory in Europe and the rapid development of sociology over the past half-century – argued that “bottom-up” analyses of history yielded better knowledge than the then-still-traditional “top-down” approach.
Imagine you are a student of history at the University of Iowa in 1910. You could expect an education with two foci: verifiable facts and historical narratives. These foci generated two activities: the verification of facts using primary sources and the construction of narratives using those facts.
This method of study was executed with one underlying assumption: history does not repeat itself. And because the past will not return, intensive research into the diets of 17th century French peasants is less useful than a study of King Louis XIV’s domestic policies. Louis was the main actor, after all, the one who made things happen. Seventeenth-century French peasants were minor actors by comparison; their impact (even if you consolidate them) was minimal. If you want to understand the past, start at the source.
Much like the model of American university itself, this traditional historical methodology originated in 19th century Germany. This method had been practiced to varying degrees by amateur historians since the Renaissance. But it was formalized by professional historians in Germany (esp. Leopold von Ranke and Friedrich Karl von Savigny) in reaction against Hegelian philosophy, which explained, totalized, and subordinated history to transhistorical systems. Hegel’s work successfully pollinated a thousand significant ideas and academic disciplines. And while every university in Europe and America had a few token Hegelian historians, the fact-and-narrative method dominated. In Anglo-American historical scholarship, “facts” were generally details surrounding big events caused by big actors (important men, but occasionally large populations if they could be viewed as “top-down” actors).
By the time Schlesinger the Elder arrived at Harvard (in 1924), new approaches to historical knowledge were percolating. They had already developed in other discipline over the past half-century. These new approaches would use economic pressures, material conditions, and theories of society to write history. Although this shift in focus seemed radical to older historians, these new methods shared with their predecessors an aversion to abstract models and systems (Hegelian or otherwise), a rejection of the notion that “history repeats itself” (or even that it can rhyme without awkwardly forcing it), commitment to facts, and deference to empiricism as an epistemological base.
These new methods did not quell interest in the great persons of history. Historians tempered their emphasis on Sun Kings and Great Events. Meanwhile, the general public remained entranced by the glow of George Washington and the Civil War. Both remained invested in narratives. And narratives tend to reveal patterns; it is difficult to inoculate yourself against this. On the eve of World War II, Schlesinger Sr. published an article that proposed a cyclical interpretation of U.S. political history. He argued that trends in U.S. federal polices followed a pendulum-like pattern. Although this hardly amounted to a large Hegelian system, Schlesinger Sr. had stepped outside the mainstream.
Except that he didn’t. By 1948, Schlesinger Sr. had established a reputation outside academe, and was asked by Life magazine to poll his colleagues and rank the presidents of the United States. I do not know whether Schlesinger Sr. paused to reflect on the inadvisability of such a endeavor, on how many of his own best practices he’d be violating. A list ranking the presidents would only tell us what a handful of historians in 1948 thought, but it would tell us nothing about the presidents. Further, such a list would only encourage the public’s inflated view of the presidency.
Nevertheless, Schlesinger agreed. He asked his participants to assign each president a degree of greatness, ranging from “great” and “near great” to “below average” and “failure.” Each category was assigned a value, and the number of votes each president received in each category determined their place on the list. The results weren’t surprising: Washington and Lincoln at the top, Buchanan at the bottom. The list and its accompanying article in Life were so popular that Schlesinger Sr. was invited to repeat the experiment in 1962. On both occasions, Schlesinger Sr. surveyed nearly 100 historians.
Schlesinger Sr.’s progeny, Arthur Jr., began his foray into the family business at the family’s company in 1940. In 1954, Harvard promoted Arthuer Schlesinger Jr. to full professor sans PhD, largely on the merits of his popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning study of Jacksonian democracy (also: he was Art Sr.’s boy).
Schlesinger Jr. behaved like anyone who’d just received the world’s biggest Free Meals for Life ticket, at the world’s greatest university: he resigned for the volatile world of politics and a chance to fill an elusive, ephemeral, and newly emerging role in American society: the public intellectual.
Long active in Democratic politics, Jr. hit the mother lode in 1960 when he joined the campaign and administration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He served as one of several “house intellectuals”: young men hired by Jack and Bobby to lounge around the White House and write memoranda to be set aside as doodling paper for the president (an incurable doodler). These men also provided a requisite level of eggheadedness – they lent an intellectual veneer – to offset the Kennedy glamour (Jack) and thuggishness (Bob). They, like the White House furniture, had a good and honorable purpose.
After Kennedy’s assassination, Schlesinger Jr. wrote A Thousand Days,an instantly popular, hagiographic “insider’s view” of the JFK administration. From then on, Schlesinger Jr.’s reputation as a scholarly but thoroughly public historian-intellectual was impeachable. He confidently spoke about administrations into which he had not enjoyed an “insider’s view” (e.g., Nixon’s). He taught at the City University of New York, but he no longer moved with the currents of historical scholarship. And frankly, between celebrity and serious scholarship, which would you choose?
But Schlesinger Jr. did little to popularize the best practices of his ostensible métier. And so in 1996, when the New York Times Magazine solicited a list ranking the presidents, Schlesinger Jr. must have thought about his father. Although Sr.’s scholarship was far more rigorous than Jr.’s, both men had turned away from hard scholarship to satisfy a very basic desire, one that the overwhelming majority of their countrymen felt, one that (in 1996) a new, radical brand of hardcore historicists had spent nearly two decades combating: the desire for easy access to history, to one’s own national history.
Of course Schlesinger Jr. would oblige.
The 1996 survey resembled the ’48 and ’62 surveys. Identical format. The pool of participants was decidedly smaller (Schlesinger Jr. surveyed twenty-nine professional historians, two politicians, and Doris Kearns Goodwin). Confirming a thesis developed later by Meena Bose et al (which examined hundreds of similar surveys), long-dead presidents fared better than more recent presidents, who tended to fall in the “average” category or lower.
You may see the full list here. If you remove all but the 20th century presidents from Schlesinger Jr.’s list, here are the rankings (accompanied by their presidential GPA):
Franklin D. Roosevelt (“Great,” 3.97)
Teddy Roosevelt (“Near Great” 3.31)
Woodrow Wilson (“Near Great” 3.21)
Harry Truman (“Near Great” 3.10)
Dwight Eisenhower (“High Avg.” 2.34)
John F. Kennedy (“High Avg.” 2.29)
Lyndon B. Johnson (“High Avg.” 2.21)
Bill Clinton (“Avg.” 1.58)
Robert Taft (“Avg.” 1.52)
George H.W. Bush (“Avg.” 1.45)
Ronald Reagan (“Avg.” 1.42)
Jimmy Carter (“Avg.” 1.37)
Gerald Ford (“Avg.” 1)
Calvin Coolidge (“Below Avg.” 0.88)
Herbert Hoover (“Failure” -9)
Richard Nixon (“Failure” -21)
Warren G. Harding (“Failure” -48)
Schlesinger’s list was widely publicized (a Schlesinger-authored analysis of the list appeared in Political Science Quarterly). Political commentators in the mass media, which had contained less mass backed when Schlesinger Sr. was publishing his lists, used it to render judgments on still-active presidents, politicians, and legislation. One of these judgments had very interesting consequences, something Schlesinger Jr. could not have anticipated or desired.
2. Presidential History: from the Public to Mythology
Will Bunch, a left-wing journalist, has exhaustively and credibly documented the cottage industry of Reagan hagiography that emerged in the mid-1990s. At that time, conservative Republicans were confounded that Bill Clinton’s popularity persisted despite the fact that he wasn’t a conservative Republican. In 1992, the year of Clinton’s election, a Gallup poll fixed Ronald Reagan’s favorability ratings around 44%. Jimmy Carter’s, meanwhile, were around 63%. In Bunch’s account, 1996 was the tipping point for Republican panic over Reagan’s legacy and, writes Bunch, the Schlesinger Jr. rankings were a major factor in this tipping point. Reagan was deemed “Average.” He scored 1.42 out of 4, below both H.W. Bush and Clinton (who hadn’t even finished his first term when the survey was published). This revelation – that history professors at prestigious universities don’t much care for Ronald Reagan – should have elicited a reaction comparable to news of the pope’s sectarian affiliation. But tax guy Grover Norquist, writes Bunch, was sufficiently alarmed and motivated by the rankings to take action. The following spring, Norquist founded the Reagan Legacy Project: a division of his influential Americans for Tax Reform group that would be devoted solely to hyping Reagan.
A summary of the near deification of Reagan among conservatives, and the increased admiration for Reagan among everyone else, during the late 1990s and 2000s is unnecessary. This mood peaked somewhere between Reagan’s 2004 funeral and the 2008 primaries, when the Republican candidates fought desperately to out-Reagan each other. Reagan was a certifiably mythic figure.
But myth-making can be an ugly business. Because in mythology, there’s a frustrating tendency to be killed by one’s offspring.
By 2012, something had changed. Republicans, conservative pundits, and your father-in-law were suddenly hearing Reagan’s policies and statements turned against them. Reagan was being quoted by people who looked like Rachel Maddow and argued over minutia on Daily Kos forums. In February 2011, the centennial of Reagan’s birth, countless media outlets ran profiles of “the real Reagan” or “Reagan the liberal.” Time featured a cover that showed Obama and the Gipper chumming it up against a white background (like two guys in a Mac ad). Among the Slate and Salon class, Reagan’s liberal streak was already an article of faith.
Reagan had backfired.
Like Barry Goldwater before him (and Robert Taft before Goldwater), Reagan no longer seemed so conservative…not because American conservativeshad shifted so far to the right but because “conservative” means different things in different eras.
Something else had changed: the distance between the 2012 primaries and Ronald Reagan’s last day in office was roughly the distance between Hitler’s suicide and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The distance between 2012 and the day Reagan became president was the distance between Hitler’s suicide and Reagan’s first presidential campaign against Gerald Ford. Enough time had passed – and enough documents were being declassified – for serious historians to begin assessing Reagan’s presidency with sobriety and distance. Two Princeton historians, Sean Wilentz and Daniel T. Rodgers, published books on the Reagan era in 2009 and 2011. Wilentz’s accessible Age of Reagan was favorably reviewed by George Will in Time magazine. Rodgers’ Age of Fracture was an ambitious attempt to synthesize American culture during the end of Cold War. Age of Fracture was published 30 years after Reagan’s first inauguration.
The 1980s felt remote.
In 1999, three years after Schlesinger Jr.’s list, Time magazine published a list ranking the presidents of the 20th century as part of their “End of the Century” coverage (they had polled nine journalists and historians, including Schlesinger Jr.). Time published its list with anonymous comments from the participants:
Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Indisputably the century’s greatest”
Theodore Roosevelt: “The great prophet of affirmative government”
Woodrow Wilson: “A great visionary who presided over major domestic advances”
Harry S Truman: “A decent human being with homespun virtues”
Dwight D. Eisenhower: “No hint of scandal either. The good old days”
Ronald Reagan: “Jury still out”
Lyndon B. Johnson: “America would have found a way to give blacks the vote without him, but don’t ask me how”
John F. Kennedy: “Might be first-tier if he had lived longer”
George Bush: “A skilled and decent administrator”
Bill Clinton: “Jury out here too–maybe literally!”
William Howard Taft: “Achieved nothing good with excellent situation left him by T.R.”
(tie) Calvin Coolidge: “Left little historical legacy”; “Could have been greater if faced with challenges”
(tie) Gerald Ford: “Returned nation to normality”
Jimmy Carter: “Should have been a preacher”
Richard Nixon: “The most difficult President to assess”; “Uniquely a failure among American Presidents”
Warren G. Harding: Term: “Whatever personal shortcomings, presided over a period of economic growth”
Herbert Hoover: “Victim of bad luck”
Presidential rankings are interesting because, when you compare them across time, they reveal the fluctuations of American cultural identity and how history is incorporated into that cultural identity. When Schlesinger Sr.’s second poll was published in 1962, half the interest it generated was the addition of a few new presidents, and the other half was the (relatively few) changes between the ’48 and ’62 lists. People wanted to know how the 19th century had changed between 1948 and 1962.
One might think that public rankings (of which there are many) would reveal more about cultural attitudes toward former presidents, because…well, they’re the public. But although the public has a monopoly on the culture, the public alone is not necessarily the best gauge of the culture’s self-conception. Rankings generated by historians arguably tell us more about cultural changes, because historians a.) possess more comprehensive knowledge of U.S. history and b) try (or imagine themselves) to be thoughtful and rigorous in their assessments. For this reason, the changes between their rankings – though smaller and less dramatic than changes on public rankings – are arguably more charged with cultural meaning: these are the bits of culture that filtered through even the historians’ ostensible sense of fairness vis a vis the past. What appear to be the thinnest vein proves to be the richest mine.
Imagine the Time list today. Lyndon B. Johnson’s ranking is slightly higher than in the 1996 Schlesinger Jr. list. But in 2014, two Robert Caro volumes and one Affordable Care Act later, I believe he might rank higher. In Lee Daniels’ recent and self-conscious ABOUT AMERICAN IDENTITY!!!, Johnson is portrayed more favorably than Kennedy. The film ends with a succession of voices speaking hope, civil rights, and the black experience. Johnson’s is the last white voice we hear. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln reflects admiringly the qualities that Lincoln and Johnson shared.
Similarly, Wilson’s visionary internationalism might have seemed appealing into the heady, post-historical days of the 1990s. But after nearly eight years of disastrous neo-conservative internationalism (just as visionary as Wilson’s), when Samuel P. Huntington joined Francis Fukuyama on State Department shelves, Wilson’s foreign policy idealism is less attractive. Eisenhower, whose stock has been rising, might take Wilson’s place on the list.
In 2014, Truman and his accomplishments feel distant, while Nixon’s appear towering (the towers that link our iPhones, made in China). Nixon was already undergoing massive rehabilitation in 1999, but many of the historians/journalists on the Time panel lived through the ‘60s and ‘70s. I’ve found it’s difficult to talk reasonably about Nixon with a person whose political life began in the 1960s. Today, though, Nixon would surely be among the top ten. Truman would, too, but lower down.
No serious Carter rehabilitation has taken place. Bill Clinton, meanwhile, received almost instant rehabilitation, and would rank higher today. The narrative of the 1990s – a period of massive economic growth and peace, all of it ruined by the next guy – would prove irresistible to Time‘s panel.
Reagan? Reagan might stay in place, just outside the Top Five. Presidents would move around him, up and down, but he would stay fixed, smiling and content. Since 1999, as documents are declassified and trickle down, historians like Sean Wilentz have confirmed half of what Reagan’s worshippers believe, and dispelled quite a lot of what Reagan’s despisers believe. So it’s a wash.
Herbert Hoover is still a victim of bad luck.
3. Presidential History: from Mythology to Fable; or, Slouching toward Rushmore
Responsible historians would balk at these lists (even if we’re analyzing the historians rather than the presidents – the samples are too small). And rightly so. They encourage the wrong kind of thinking. When I speak to students about presidents, I encourage them to ignore any success/failure paradigm and treat the presidential name – Lincoln, Roosevelt, Clinton – as not a person’s name but as a metonym for a collective: a complex of policies and individuals that must be judged one by one. That approach is more productive, and that collective more interesting, than one man’s career and biography.
And yet we want our Great Men. We want them not merely as they existed in the past, but projected forward into our present: speaking to our problems, condemning our enemies, confirming our prejudices blessing our decisions.
We want to know the presidents.
But if you want to actually engage with the past, you’ll first find only dead silence. The anti-Hegelians resisted abstracted or cyclical history because they believed that the past speaks only to and about itself. At its most extreme, this view reduces history to delicate facts that crumble with the slightest extrapolation. The practice of history, the ability to make claims about the past, is practically impossible. The past is a sealed tomb. Most historians today are more pragmatic, borrowing methods and principles from the social sciences. They borrow these methods because the tools are strong and the excavation of historical knowledge is incredibly hard. You cannot apply even the recent past forward without great rigor and painstaking precision. To utilize historical knowledge properly, you must rely on slivers of specificity or sturdily engineered abstractions (usually constructed with the help of others). And you cannot allow specificity and abstraction to cross-contaminate. Everything you claim must be qualified and controlled.
This does not make for engaging or accessible presidential biographies.
Driving home last week, I endured a Minnesota Public Radio host lapping up the latest historical musings of journalist Simon Winchester. His new book that purports to introduce “the men who united the states,” men who are – fortunately for Winchester – “explorers, inventors, eccentrics, and mavericks.” The book is actually about oft-overlooked figures who show up at critical moments in U.S. history. A noble enough subject. But Winchester gives us fables. When asked, regarding Minnesota (paraphrase), “Who settled this area? Who made Minnesota a place? And why did they come here?”, he does not mention the fur trade and the decline of French colonialism in North America and the War of 1812 and federal incentive programs and politico-economic refugees from central Europe. No, Winchester driveled on about people “seeking adventure,” stir-crazy Easterners who wanted to live on the outskirts of civilization. They had an itch, and building a nation on prairie wilderness was the cure! He actually quoted Will Cather’s famous musings on the subject: the plains are “not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” This passage beautifully represented a Virginian’s first impressions of Nebraska, written from Cather’s 20th century vantage, not the actual motivations of the actual miserable masses who traded New York and cholera for the Great Plains and scarlet fever. But for Winchester, the retrospect (Cather) preceded the event (the pioneers).
The contours of the present are determined by the material past. The fact of the material past is undeniable. We know that it exists, but it is hard to see. History shows us the shadows of the past, sometimes with surprising clarity, but it is easily corrupted. Fabulism is inherent in practically every publicly accessible account of American history. Perhaps this fabulism cannot be eradicated; it can only be pruned and minimized.
Regrettably, the overwhelming majority of those Americans who actually bother to think about history prefer that fabulism flourish. They want to learn from the past. They want a greatest president. They want a worst president. They want to make the past present. But the past belongs to the dead, who are mute and can be understood only by the conditions and corpses they leave behind. We take their words out of context the moment we speak them. We construct fables. We want the Angel of History to fly facing forward, like the bald eagle.
Next time: I violate everything I’ve written here and rank the 20th century presidents!
I originally intended to write a post on the 50th anniversary of 1964, one of the most interesting years in American politics.But it morphed into a reflection on presidential speech. Reflections on ’64 will come later. For now, heads up: PBS is airing a documentary, 1964, tomorrow night (Tuesday January 14) at 9 pm EST. Check it out.
“These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.”
Fifty years ago, Lyndon Baines Johnson’s public personality was an enthusiastic gusher. He exuded more outlandish, unbridled optimism than any American president since Theodore Roosevelt’s personal mania cut a rather fine Stick Swinger in Chief. It’s ironic that TR’s best known quote is “speak softly and….,” when he was succeeded by a veritable Sunday buffet of soft speakers, culminating with Calvin Coolidge, who on average spoke in one day the number of words TR could squeeze into a hypomanic minute and at significantly lower decibels. All presidents have artificially constructed personas, but TR and LBJ were as close as we got, I suspect, to a perfect coincidence of political maneuvering, public persona, and a genuine, often unfiltered personality. These guys were nuts. These guys were talkers. These guys drove their handlers insane.
One needn’t naively romanticize the past to argue that, in their capacities as (symbolic) leaders of the cultural and public spheres, presidents today speak poorly and with great reservation when compared to presidents of even a few decades ago. I remember seeing a chart in the early 2000s, probably in Time or Newsweek or Us Weekly, that listed the “reading level” (a concept for which I have nothing but contempt) of historical presidential debates. “When Lincoln and Douglas debated,” they exclaimed, “they spoke at a 12th grade reading level! [Never mind that the Lincoln-Douglass debates were not presidential] When Bush and Gore debated, they spoke at a third grade reading level!!”
This was apparently a cause for alarm.
Of course, when Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleezza Rice, and Colin Powell spoke to each other and to the president, I’m sure the “reading level” was raised a notch. And I’m sure the armchair sociologists who study speeches like tea leaves, who believe that presidential oratory actually makes things happen (before Kennedy gave that speech, nobody had thought of sending Americans to the moon!), who cringed whenever George W. Bush mispronounced a word that whole regions of the nation mispronounce, and who wish that President Obama’s State of the Union addresses possessed the cadence and sweep of his 2008 stump speeches, who want vision and eloquence and old-fashioned oratory from their Chief Executives…I guarantee you these armchair sociologists would die of boredom if they heard the genuinely powerful oratory of those late 19th-century Roast Beef presidents. Men like James Garfield and William McKinley were renowned for the force and eloquence of their speeches. No 20th-century president has anything on the oratorical prowess of Benjamin Harrison. But imagine these genuinely gifted speakers addressing the nation on the CNN. By hour three, our armchair sociologist would have long since switched over to Modern Family.
Eloquence I can take or leave. Obama takes (at least when he’s campaigning). Bush leaves (except for his fiery second inaugural address). Ronald Reagan regularly delivered speeches at something like a third grade reading level, but almost nobody complained about that because Reagan possessed personality, he played a character, and that’s what we enjoy most in modern presidents. George W. Bush’s character – “I’m a guy who owns a ranch” – was never wholly convincing, even though he actually was a guy who owned a ranch! He didn’t play the character well: the costume didn’t fit, you could see the strings. The pressures of the post-Patriot Act presidency seemed to constipate his speech (in Texas, he could actually deliver a damn fine speech), a condition that worsened throughout his presidency. (One of the exceptions, again, was that remarkable second inaugural address.)
We don’t want our presidents to speak well. We want them to sound good. But we’ve now had two presidents whose personalities seem suffocated by the office (was it September 11? the Clinton impeachment? there is a new caution), and the NPR class tends to blame either the stupidity of the Chief Executive, some new level of dishonesty in politics, or a general decline of intelligent, substantive American discourse (our handwriting is getting worse, too!).
I sympathize with our amateur sociologists, who are eternally pessimistic about the culture, who believe that the president is “in charge,” who believe that presidential speeches matter, and who believe that presidential speech is in a bad way. Because presidential speeches do mater…but not for the reason our man in the armchair believes. Presidential speeches don’t build spaceships or create laws. They don’t end recessions or lead armies to victory. But presidential speeches help reveal the current scope, shape, and limits of American public discourse, American rhetoric, and American language. They let us know whether or not the goalposts have moved. They don’t create the discourse or set its limits – Americans do that – but presidential speeches do something almost as good: they reveal what the President of the United States can say on TV.
That is valuable information.
Obviously political speeches have political functions. Their content is limited by the president’s political agenda as much as by cultural norms. When Obama, whose presidency has been an exercise in becoming as verbally constipated as his predecessor, refers to “non-believers” in his inauguration (he can’t say “atheist”: that is valuable information) or acknowledges his support for gay marriage, we know the motive is political. But it also reveals what the president can say on TV.
Consider Lyndon Johnson. “These are the most hopeful times since Christ was born in Bethlehem.” The fact that no president in the past two decades would make such a casual reference to the birth of Jesus in relationship to a massive government program is, if nothing else, interesting information. More interesting, however, is Johnson’s famous declaration (spoken with gravitas as the optimism of 1964 had waned), “We shall overcome.” Johnson was already beginning to realize the severity of the coming storm, and he might have considered different words, tempering his celebration of Civil Rights legislation. But instead he quoted the anthem of the Civil Rights movement. This was shocking. Granted, it made political sense: Johnson needed to consolidate liberal support (he rightly feared a challenge from the left, led by Bobby Kennedy, as much as he feared the defection of the South). He was also sending an ideological message to Democrats: we’re burning the ships. There’s no going back. This is our agenda.
But he accomplished at least one other thing, and it’s the reason we remember that speech: Johnson established that yes, the President of the United States can quote a liberal folk song. Yes, the President can say that on TV.
There was a very brief period in my life when Oliver Stone’s JFK was one of the scariest films I’d ever seen. A distorted portrayal of the only trial in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the film is tonally bombastic from start to finish, but my relative youth blunted the effect (teenagers like cloying earnestness and loud things) and allowed me, for a brief shining moment, to experience the film as Oliver Stone intended: an assassination, confusion, then a lull, then a slow simmer that heats to a boil when Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) meets Mr. X (Donald Sutherland). Prior to that scene, the film is a thesis disguised as a thriller. After that scene, the film becomes a thesis disguised as a courtroom drama. You can understand why, when I watch JFK today (and yeah, I still do), I stop the DVD when Donald Sutherland signs off: he leans over and tells Garrison, “I just hope you catch a break.”
For me, that’s the last line of the film.
If I kept watching, I’d see Kevin Costner standing over Kennedy’s grave while (I kid you not) a black family kneels reverently in the background, and then I’d spend the next twenty minutes cleaning the vomit off my couch and carpet.
But up until Mr. X, holy cow, JFK can be a really fun and exciting movie, if you get yourself in the right spirit. Everyone agrees that the “conspiracy montages” are what make the film so great. Here’s how they work: a character delivers a five, ten, sometimes fifteen minute explanation of some theory of the assassination, occasionally interrupted by skeptical questions from other characters who are immediately satisfied with the answers, while Stone, in a rapid montage, cuts between the lecture (which would be unwatchable on its own) and shots of events, sometimes multiple versions of the same event, and unrelated images – some of which are a little creepy (there’s a recurring skeleton).
The most film’s second best conspiracy montage (after Mr. X’s) is the working lunch at Antoine’s, where Garrison and his aids first realize that the scope of their investigation likely exceeds their parish. Toward the end of the montage, they discuss Lee Harvey Oswald’s biography and begin, for the first time, to put Oliver Stone’s narrative together:
The tone and content of these conspiracy montages get creepier and creepier as Garrison and his aids acquire more knowledge, closing the gap between themselves and the truth. Stone goes out of his way to make the Cubans and right-wing militants look ghoulish. (Many of the villains are gay, and Stone’s portrayal of homosexuality is absurdly problematic.) But these men are only demi-goblins amid a much larger Walpurgis of horrors, the center of which is not a fringe Cuban operation but the all-powerful military-industrial complex.
This is when Mr. X intervenes. He arranges a secret meeting with Garrison in the most public and out-in-the-open part of Washington D.C., where he tells Garrison, “You’re on the right track.” X reveals himself as a former military intelligence officer (under the supervision of a man he calls “General Y”) who helped oversee “black-ops” in the 1940s and ’50s: helping Nazis escape Europe, orchestrating the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, rescuing the Dali Lama from Red China, that kind of thing. Once they got involved in Cuba, says X, things started to go wrong.
In 1962, Mr. X was working at the Pentagon, and was assigned an unexpected trip to Antarctica. While he was gone, Kennedy was killed. X continues:
Why was Kennedy killed? Stone uses X to reveal his (Stone’s) ultimate thesis: John F. Kennedy planned a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam by 1965. This was a step too far for the military-industrial complex. The only way to stop Kennedy from pulling out the troops was to kill him. Lyndon Johnson agreed and signed on. Well, Stone doesn’t state that directly; he lets the montage do the talking.
In this scene, X explains the consequences of a Vietnam withdrawal for Kennedy’s enemies (NSFW):
Despite the absurdities of this scenario, it’s a blast to watch. But the closer you get to the center of the conspiracy, the vaguer it becomes. The weirdos on the fringe are characters with dialogue. They’re played by Joe Pesci and Tommy Lee Jones, real people. They’re tangible. But once you move beyond them, well…you don’t really move beyond them.
JFK was one of my first exposures to the lacuna-thriller: films that don’t quite satisfy you, films with characters who are defined and driven by their need to know what is probably unknowable. Movies like All the President’s Men,Jacob’s Ladder, The Vanishing, The Conversation, Don’t Look Now,Zodiac,Upstream Color, and evenZero Dark Thirty. Not all these films involve conspiracies and a few result in an actual solution to the mystery. But they all strike a similar register.
I saw The Vanishingwhen I was 17. The whole film terrified me, not just the ending but also the beginning, the innocuous bits, the picnic at the petrol station. A man’s life is disrupted by a single, inexplicable event. He is overwhelmed by the need to understand the event, to make an inexplicable few minutes explicable. But if he succeeds, his whole identity – which has gradually been absorbed by his obsession with knowing – would disintegrate. He lives to know what happened, but his life is sustained by his ignorance. The Vanishing handles this tension brilliantly.
This tension is a staple of our pop culture. From The Crying of Lot 49 to The Parallax View to Twin Peaks, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. The questions never get answered: when is it better not to know? If you’re paranoid, how can you know when they’re actually after you? How do you know when you’ve reached the conspiracy’s end? The attitudes change over time: in the ’60s, cynicism bolstered belief in conspiracy. In the ’90s, the cynics were the ones who didn’t believe (re: Gillian Anderson in The X Files). One of the most persistent figures on mainstream television is Detective John Munch (played by Richard Belzer). Munch’s antiquated obsession with ’60s-style conspiracy is his defining quality. It’s also the quality audiences find most endearing in him. Munch, who first appeared on the television series Homicide and just recently retired from Law & Order: SVU, has made guest appearances on eight other shows: more than any other actor-character in television history. Munch isn’t an icon, but he has more connections than anyone else in the vast Tommy Westphall Universe. If anything, he seems to be part of a conspiracy – the man who keeps showing up. His presence and popularity demonstrate the endurance of the paranoia, the obsession, and the conspiracy as aspects of our cultural identity.
From his first appearance, Munch was a throwback to a specific type of conspiracy nut, earlier ideas about conspiracies and how they work. Large institutions still conspire and commit crimes; but they are also increasingly unwieldy, chaotic, and prone to leaking. In the ’60s, political paranoids imagined puppet masters operating behind the curtains. Today, we imagine the offices of the NSA: wide open and filled with hundreds of employees committing crime after crime after crime, sometimes unwittingly, and often not very well.
Fifty years after the fact, the assassination is a touchstone of the paranoid style in American life, a symbol of the American affection for conspiracy. In 2013, the Kennedy assassination registers only on certain frequencies, none of them political. It’s not a tragedy anymore; it’s an essential part of our pop culture, like Superman or alien invaders. I mean, seriously: look at this. So today, I don’t feel nostalgia for John F. Kennedy. I feel nostalgia for John Munch.
If you’re interested in a video about the actual assassination, one that attempts to answer a few questions honestly, this one is a good one:
On or about November 10 1997, the Kennedy legacy changed. Seymour Hersh’s The Dark Side of Camelotappeared on Barnes & Noble table displays across the fruited plains. The sexual promiscuity that added a little heat to the Kennedy aura – you could imagine him picking up girls, laughing with Frank Sinatra in bar, all in a black-and-white photograph – was suddenly an inventory of sleazy details.
Worst of all, if you believed Hersh and his sources, Jack Kennedy was kind of a dick.
Before that, Jack was cool. In 1996, a plurality of Americans reelected a president even though they disapproved of his sexual predilections. In the public mind, I think Clinton’s primary sin was not that he committed adultery but that he had joyless sex with the wrong kind of women and, despite his own glowing opinion of himself, he didn’t seem very self-assured about any of it. He actually winced when you asked him about sex. He didn’t do it right. He didn’t do it with style.
Not like Jack did.
Jack was an athlete; women were like sport. Clinton had an appetite; women were like McDonald’s. Jack was fit. Jack was from the Northeast. Clinton was from Arkansas. (American film and literature has always portrayed Southern sexuality as somehow…off.)
Ever since ’92, Clinton evoked and welcomed comparisons to the previous fortysomething president. Democrats still proudly invoked John F. Kennedy’s memory. What’s more, a generation of Republicans who didn’t cringe at the Kennedy name had arrived. Dan Quayle had confidently compared his record to JFK’s. Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s famous response – “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” – is still hailed as a high point of the Dukakis/Bentsen campaign. In 2013, Bentsen sounds like a supercilious ass: an elder senator who isn’t going to listen to some kid pretend he knows something about Jack Kennedy. “I knew Jack Kennedy,” he says, which only reminded people that Bentsen has been in Congress for forty years. His Texas growl may have evoked memories of Lyndon Johnson: not an association you wanted in 1988 (Johnson’s rehabilitation would come later). Meanwhile, the insanely competent but uncharismatic Michael Dukakis, the man who would be the next president from Massachusetts, didn’t do much to secure the Democrats’ monopoly on Kennedy nostalgia.
Three years later, Oliver Stone’s JFK briefly mainstreamed absurd conspiracies about Kennedy’s assassination. The film actually inspired new legislation: the President John F. Kennedy Records Act of 1992 was signed into law by former CIA director George H.W. Bush (back before he earned the “H.W.”). But the most significant thing about JFK was that it’s not actually about JFK. Aside from the wonderful “Mr. X” scene, Kennedy’s policies are barely discussed. The film followed the oddballs and patsies who stand at the edges of the assassination. The film was about the events following the event. Kennedy wasn’t even the objet petit a (that’s the grassy knoll, or whatever’s behind it). Kennedy the man and Kennedy the president had ascended into symbolism, and were just as pliable.
By the mid-90s, Republicans were citing Kennedy as a proto-Reagan. He cut taxes, funded the military, preached personal responsibility (“ask not”): if JFK were alive today, he’d be a Republican! Democrats, meanwhile, persisted in giving Kennedy credit for the few good things Lyndon Johnson had done and blamed Johnson for all the bad things Kennedy did.
1996 was maybe the last good year for old-fashioned flannel-jacketed Kennedy nostalgia. A huge swath of the adult population hadn’t even been born when Kennedy was elected, while many aging baby boomers had little more than a strong, adolescent impression of his presidency. These were ideal conditions for distortion, false memories, and mythologizing. JFK was as an avatar in the public imagination, like Marilyn Monroe (whose movies nobody watched) or Elvis Presley (whose music nobody listened to). Americans could compare the avatar to their current president and find the current president wanting. They could compare the glamor and grace of Kennedy’s era to the present, and find the present wanting (a favorite American pastime).
Then The Dark Side of Camelot fell into their laps, and suddenly Jack was sleazy. The conversation inevitably started with the women, and that’s okay: the women are perhaps the most substantive aspect of Kennedy’s presidency. Inga Arvad and Marilyn Monroe – would could blame him? All the mob stuff was kinda sexy. Everyone had heard that Jack slept with Marlene Dietrich after Marlene Dietrich slept with Jack’s dad – that was kind of weird. But y’know, these are things celebrities do. And JFK was the first celebrity president. Wouldn’t you sleep with as many women as possible if you were the most famous, powerful man in the world?
Except that after Hersh, Kennedy wasn’t merely canoodling with glamorous women on a giant, white, oval bed, the presidential seal hanging overhead. After Hersh, Kennedy was a misogynistic lech. He slept with secretaries and interns and journalists, women who were not in any real position to say “no.” He used the White House as a harem for his friends and his brothers: they need only show up and a woman would be procured for them. The 1960 campaign was a template for the forthcoming Beatles and Stones tours: women everywhere, always available. Jack even spent the night before his inauguration one of his steadier girlfriends. And during the campaign, he told a girl that he would divorce Jackie if Nixon won the election (here’s something fun: imagine an inversion of that scene where it’s Nixon instead of Kennedy). Would Jackie consent to a divorce? Well, they certainly weren’t happy. The primary complaint in the Kennedy marriage was Jack’s promiscuity. Once in office, he promised to sleep with other women only when Jackie was not at the White House. Consequently, Jackie spent much of the glamorous Kennedy years outside the White House.
But a misogynistic lech can be an effective president, right? Sure. Except that after Hersh, Jack’s fame, power, and a dehumanizing attitude toward women were no longer adequate excuses for his sex life. After Hersh, the whole question of “excuses” was supplanted by the need for explanations. It’s not that Kennedy was immoral. It’s that something seemed seriously askew in Kennedy’s judgment, maybe even his brain. JFK kind of had a problem.
Kennedy took bizarre risks in order to have sexual intercourse. He had divisions of the Secret Service coordinating his liaisons. Financial resources were funneled into scouting, securing, and serving women to the president. Secret Service agents were diverted from regular duties to plot elaborate mazes through which women were brought to Kennedy. Most of the affairs were one night stands, and his security complained that the number of women coming and going stretched their ability to keep the White House secure. Kennedy shared a woman with mafioso Sam Giancana. She was a dual-mistress and a courier, moving cash from the White House to Giancana to fund the United States’ ongoing operation of failing to kill Castro. (That’s another thing: unlike his immediate predecessors, Kennedy took a direct hand in murder and assassination plots, seemingly unconcerned about plausible deniability. Even Nixon kept a guy or two between himself and the plans.)
When Kennedy traveled abroad, he slept with women who were barely vetted by the Secret Service. He inadvertently slept with former members of the Communist Party (foreign and domestic). He even got the chance to sleep with two actual, bona fide, real-life Communist spies (fortunately for him, their espionage duties were all confined to a middle-tier U.S. ally: England). The ghost of his old friend, Senator Joe McCarthy, must have been otherwise occupied. (Maybe McCarthy’s ghost gave Jack a pass, what with Jack having helped fund the psychotic anti-Communist’s reelection.)
Kennedy’s staff may have tolerated the contortions required to bring women to the president because they couldn’t tolerate his short periods of celibacy. One Secret Service agent described the sexless days when Jackie was at the White House: “[Kennedy] just had headaches. You really saw him droop because he wasn’t getting laid. He was like a rooster getting hit with a water hose.”
Kennedy told many people about his headaches: friends, enemies, members of the press. “If I don’t have a woman for three days,” he told Harold Macmillian, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, “I get terrible headaches.” (“I wonder how it is with you, Harold?” he asked one of the most distinguished PMs of the 20th century.) This behavior was not libidinous, it was compulsive. Something was…off. Even if we accept only the mildest accounts, John F. Kennedy fit the textbook definition of a terminal sex addict.
Most of what I’ve described emerged from Hersh’s research, which was criticized as lax (there was a minor scandal over one document). The rest emerged in the years since The Dark Side of Camelot was published. The book’s reviewers adopted one of three disingenuous moods: righteous indignation (at Hersh), smug cynicism (very ’90s), or, if you were The New York Times, both. But for the Barnes & Noblers who heard about the sleaze in Newsweek and decided to read it for themselves, the book was a snore. Hersh’s style was dry, straightforward, reporterly. Most readers felt like teenagers who had rented and watched all of I Am Curious for the naughty bits: tired, confused, let down.
In the two years after The Dark Side of Camelot, Democrats defended Bill Clinton’s White House dalliances with everything in their arsenal, including Kennedy. But thanks to Hersh, appeals to Jack were losing their power. Kennedy now offended the sensibilities of too many segments of the body politic, left and right. Hillary Rodham Clinton (all three names) was first lady, the most powerful first lady since Eleanor Roosevelt. Newt Gingrich was Speaker of the House of Representatives, the most visible Speaker since…I don’t know, Henry Clay? Between second (and third) wave feminists and conservative Evangelicals, there wasn’t much space for an ass-slapping frat boy with a charming smile. Kennedy’s Rat Pack womanizing was no longer cute.
And the real shocks were yet to come.
By the 40th anniversary of the assassination, Kennedy’s legacy was undergoing further revision. The impact of Hersh’s work is acknowledged in the opening line of Robert Dallek’s December 2002 Atlantic cover story:
Recent assessments of Kennedy’s presidency have tended to raise “questions of character”—to view his Administration in the context of his sometimes wayward personal behavior. Such assessments are incomplete. Newly uncovered medical records reveal that the scope and intensity of his physical suffering were beyond what we had previously imagined. What Kennedy endured—and what he hid from the public—both complicates and enlarges our understanding of his character.
Dallek’s article revealed what even Hersh hadn’t discovered (or disclosed). The fact that Kennedy had Addison’s disease was not news. He admitted that during his lifetime. The incredible, byzantine, all-encompassing system that Kennedy and his staff designed to hide the severity of his ailment from the public – that was news. The fact that Kennedy was on massive doses of painkillers throughout his entire presidency, that he required amphetamines, that he may have been addicted to something other than sex – that was news.
Imagine not discovering the full scope of the Watergate cover-up until, say, 2011. The pay-offs, the perjury, all the cloak-and-dagger shit. Now multiply all that by powers of a hundred. This is the impact the general public should have experienced (and Kennedy aficionados certainly did) when they learned that JFK spent long periods of his presidency as a kind of half-cogent prop held together by straps and metal braces underneath his clothes. That he was in constant and agonizing pain. That he was perpetually at death’s doorstep, that he’d taken up permanent residence on death’s doorstep as a young boy. That he had little chance of living into his 50s (hence the urgency to run for president in 1960). That a metal brace on his back held him perfectly upright for Lee Harvey Oswald’s third and fatal bullet.
Hersh had actually disclosed that last horrifying fact in 1997, and had wrongly attributed the brace to a nasty pool-side fall that occurred a few days earlier when the president was, you guessed it, having sex. The pool-side sex/fall did happen, but the brace was there to counteract Addison’s effect on the president’s back.
A weak, dying man in a 42-year old’s body that functions like a 72-year old’s body (except for the groin) certainly cuts a sympathetic figure. But even here, Kennedy found ways to behave recklessly.
Kennedy liked his doctors the way he liked his women: numerous and a little dangerous. The White House hired several medical doctors, including the Hollywood physician Dr. Max Jacobson, whose cocktail of drugs – cortisone and amphetamines, plus other stuff now and again – impaired Kennedy’s physical and cognitive functions. The problem wasn’t the drugs, it was the dosage. All of Kennedy’s physicians prescribed smaller doses of these and similar drugs, most of which would affect the president’s mood and mental clarity a bit (some have argued that certain drugs were responsible for his unquenchable libido). His physicians tried to keep these side effects manageable, but the dosages they prescribed did not fully alleviate Kennedy’s pain. Only Jacobson’s came close. So when his medical team warned that Jacobson’s treatment would too severely diminish the cogency of the president of the United States, Kennedy responded accordingly: he built a Chinese wall between his White House physicians and Jacobson.
This Chinese wall helped erect the Berlin Wall, in its own small way. Kennedy snuck Dr. Jacobson along to Vienna for the June 1961 summit with Nikita Khrushchev. He kept Jacobson’s presence a secret from his other physicians, and – whether out of nerves or genuine pain – asked for an unusually strong dose of painkillers before meeting with the shoe-throwing Soviet leader. Within hours, Kennedy appeared haggard and sick. He was about to meet the leader of the Communist world, and he was stoned.
The fact that Kennedy’s foreign policy was in tatters didn’t help. The new president had struggled to unite his strong-willed defense advisors and could not formulate a sane, cohesive policy toward the Soviet Union and its satellites: something his predecessor had accomplished delicately but deftly. Khrushchev and Eisenhower had been moving toward a kind of detente, albeit at a glacial pace. As Khrushchev consolidated power in the mid-1950s, China began testing the limits of their dependence on Russia. This pushed the U.S.S.R. ever so slightly toward the possibility of cordial relations with the United States. In retrospect, it’s clear that – despite numerous conflicts, setbacks, and both side’s hardline policies – Eisenhower and Khrushchev had made small but significant progress toward a mutually acceptable draw in the Cold War. In fact, this slight slackening in U.S.-Soviet relations helped Kennedy become president: he campaigned loudly on a platform of rearmament and aggression toward Cuba and the Soviet Union. With Barry Goldwater and others, he accused Eisenhower of being soft on Communism. And Eisenhower, in turn, expressed alarm over the aggressive yet casual way the senator from Massachusetts spoke about nuclear weapons.
Kennedy’s consistently hot rhetoric (the “ask not” speech is more warlike than you remember) put Khrushchev on defense when he arrived in Vienna. A year earlier, under Eisenhower, some kind of agreement on Berlin seemed possible. But the Soviets were threatened by Kennedy’s rhetoric, confused by his actions, and now buoyed by his visible physical weakness (which counts for a lot in Russia, apparently). Kennedy was slow to speak, slow to respond. Khrushchev ambushed him.
After Vienna, Soviet resolve had increased. Kennedy appeared distracted, easy to manipulate. Meanwhile, Kennedy developed a nasty infection, exacerbated by his Addison’s, which increased his pain and decreased his mobility (some records intimate that the president nearly died on June 22). Dr. Jacobson amped up the drugs, further decreasing Kennedy’s ability to work. The vibe emanating from the White House was ambivalence, confusion, vulnerability. The tough, hawkish persona Kennedy had spent years cultivating was crumbling. Khrushchev felt increasing comfortable: he threatened to seize West Berlin, and then in August he quarantined East Germany (and the rest of the Eastern bloc) by closing all roads to the West and building a wall around West Berlin, holding millions on the Communist side hostage.
Khrushchev never intended to seize West Berlin; he understood that such a move would result in war, perhaps a nuclear exchange. But after seeing the intoxicated president, he thought to himself (in Russian), “Eh, why not?” The bluff would make the quarantine look like a concession; the Soviets could pretend to be the level-headed ones for once.
Dr. Jacobson did not build the Berlin Wall. Plenty of sober minds helped draft Kennedy’s disastrous foreign policy in 1961. Broader geopolitical and economic factors narrowed the options for both Kennedy and Khrushchev at Vienna – neither man was ever in complete control of his government. But insofar as Kennedy had power over certain outcomes, he either bungled or misused it. He had difficulty managing his defense and diplomatic teams, a mish-mash of military brass and technocrats. Everyone in the White House knew that Kennedy was often disoriented by his medication. The president’s lucidity must have been impaired at several important junctures: meetings on Cuba, Turkey, Laos, Vietnam.
Kennedy was not the first or the last president to make foreign policy decisions while intoxicated. But no other president had been so frequently intoxicated while responding to such potentially apocalyptic events.
Apart from the dugs, Kennedy was naturally ambivalent. He loved the appearance of risk but hated the actual, y’know, risk. He committed to major policies half-heartedly. He applied pressure to Indochina, tampered with Cuba, and placed nuclear missiles in Turkey, but always reneged when serious risk seemed imminent. Meanwhile, he began sending olive branches to Khrushchev through back channels and backed off Germany. These oscillations confused Soviet leadership. This man had no idea how to wage a Cold War. So in the summer of 1962, Khrushchev, feeling sufficiently confident in his position vis a vis Kennedy, installed nuclear missiles at the United States’ doorstep.
Then the world almost ended.
By all accounts, Kennedy was cogent throughout the missile crisis. A few months earlier, he had finally caved to pressure from his physicians and fired Dr. Jacobson. His staff recorded a notable change in the president: he wasn’t stoned.
The missile crisis jolted the president. After 1962, his foreign policy oscillations were less extreme, except in one low stakes arena: that sliver of Southeast Asia far away from the rest of the Cold War. Kennedy had already begun to apply his Cuban tactics to South Vietnam: covert operations, low risk disruptions, sex-for-espionage, even a few troops here and there (called them “military advisors”). He could meddle in Vietnam without enraging Khrushchev. And with no overarching Vietnam policy, he could experiment with hundreds of little policies (policies were kind of like women). He could make commitments with governments and then, if he changed his mind, break them. If they threw a fit, no problem: small, pro-American governments in Third World – like women – were easy to kick out. He could fight Communism with few consequences. He could have action without risk. What could possibly go wrong?
Vienna might have gone poorly, and the Berlin Wall might have been built, even if Kennedy had never met Dr. Jacobson. The doctor and his dope were just two small actors in a much, much larger drama. And we can forgive a sick man for seeking radical treatment to relieve his pain…unless he’s president of the United States. With Dr. Jacobson, Kennedy willfully and recklessly made himself vulnerable, as he had with so many women, any one of whom (as far as the White House knew) could have been Khrushchev’s niece. His worst decisions mirrored the worst aspects of his personality. He was reckless. Selfish. Careless. Unwilling to fully commit. These words describe both his marriage and Bay of Pigs, or Vietnam.
Kennedy relished the illusion of action, and for most of his life, people were paid to pretend the illusion was real. “Never expect any appreciation from my boys,” Joe Kennedy told Tip O’Neill in 1953. “These kids have had so much done for them by other people that they just assume it’s coming.” If Kennedy wanted something, he got it; more dangerously, if he wanted to be something, he became it. His father’s influence and sense of entitlement guaranteed that just enough people would play along to make it real for Jack. Consequently, Jack jumped into positions he hadn’t prepared for and just lazily played the part. Jack’s acting career was more varied than Ronald Reagan’s. He played good student. He played celebrated author. He played at winning a Pulitzer. He played underdog candidate. He played congressman. He played senator. He played president. He played a healthy, vigorous young man. And he always got away with it. Only the presidency required some real effort, some real acting, before he got the part (one of the most subtle actors in 20th centuries was competing with him for the role). But Kennedy always knew to expect a deus ex machina or, in this case, a daley tex machina. Daddy delivered.
It’s difficult to fault Kennedy for being spoiled. But compare Kennedy to Nelson Rockefeller, his closest counterpart, to see how singularly Kennedy’s hyper-privileged upbringing deformed his character.
Like Kennedy, Rockefeller was the a son of ridiculous wealth who fully expected to become president one day. Like Kennedy, he was spoiled, petulant, and licentious. Granted, Rockefeller didn’t possess Kennedy’s bitterly competitive edge or his taste for corruption, but he also didn’t have Joe for a father. Sure, Jack and Nelson’s advantages were handed down differently: what Jack got from his father’s willingness to cheat, steal, bribe, fight, and rig nearly anything to get his boys elected, Nelson got from his name, an intangible key that opened every door in the free world. Nelson had more advantages, probably; but then he wasn’t the one who became president.
Still, Jack and Nelson are worth looking at side-by-side. Rockefeller possessed all the repulsive qualities of a privileged son, and he grew sour with age. But he possessed warmth and sincerity, too. He slept around and committed adultery, but he also had the capacity to fall in love with a woman and settle down (and probably lost the Republican nomination for it). Above all, he possessed a set of convictions that were noble and inflexible, and he was willing to sacrifice political capital in the service of these convictions. His political career stalled because he wouldn’t accept the Republican party’s willingness to trade integrity for nihilism on Civil Rights in exchange for the votes of the old Confederacy.
Kennedy’s virtues were much sparser: he was undeniably charismatic. He was naturally funny, charming, and quick-witted. He was genuinely kind to his friends and allies (he could be ruthless with anyone he didn’t like; unlike Bobby, however, ruthlessness was not his sole attribute). As for conviction: Kennedy’s admirers point to his Civil Rights record, and it’s true he proposed a Civil Rights bill and (characteristically) took some half-risks in the process. It’s even possible he would have risked losing one or two states in 1964 for Civil Rights.
But I really doubt it.
From the beginning, Kennedy was terrified of Civil Rights issues. He was terrified of Southern politics. He didn’t want any of it near the White House; or, he didn’t want it near him. Whatever progressive moves he made on Civil Rights were the result of intense pressure from within his party and his administration. But in general, he took a tepid stance – if he planned to sincerely fight for the Civil Rights bill he proposed, a la LBJ, he didn’t let on. Pro-segregationists from within his party were powerful, and the president’s team didn’t want blacks to cost him a second term. The issues at stake was toxic. Whatever gestures Kennedy made toward the Civil Rights movement were just that: gestures.
Sincere political conviction frightened Kennedy more than marital fidelity. He spent his entire political career avoiding it.
Judged solely on his personality, John Fitzgerald Kennedy possessed more unattractive qualities than any U.S. president since Andrew Jackson. And like Jackson, his persona overwhelmed his presidency. In that respect, the crude, licentious, perpetually doped frat boy is merely an inversion of the witty, energetic, charismatic Camelot Kennedy: both are a spectacle, designed to make politics more exciting to people at the dentist’s office.
As a result, critics sometimes dismiss Kennedy on the basis of spectacle (he’s just a cultural figure, a celebrity, a sex symbol, a martyr, etc.). But that only diminishes his many dubious accomplishments. In a mere thirty-four months (or “a thousand days,” if you want to get all goose-bumpy), Kennedy oversaw a frightening reversal of Cold War strategy; equivocated on or blundered the most vital issues; dramatically escalated the government’s reliance on thugs, mercenaries, and gangsters (LBJ called it “a damned Murder Incorporated”); and treated nuclear war as a penis-measuring contest, recklessly taunting the Soviet Union more than any other Cold War president (yes, including Reagan).
All this in addition to the lies, drugs, and hedonism that receive more press, the slime that coats his more substantive failures. With John F. Kennedy, personal flaws and political failures emanate from the same sewer.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Over the next few weeks, I will write a series of posts reflecting on JFK, his life, his legacy, the office of the president, American history, cultural memory, and myself. The thread uniting these posts is a single thesis: John F. Kennedy was the worst president of the 20th century. Some posts will veer away from Kennedy, others will deal exclusively with Kennedy, but all will, in their own way, approach and grapple with the question of what it means to be “the worst president.”
A Tale of Two Libraries
Boston is a second home to me. I’m sure thousands of ex-grad students who’ve attended any of the dozens of universities along the Charles River feel the same way. The feeling runs a bit deeper for me, I think. I met my wife in Boston. She and her entire family hail from Boston, Dorchester, and the patchwork of suburbs that hug the harbor. Half of my family is there now, and I’ll never stop returning. I’ve tried to write about Boston before and failed. Boston is a place about which I’ve ceased to have easy or definite opinions. For me, that’s a pretty good definition of home.
My first home is eastern Iowa, the stretch between Waterloo and Iowa City. As a kid, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, located west of the University of Iowa in West Branch (pop. 2,322), was a frequent field trip. I probably visited Hoover’s museum ten times before I finished high school. The library sits near Hoover’s childhood home; the grounds feature renovations and reconstructions of his birthplace, his childhood barn, and the Quaker meetinghouse where he worshiped.
Hoover didn’t stay in Iowa long. His museum is filled with unintentionally hilarious mannequins of the cosmopolitan Hoovers traveling the globe: mining in Australia, feeding children in war-torn Europe, standing astride a canon during an anti-colonial uprising in China. (Mrs. Hoover, a woman of grit, does the striding.) Visiting the museum, I never reflected on the millions of acres of grain surrounding me, grain that would eventually leave Iowa and find its way to every continent. For me, the Hoover museum was a more immediate and tangible (if somewhat tacky) link between Iowa and the world.
I first visited the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum in South Boston when my parents were in town. Like most urban dwellers, I didn’t take advantage of local attractions unless people were visiting. And ever since I moved to Boston, I was eager to visit Kennedy’s library, in part because of Hoover’s. The Hoover museum is a carefully curated response to preordained hostility: people hate Hoover. Hoover caused the Great Depression (right?). He did nothing while people lost their savings, their jobs, their homes (right?). The curators offer a humble but firm apologia, something to do with foreign aid and Russia and being a wise old man in Manhattan. Even if you think Hoover was a bad president, says the library, Hoover was still a pretty good guy. Fine. I knew that. Now I wanted to see a library dedicated to a beloved president, someone who managed to squeeze lots of exciting shit (including loads of sex and near-apocalyptic disasters) into three short years! What must his library be like?!
By the end of my day at the JFK library, I had really learned something: Hoover’s library is kind of awesome.
Hoover’s was the first of the now thirteen presidential libraries affiliated with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). As far as I know, it is the only presidential museum whose curators operate under the assumption that their president was a failure. It would be hard to do otherwise. Everyone hated Hoover, even Iowans . He’s the only president to have a symbol of nomadic poverty named after him. When critics wish to accuse a sitting president of total incompetency, they frequently invoke Hoover (sometimes idiotically). During their end-of-the-century coverage, Time magazine ranked Hoover as the worst president of the 20th century.
And who could object?
Even if you take a sympathetic view of the man and his presidency – Hoover was an unparalleled philanthropist! he was a great statesman! he opposed Wall Street corruption throughout the 1920s! he began implementing New Deal-style reforms as early as 1929! the Great Depression was mostly Harding and Coolidge’s fault! any incumbent (even a composite of Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, and Harriet Tubman) would have lost in 1932! – even granting all that, you have to admit, Hoover was the worst.
Gore Vidal once suggested that ex-presidents be given the emeritus title “Librarian” (an ironic title, Vidal added, when you consider Americans’ general disinterest in reading). And if, for reasons perverse and unknown to me, you wanted to look inside the brains of a president’s most ardent supporters, to see what they see, you could do worse than visit a presidential library. Let’s begin with the real estate: Hoover’s library is situated at the end of a long driveway, an easy-to-miss turn off an old highway. The library is tucked away among trees. As anyone anywhere will tell you, Iowa is not a heavily forested state. I’m sure someone decided that trees would add shade and beauty to the grounds, but they only make the library seem deliberately hidden. The flat ’60s-style architecture, the “living history” vibe of the outdoor exhibits, the mannequins, the retro arcade-style buttons you push to watch videos produced in 1985: everything about the library feels antiquated.
The Kennedy library, by contrast, towers confidently at the edge of a peninsula it shares with the University of Massachusetts-Boston, a great white slab jutting out over the harbor, the bay, the ocean (no need to imagine a link between Boston and the rest of the world).
Only a jerk would point out the absurdity of the cones and pyramids; the spheres that abruptly give way to sharp angles; the awkward slabs of concrete juxtaposed with walls of glass; the wide, empty stairs; and the hollow square detailing (rendered, again, in concrete); all of which reek of, well, 1979: the year Kennedy’s library was dedicated, the year before his baby brother’s final unsuccessful shot at the big oval, the year before a Hollywood actor matching Kennedy’s charisma would claim his office (properly mandated, and able to survive two full terms). If Hoover’s library feels antiquated, Kennedy’s is merely dated.
Which is worse?
The late ’70s and early ’80s might have been the height of Kennedy nostalgia, when the Kennedy era was becoming historical memory: the moment of malaise, a time when swinging and sex weren’t fun anymore, when assassinations lost their shock value. A yucky time, more Teddy than Jack. This moment, not ’61 or ’63, is fossilized just beneath the surface of what seems, at first glance, a fantastically beautiful building, the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum.
Once you’re inside, Kennedy’s museum is curated to reaffirm the love you obviously already have for their man. I expected as much going in. JFK was a popular guy, and I assumed the museum would reflect that. No need for too much dirt, the lewd details: the question of how many women he slept with (Vidal, not the least reliable source, claims it was close to 5,000); the question of how high he was (moderately, but much of the time); the question of his isolationist daddy’s machinations; of Cook County ballot boxes; of dead voters in Texas (what, would you want Nixon to have won?).
But I was immediately alarmed by the the Kennedy library’s total and unapologetic adulation of their man. Presidential library museums are inherently propagandistic, I get that. Even the Hoover museum highlights two accomplishments for every terrible decision. What I don’t expect is a slobbery, sometimes defensive, borderline kitschy shrine to a complicated administration. I don’t expect a brazen and unapologetic whitewash of a man who has already been washed whiter than any modern president, a man who has practically been conferred sainthood among American Catholics (I’ve seen haloed JFK portraits on mantels in Dorchester, Dubuque, Denver).
The bulk of the Kennedy library consists of gifts that he and Jackie received from across the (recently decolonizing) world, a virtual bazaar of exotic treasures from steamy climes, all displayed against gaudy late ’70s colors and tones. Jackie’s inauguration day pillbox hat is a major attraction (I admit, it’s cool to see). But whenever raw politics pops up, the museum tips the scales toward the guy who already won. In one strange exhibit, a reconstructed newsroom, ostensibly broadcasting the 1960 election, shows Kennedy leading Nixon in California, Nixon’s home state (which Nixon won in 1960 because, duh). Historically literate visitors will understand that the exhibit represents a single, frozen moment in the evening of November 8 1960 when Kennedy was ahead in many states. For everyone else, the exhibit implies a final Kennedy victory that is much wider than the historical tally.
The library gives much attention to elections and speeches and pageantry, less to policy. It offers George Wallace (who Kennedy confronted with words, not actions) more space than Vietnam (decidedly fewer words, way more action). The library determined that papers from Robert F. Kennedy’s law school career and the Bay of Pigs deserve roughly equal time. The Cuban missile crisis is summed up in a single blurry, fragmented, incoherent documentary (that, in retrospect, probably captures with relative accuracy Kennedy’s own narcotized experience of those thirteen days).
After some genuinely moving footage of JFK in Ireland, you pass through a bizarre, unlit hallway: the assassination. “Is that it?” my dad asked, not merely of the assassination but of the entire museum. If the curators deliberately designed such a strange and anti-climatic ending to convey the anticlimax that Lee Harvey wrought, well, mission sorta accomplished. Instead of leaving with the horrific drama of Dealey Plaza – the abrupt end of a potentially great presidency – you leave feeling unsatisfied, confused, like you missed something. As you exit, you walk through an enormous glass room with a gorgeous view of the harbor. Look up, and you realize you’re standing under a comically large American flag. You’re unsure of what it’s supposed to mean.
Of course, a library is much more than a museum. I enjoy the Kennedy Library Forums and appreciate their availability online, even if the audience was unnecessarily cold to LBJ biographer Robert Caro, and unbearably snobby toward his subject, after Caro uttered a few mild criticisms of JFK. In 2011, Christopher Hitchens confirmed my suspicion that, of the presidential libraries, Kennedy’s “is…renowned among presidential and other scholars as the most obstructive and politicized of the lot.”
But my interest in the Hoover and Kennedy libraries runs much deeper than politics or history or scholarship. The libraries belong to the places I’m from; they represent those places; they exude the attitudes and qualities I associate with those places, or that I project onto them from myself. Iowa: understated, apologetic, ashamed, even when you’re blameless. Boston: overstated, defensive, sour, even when you’re winning.
And Kennedy is always winning. Even the scandals – sex with celebrities! stoned into a stupor at cabinet meetings! erotic waterboarding in the bathtub! all while moving nuclear missiles around the planet as if he were planning the final turns of a high-stakes, to-scale game of Risk! – somehow that all adds to his mystique!
And on top of that, on top of all of that, he gets shot in the head at the height of his popularity. And his killer, who was never quite exactly totally witnessed killing the president, is shot dead before any confession or trial, rendering the circumstances of the assassination technically indeterminable and therefore interesting to everyone forever. Bad for the nation, absolutely. Horrific and traumatizing for the president’s family, unquestionably. But good for his legacy? Do I even have to answer that?
What more could a dead president ask for?
One thing, apparently: a library that insists nary a single bad word was ever spoke about John Fitzgerald Kennedy. A museum that ignores his illnesses, his distracting sexual appetites, his insecurities, his shortcomings, even the possibility that he ever made a non-adorable mistake. A museum that refuses to acknowledge the obvious: that for decades, the assassination clouded our ability to assess John F. Kennedy’s presidency.
November 22, 1963, was one of the most painful and frightening moments in modern U.S. history. The murder of any head of state is terrifying; assassinations can destabilize entire nations. In the United States, Kennedy’s death symbolically inaugurated an era of major cultural change that was compounded by social unrest, political realignments, painful economic adjustments, failed presidencies, and all manner of violence. We call this period “the Sixties,” but it arguably lasted well into the early 1980s .
Is Kennedy responsible for these changes? Absolutely not. Did his assassination provoke them? No. Could he have tempered the mood, prevented some of the violence? I don’t think so.
So why do I believe John F. Kennedy was the worst president of the 20th century? Because of the sex? The corruption? The deceit? The drugs? The cockiness? The recklessness? The policies? The posturing with Khrushchev? The mystique? Yes to all of the above, and more. I’ll try to dispense with the personality issues in my next post and then move on to more “substantive” critiques. But there’s substance in the seedy details; no other president on so many occasions endangered the welfare of the United States for a quickie.
In 2013, John F. Kennedy is no longer a deific figure. I don’t get any points for swinging at his legacy, nor can I label myself a clear-eyed contrarian for dismissing him. I will, however, attempt to heighten the discourse surrounding JFK from adulation (its former state) and nuance (its current state) to a shrill (my state). The vulgar consensus (i.e., whatever Doris Kearns Goodwin is saying these days) is that John F. Kennedy was a charismatic, complicated, and ultimately flawed president . Some would add that JFK could have beena great president if he had lived. In the face of this hardening and well-supported consensus, I will argue that JFK was charismatic, complicated, flawed, and also the worst president of the 20th century, because I want to raise the stakes of the debate and because I believe it.
In the next installment: Seymour Hersh, Sex, the ’90s, Sex, What Happens in Vienna Stays in Vienna, Sex
[/1] Hoover lost Iowa and forty-one other states in the 1932 election. The rural Midwest had not benefited from the roaring 1920s, which boosted major urban centers. After a post-war boom in 1918, agribusiness contracted throughout the ‘20s. The Great Depression obliterated Iowa’s already weak economy. By 1932, the year of Hoover’s reelection campaign, five percent of all Iowa farms fell into foreclosure. Des Moines declared a moratorium on land seizures. This all before the Dust Bowl struck.
[/2] Even the notorious Nixon library, once owned and operated by Nixon’s own foundation, handed its archives and facilities over to the NARA in 2007, making itself respectable to visitors and scholars alike.
[/3] The cover of Time‘s April 1981 issue asks, in response to Reagan’s near-assassination, “Can it never be stopped?” Reagan’s brush with death seemed part of an historical continuity: a plot to shoot President Nixon morphed into the shooting of presidential candidate George Wallace. President Ford came face-to-face with not one but two would-be shooters during his short tenure. But after Reagan, thirty years passed before another national politician was shot (Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Gifford in 2011).
[/4] We’re going through quite a Lyndon Johnson revival these days, what with the Caro biographies and Lee Daniels’s The Butler. LBJ is the most favorably represented president in that film – he also gets the last line.