Review of Stephen Knott’s Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy

Alec D. Rogers is an attorney specializing in government practice and policy in Washington, DC. 

In Coming to Terms with John F. Kennedy, Stephen Knott brings a lifetime of careful and thoughtful study of the American government, foreign policy, and covert operations to evaluate that most Shakespearean of presidents. Knott’s account is not merely a scholarly one, but a personal one as well. Having begun his career at the Kennedy Library, Knott became gradually but forcefully disillusioned by the relentless smoke and mirrors employed by its personnel in service of the “Camelot myth,” presenting the public a flawless JFK they knew to be false.  For many years thereafter Kennedy’s legacy was a tainted one for him. And as the Democratic Party drifted leftwards, Knott found himself moving away, eventually identifying as a Reagan Democrat.

Like many on both the right and the left, Knott has reassessed his place on the political spectrum in recent years. Having recently lived through a presidency in which language was calculated to divide Americans by appealing to baseless fears in pursuit of personal welfare rather than appealing to their best instincts to serve a national interest, he has come to see Kennedy’s leadership in a new light. Coming to Terms Knott revisits Kennedy’s leadership and legacy and sees much to admire now that 50 years has passed since that tragic November afternoon in Dallas.

To better understand Kennedy separately from both the fawning admirers and the critics they inspired, Knott focuses on those areas most squarely within his expertise. Accordingly, Cuba, the Soviets, and Vietnam all loom large, with civil rights receiving significant attention as well. Although there is a smattering of other issues with which Knott contends, most of Kennedy’s domestic legacy, particularly the economy and his historic tax cuts, is outside of the story’s parameters.

Knott is still wary, however, not to take his revisionist approach too far. He details the birth and growth of the “Camelot” mythology that sprung up within days of his death. His disgust with the unsavory tactics used by family members and courtiers to protect the mythology over the years is still detectable in his account. But that is balanced by his recounting some of the most popular stories about Kennedy’s warmth and the wit that endeared him to virtually all who knew him, the undefinable “Kennedy magic.” At the same time, Kennedy’s personal faults and misdeeds are laid bare as well. The result is a well-rounded “warts and all” portrait. But Knott is also as favorable in his assessment of Kennedy as any honest reckoning could be in an age where the distortions of the Sorensons, Schlesingers, and many others have been laid bare.

The Crown Has Made It Clear… Kennedy as President

Knott begins his latest work where his previous book on the presidential office itself left off. In The Lost Soul of the American Presidency, Knott argued that the office had devolved from the Framers’ vision – “a source of national pride and unity, a check on the tyranny of the majority, and a neutral guarantor of the nation’s law” into the more partisan, politically dominant model that we experience today. Knott acknowledges that Kennedy’s “made for TV” approach to campaigning and governing perfected the model begun by predecessors such as Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt and that the transformation of the presidency constituted a “decline” of both the office itself and the American polity. 

This was no accident or mere by-product of his personality. During the 1960 campaign, Kennedy would often portray himself as the anti-Eisenhower, contrasting his youth and vigor to what he and others portrayed as a languid, hands-off approach to the presidency that America could no longer afford in an era of instantaneous news from the television and the 24/7 threat of nuclear annihilation. As much as we might “Like Ike,” the planet could be annihilated in the time it took him to play the back nine at Augusta and slip out of his cardigan. Younger men needed to busily take charge. Men like himself and the ”Best and the Brightest” who had coalesced around him, brother Bobby, and the rest of the family.

The resulting presidential dominance of the American political system, its celebrity status, and the inevitable disappointment that seems to come with failure of every President to deliver on their promises are all the fruits of the Presidency that Kennedy came to perfect, Knott acknowledges. Still, even if the effect was not always a positive one, he gives Kennedy credit for succeeding in much of what he set out to achieve, invigorating the office itself after what he saw as his predecessor’s moribund approach to the uses of presidential power.

July and August cannot be too hot… Kennedy as Cold Warrior

A specialist in the history of American foreign policy generally and covert activity in particular, Knott provides a nice synthesis of Kennedy’s handling of these areas, providing a crisp account that makes use of the most up to date scholarship. In a thought-provoking assessment of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Knott affords Kennedy high marks while acknowledging the veracity of many of the criticisms of Kennedy. In so doing he carefully contrasts Kennedy’s eloquent but sometimes bellicose public words with more carefully tailored actions and private conversations. The “courtiers” overall assessment of Kennedy’s performance with regards to Cuba is correct, he avers, but not for the reasons they think. He even asserts that there was evidence that Kennedy was “moving towards” a more sophisticated “two-pronged approach” to Cuba involving not just sticks but carrots as well. Whether this was true, and whether Kennedy would have stuck with it in the face of Castro’s intransigence, is anyone’s guess. But, as Knott notes, Kennedy was constrained by domestic political considerations without acknowledging that many of them were of Kennedy’s own making when he attacked Eisenhower’s foreign policies as lethargic.

Perhaps most controversially in this sphere, Knott confidently concludes that had Kennedy lived, America would have avoided the Vietnam War, or at least would have stopped significantly shorter than did his successor, Lyndon Johnson. This has always been a subject of fierce debate among presidential historians, and Knott’s very choice of a chapter name for Vietnam, Kennedy’s quote that “In the final analysis, it is their war” presages his conclusions. Acknowledging that comments made by Bobby Kennedy in 1964 might indicate otherwise, Knott dismisses them as the words of a viable presidential candidate before the conflict had grown unpopular. “To believe that Kennedy would have stayed the course as body bags began arriving… in the hundreds week after week in the latter half of the 1960s reveals a complete misunderstanding of the man,” Knott summarizes.

But such a definitive statement seems at odds with the Kennedy often acknowledged by Knott, who earlier quotes Kennedy as saying, “I think we have to demonstrate to the people of the world that we’re determined to… to be first – not first if, and not first but, but first.” Even after supposedly learning valuable lessons from his acknowledged fiasco at the Bay of Pigs, Knott admits that the recently declassified Project Mongoose files reveals that Kennedy really never stopped his Wylie E. Coyote – style chase after Fidel Castro. Giving up seems not in his nature. In Vietnam we see both Kennedy as a private sceptic and the man who was afraid to be seen as losing yet another country to the communists. 

And Vietnam did not happen all at once. It unfolded day after day, week after week as Lyndon Johnson kept doubling down to recoup his losses, like a gambler at a Vegas casino table who realizes he’s lost way more than the limit he set when he first walked in. Reading Knott’s own account, it’s actually quite easy to imagine how Vietnam could have come out much the same during a second Kennedy term. Knott is certainly correct in his belief that this must all be “conjecture.”

Since Knott’s book has been published, another work has emerged that argues that key elements of the case that Kennedy would have taken a different path in Vietnam from Johnson, such as Kennedy’s plan to commence withdrawal of US troops, was in fact a subterfuge. In his new study of Kennedy and Vietnam, Marc Selverstone, at the Miller Center, concludes that Kennedy’s plans were really a political misdirection that would allow US support to remain in place, a “cagey device” that presaged US involvement in Afghanistan, and that portrayals of a dovish Kennedy are “overdrawn.” 

When it comes to the use of force, particularly as regards nuclear weapons, in confronting the Soviets, Knott’s Kennedy is the antithesis of a Donald Trump. Kennedy is highly informed and makes compassionate, humane decisions based on the best evidence available. Nukes are as safe with him as they were likely dangerous with Trump. He astutely compares Kennedy to Ronald Reagan in this regard as someone who wanted nothing more than to eliminate them, two cold warriors who balanced their disdain for communism with their loathing of the nuclear weapons they would need to combat it. They were as unusable as their possession was necessary. Knott’s description of Kennedy’s deeply analytical and independent approach to this paradox shows Kennedy at perhaps his most impressive.

But there is something disturbing in all the excitement packed into the thousand days of the Kennedy presidency. Berlin, Cuba, Vietnam, Vienna, the Nuclear Test Ban. More frequently than his predecessor, (whom he never failed to condemn for his lack of “vigor”) Kennedy was frequently having to confront Moscow in high stakes showdowns. Knott acknowledges that it was “perhaps no accident” that Kennedy would lurch from one crisis to another given that “Action was the coin of the Kennedy realm.” Even if one accepts Knott’s conclusions that Kennedy largely handled his many dealings with Khrushchev well, the rapid fire of challenges that confronted Kennedy brings to mind Admiral Ernest King’s aphorism about the best shiphandler being the one who never gets his boat into a situation requiring great ship handling. Compared to the Eisenhower years, the ship of state seemed to require a great deal of skillful shiphandling during the relatively brief period Kennedy was at the helm.

Those Are the Legal Laws… Kennedy as Civil Rights Champion

Knott is particularly concerned to set the Kennedy record straight when it comes to race and civil rights. Over the course of two chapters, he traces Kennedy’s journey from a “trust fund baby who had served in a segregated navy” who began his political career as a mere by-stander in the Civil Rights movement, to a “full blown co-conspirator” with King and the movement by the end of his life. Knott rightly asserts that Kennedy desired a more just, fair America. But, if Kennedy became a more outspoken and aggressive champion as time wore on, it was also because the South was utterly intransigent, and Kennedy eventually came to realize there was nothing to be gained by bargaining. Knott acknowledges Kennedy’s “trimming” in seeking to have it both ways. But, to Knott the important thing was that Kennedy decided to do the right thing in the end, fully prepared to pay the costs in the 1964 election, rather than give up or slow roll progress until after the ballots had been cast.

Further, to his great credit, even if Kennedy viewed Civil Rights through the prism of a political conundrum to be solved rather than a purely moral issue, he was consistent in his personal conduct. He appointed blacks to important posts and refused to personally affiliate with any racially exclusive entity such as Washington’s much sought after Cosmos Club in which he initially sought membership. Still, it must have been maddening to the civil rights leadership to have a President characterize the freedom rides as “unhelpful” in the international arena where America’s civil rights record was making it difficult to persuade developing countries that their future lay with American, not Soviet or Chinese, leadership. This international focus perhaps made him slower to realize that the change that needed to be made was with America itself. And when Kennedy died, King was still being wiretapped by Kennedy’s administration.

By Eight The Morning Fog Must Disappear… The Rest of the Kennedy Saga

While Knott’s focus on Kennedy’s record is centered on the great questions of civil rights, foreign policy, confrontation with the Soviet Union over Cuba and the nuclear arms race, he touches upon others as well. Kennedy’s record of support for NASA and his determination to place a man on the moon as well showcases Kennedy’s vision and the masterful way he employed rhetoric to promote it. His fight to secure ratification of the Nuclear Test Ban treaty illustrates that even if he were no LBJ, he was not unable to work his way on Capitol Hill.

Before his concluding thoughts, Knott deals also with Kennedy’s death. Covering all the evidence methodically, he explains why the Warren Commission’s conclusions were both largely correct while acknowledging that the way much of the evidence was handled (e.g., the cover up of the plot to kill Castro) was responsible for much of the lingering skepticism, which became manifest after the full Zapruder film was released and shown on television many years later. While some may remain dubious, Knott once again “shows his work” while acknowledging all the evidence on both sides judiciously.

In Short There’s Simply Not A More Congenial Spot… Kennedy at Rest

Knott’s Kennedy is a mature, sober and thoughtful public servant, somewhat like the image presented by his library in its sober, black and white images. But to his great credit Knott never whitewashes the Kennedy record. He seems to have concluded that Kennedy was largely disserved by those who would try to cover up his failings, and in his view of the Kennedy legacy is one that can weather the storms of a complete reckoning. The result can, at times, read like a defense brief, but one strengthened by Knott’s insistence in fully presenting as clean and unvarnished a portrait of Kennedy’s record as permitted by the national security apparatus on one hand and the remaining Old Guard of Kennedy courtiers at the Library on the other. But at the end of each chapter, Knott generally adopts the reading of the Kennedy record most sympathetic that a fair reading of the record will permit.

Knott perceptively notes that the Kennedy legacy can be difficult to pin down because it is being constantly reassessed by its own keepers to remain in sync with the current Democratic Party ethos to serve the up-and-coming generation’s ability to win office. Nonetheless, he believes that JFK “deserves more than just a second look” and concludes that his should be awarded the status of a “near-great President” despite his relatively brief time in office.

He rests this view largely on the greater access to tape recordings of Kennedy’s conversations unavailable to earlier generations of scholars. They can provide “deeper insight” into what a second Kennedy Administration would have looked like, Knott argues. But given that only Kennedy himself knew about the system, it’s not hard to imagine that he wasn’t guarded when speaking when he knew he would be on the record someday. A great consumer of history himself, JFK likely would have been guarded as to what was said where, when and to whom. As biographer Evan Thomas noted in his book on Robert Kennedy, the Kennedys were great practitioners of the Boston political aphorism that “a wise politician never puts anything in writing. ‘Don’t write when you can talk; don’t talk when you can nod your head.’”

Knott also acknowledges the relative paucity of Kennedy’s legislative record, but compares Kennedy to Lincoln, whom he noted was “rightly celebrated for his words, not his legislative scorecard.” But if Knott is comparing Kennedy’s record to Lincoln’s, the latter’s is far more impressive (land grant colleges, the trans-continental railroad, homesteading, three truly transformative constitutional amendments, the first paper currency and income tax) in addition to the whole “preserving the Union” thing that Lincoln’s been, reputationally speaking, dining out on for nearly 170 years. Comparing Kennedy to Lincoln or Roosevelt, who saw America through both the Great Depression and World War II, seems to move him even further from them in assessing “presidential greatness.”

Perhaps more aptly, Knott compares Kennedy to Ronald Reagan, drawing parallels and arguing that “their similarities outweighed their differences.” I concur with that thought, but even here, at least we KNOW how Reagan’s two terms ended, and the transformation that occurred (for better or worse) as America went from a nation in uniformly perceived decline in 1980 to unchallenged leadership shortly after his successor took office. But Knott DOES make a compelling case that Kennedy COULD have been a “near great” had he served two full terms and continued to grow as a more confident leader.

But the Kennedy record is, through no fault of his own obviously, simply too incomplete to award him such lofty status. For if there is the “Profiles in Courage JFK” – eloquent, thoughtful, courageous, and shrewd – there is also Nigel Hamilton’s “Reckless Youth” of the biography of the same name. This is the Kennedy who would share a mistress with the same mob boss he both worked with and would try to eradicate, abuse an entire pharmacy of prescription drugs to combat his Addison’s Disease and World War II injuries, and indulge his womanizing to the extent that it created serious challenges for his security detail and entourage. This latter Kennedy raises serious questions for anyone who would rate Kennedy as “near great.” For instance, would the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have been enacted without Lyndon Johnson’s unparalleled mastery of Capitol Hill (the incredibly shabby treatment of Johnson, and the Kennedy team’s unforced error in not making greater use of his Hill acumen, is one of the untold parts of the story)? Similarly, it’s unlikely the Great Society would ever have been born. Would Kennedy have truly avoided the tragedy of the Vietnam War as Knotts believes or were the actions he cites merely the mirage Selverstone sees? Would he, in fact, have emerged personally unscathed had even a fraction of his numerous extramarital dalliances come to light in the America of the 1960s? We’ll never know. Knott may have come to terms with Kennedy at long last, but that sad November day will forever render his legacy more inconclusive than he might like.

But, happily, one need not agree with Knott’s assessment of Kennedy’s overall record to benefit significantly from reading this careful, thoughtful work. He writes succinctly but withholds nothing of importance to the issues he covers. The reader is therefore free to reach their own conclusions. Finally, Knott’s portrayal invokes a time of serious people working at serious jobs on serious issues, a stark contrast to the celebrity focused, tweet driven politics of today. And if that imagery creates just a bit of haze that makes us yearn a little more for the “Camelot” myth to have been true, it is entirely understandable.

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