The Intelligence of JFK by Richard Sale

  Richard Sale headshot (2)

I was not attempting to be cruel in talking of the seamy side of Camelot.  I was trying to address a certain nostalgic myopia, a mood of acquiescent credulity that could be heard and seen everywhere on the anniversary of President Kennedy’s  death.  To romantize things is to falsify them.  There is a certain willful conceit in some forms of admiration, and that was what I objected to.

My wife objected to what I had written, noting that President John Kennedy “inspired us. You have to remember that.”

She is right. That is a wife’s chief function, but she is correct.  I was an admirer of John Kennedy because I admired his wit, his directness, his ability to think on his feet, his intellectual self confidence and fearlessness, his gift for accurate perceptions without which all sound and stable thought is impossible. As I said before, he could seize the essence of an issue as if coring an apple. That is no small gift.  Toughness of mind was another ingredient needed for success, Kennedy felt,, and he was tough.

Kennedy was a superb listener. When he looked at a document it was with total absorption. He seized its essence with ease.  Someone said of him that when he was listening to someone, he was totally there with the speaker. He would lean forward, his chin protruding slightly, and listen, not bothering to want to convey his own thoughts, but to hear completely the other person’s.  Lenin, it was said, could exhaust people by listening to them.  Kennedy did the same. By holding back, he urged the speaker forward towards full disclosure, without revealing his own mind and its designs. The closed air compelled the more open to speak, said a poet.


It is interesting that Kennedy’s victory in the election somehow “hurt his self-confidence and pride,” said British journalist Henry Brandon. This manifests a certain honesty of appraisal, even if it was indirect.

I admired the way JFK organized his presidency.  Just before he was elected, he said, “I cannot afford to confine myself to one set of advisors. If I did that, I would be on their leading strings.”

The huge responsibilities of the presidency did not awe him. He did not scare; he wasn’t to be awed by anything. He had seen a lot and knew even more about how the world worked.

Kennedy thought in terms of people, not structures, in setting up his new administration.  First of all, he decided that he would be his own White House chief of staff and his own Secretary of State.  He feared resentment if he set up one advisor over a set of other advisors.  The insiders of the new group would be  veteran supporters like Sorenson, O’Brien, O’Donnell, Powers and Salinger. The administration was the operation of a team, and JFK avoided those who were too ambitious to be conspicuous, too avid to seize control, too hungry for favors, too unscrupulous to subordinate their own plans for his. He wanted these people to tell him “the unvarnished truth, no matter what.”

Having written two books, Kennedy was aware of the power of words used with poetic effect, and this concern is reflected in the way he handled his First Inaugural Address.  He felt that what he said at the beginning of his term would carry more effectiveness and importance than giving the newspapers headlines about appointees.  The note of the new administration was to be one of “inspired realism.”

Kennedy was no philistine.  He believed that the arts were not simply a useless amusement, but revealed the heart of a nation’s purpose.  He admired the power and riches of the mind.  To him, excellence in the arts was a public necessity. When Udall suggested, that Kennedy ask Robert Frost to speak, Kennedy’s eyes brightened, but he was shrewd in his reaction. He did not want to compete with Frost, who, he said, “is a master of words.” He wanted no repeat of the Lincoln, Edward Everett situation at Gettysburg.  At that time, Everett’s eloquence acted to put Lincoln’s words in shadow.  He wanted a poem of Frost, but it was not to compete with his own speech.

He had Sorenson search all the past inaugural speeches for clues that worked best, and Kennedy studied the Gettysburg Address, realizing the simple words worked best, and brevity was required.  Be brief and be gone. An excellent biographer of Kennedy, Robert Dallek, said that the speech “came from Kennedy’s own hand,” but that is doubtful.  Anyone who had read “Profiles in Courage,” cannot but admit that parts of it fall flat.   I have no evidence, but I think that Sorenson’s craft came to bear and played part, much like Rosenmann, (I  believe) who wrote speeches for FDR.  Rosenmann came up with the ideas and phrases but FDR was an excellent and agile editor, rearranging and inserting things for more potent effect.  The speech was intended to outline JFK’s personal intentions for the presidency and he practiced the speech tirelessly.  He compared the length of his speech to that of FDR’s Inaugural, he inspected Jefferson’s.  What emerged was a model of succinctness.

His next concern was delivery, intonation, emphasis. JFK went over and over with it. The day of the Inauguration, as he lay in his bathtub, he was reading the speech, and at the breakfast table, he practiced it to his own idea of perfection, every intonation set exactly right.

We know the result – the imperishable sentences – “We observe today jot a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom,” (which echoes Jefferson’s, “We are all Federalists’ we are all Republicans.”  And one of the thrilling climaxes of the speech still endures unblemished , “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, oppose any foe to ensure the survival and success of liberty.”

A speechwriter for Ike, Emmet John Hughes said to him afterward, “You have truly inspired the excitement of the people.” And that is, I think what my wife was referring to.

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6 Responses to The Intelligence of JFK by Richard Sale

  1. Bobo says:

    Thank you. As with the Turkey in the oven and the pies a baking this leaves me with a warmer feel. Combine both, a little less of the first, and you may have the start of a book. We all have a seamy side, some more than others, that we will never reveal and being public it always comes out but is only a small part of a man thus you have furthered Camelot just a little more.

  2. turcopolier says:

    I do not share your admiration for JFK, but… pl

  3. MRW says:

    This tour de force says more about Richard Sale’s insight into people.

  4. Walrus says:
    I concur with Mr Sale and Isiah Berlin. I cannot say more without making a self referential quote from the aforementioned article. I know SFA about Kennedy, Cuba and a whole lot more.

  5. Robert Caro’s 4th volume on biography of LBJ is much about JFK!.
    Caro believes that some months into the JFK Administartion VP Johnson came to realize JFK no lightweight but forged steel from sickness, family, war, politics, and personal growth.
    LBJ was a man who like Father Joe Stalin and Joe Kennedy knew how to find the weakness in a man but perhaps more difficult to know a man’s strengths.

  6. Stephanie says:

    Perhaps you’re erring on the side of generosity to credit Kennedy with the writing of two books. On both efforts he received a good deal more help than most of us would.
    Sorensen and Kennedy worked on “Profiles in Courage” together in much the way you describe. Sorensen did most, not all, of the actual writing and the theme and general direction of the project was that of his boss. Nothing wrong or particularly unusual about that in terms of modern politicians and their books. PinC is readable, which is more than you can say for most such efforts. The iffiest part of the business is Kennedy’s accepting the Pulitzer for it. That’s a writer’s award. I suppose he couldn’t very well turn it down once awarded, but the prize was not richly deserved, let us say.
    Kennedy had a way of being able to talk to people in all walks of life without talking down. He was a very different rich kid from, say, Mitt Romney. I expect his service in the military had something to do with that. You never hear him use locutions like “folks” as Obama does, and it’s hard to imagine him describing the decline of the nation’s infrastructure in public as, “We’re relying on old stuff…We should have some new stuff.” Hear that language sing!
    JFK did spend a lot of time with British politicians, who do know how to speak, so perhaps that had something to do with it as well…..

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