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President Kennedy: Profile of Power Paperback – November 1, 1994
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Time magazine The best non-fiction book of the year.
Michiko Kakutani The New York Times [A] narrative that leaves us not only with a new understanding of Kennedy as President, but also with a new understanding of what it means to be President.
Bruce W. Nelan Time Fresh and fascinating material....The Bottom Line: A cool, clear look at the way JFK dealt with his crises.
Geoffrey C. Ward The Boston Globe Reeves' portrait of Kennedy and his presidency is both persuasive and compelling; the reader puts it down with the feeling that this is what it must have been like to be at the center of power at a time when the center very nearly did not hold.
Michael Elliot Newsweek A magnificent book....Reeves tries "to reconstruct [Kennedy's] world from his perspective." He succeeds triumphantly, forcing us to read the early 1960s in a fresh way.
Bill McKibben New York Daily News The power of JFK and of this book is strong enough that it illuminates our present day as well.
Derek Shearer Los Angeles Times Book Review President Kennedy...is the best study that I've read of what it's like to be President.
Rory Quirk The Atlanta Journal/The Atlanta Constitution A skillful blend of history and character study....Informative and provocative...Reeves offers the nation's 35th president without adulation and without tears.
Peter Braestrup Chicago Tribune An uncommonly cool, compelling portrait of a modern president.
About the Author
Richard Reeves is the author of presidential bestsellers, including President Nixon and President Kennedy, acclaimed as the best nonfiction book of the year by Time magazine. A syndicated columnist and winner of the American Political Science Association's Carey McWilliams Award, he lives in New York and Los Angeles.
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This book is a fairly detailed look at JFK’s presidency. It’s not a biography. I was a bit leery of that fact. I had already read a book detailing Kennedy’s presidency – Ted Sorensen’s “Kennedy”. I didn’t like it. It REALLY made me nervous when this author actually praised that book early on in THIS book. I was petrified of a repeat. Safe to say, this book was much better.
I won’t detail Sorensen’s retrospective, I’ll focus on this book. It seems like this book’s biggest advantage is that the author knows how to keep his readers engaged. “Profile in Power” is actually the perfect subtitle. We see how this young, wealthy aristocrat handles the most powerful position in the world. Nothing is sugar coated. We get the good, the bad, and the ugly. Quite often, the ugly is quite ugly.
He portrays Kennedy as human. The man had flaws, yet I came away with the impression that JFK was a good president. We read a lot about Khrushchev, Cuba, Vietnam, and Civil Rights. The latter topic was a bit harsh. Contrary to what some historians want to believe, Kennedy was not that much of an advocate for Civil Rights. It wasn’t that he didn’t believe in the cause, he just felt issues weren’t a priority. Yes, he made some strides, but many would argue far too little. We read a lot about the many, now famous, incidents that took place in the early sixties, and one comes away with the feeling that our President really should have done much more in this area.
I enjoyed reading about the tensions with Cuba (i.e. Russia) and Vietnam the best. We see the young president learn from his mistakes, and make some very tough decisions. The Vietnam parts were also eye-opening. Again, many in the history department have sugar coated Kennedy’s record and involvement. Contrary to what Oliver Stone tells us, Kennedy did not want to “end Vietnam”. We must remember that during Kennedy’s administration, the vast majority of Americans couldn’t even find Vietnam on a map, so it’s only in hindsight that we can be as judgmental as we tend to be.
And, yes, there are a lot of women. Supposedly, Kennedy was taking some hardcore medication for his back pain which included the side effects of a) having a tan complexion and b) rather amorous. So I guess this would allow many to give the former president a free pass when it came to his consistent infidelities. You wonder why such medication wouldn’t be available on the black market. But never mind.
Like all great leaders, Kennedy can be tough when he needs to be. We prefer to see our leaders through rose colored glasses, but we see plenty of instances when the leader, at least behind the scenes, attempts to get things done in rather unconventional methods. One of my favorite episodes concerns little brother Ted. Ted becomes a new senator in Massachusetts solely because of the Kennedy name. When Ted complains to his brother that one of the new policies JFK is enacting is hurting his constituents back home, the president replies, “Tough sh!t”.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. My only complaint is, like Kennedy’s presidency itself, the book ends too abruptly. As soon as Kennedy leaves for Dallas, the book basically stops. I mean, we all know that Dallas was the end of Kennedy’s presidency, but I would have liked to have read a bit more. Maybe the author could have offered his opinions of the LBJ administration and discussed how he felt things could have been different? Of course, it would have all been speculation, but it would have been a rather nice addendum.
My favorite historical accounts of famous people are ones that show an evenly balanced person – good and bad. Unlike the Ted Sorensen book (the guy was so loyal, I’m convinced he would drink Kennedy’s bathwater if asked), this one is just that. This book is now over 20 years old, but reads as though it was written yesterday. I doubt you could probably find this book at a bookstore due to its age, but it’s worth ordering online (as I did). I’m very glad I accidentally stumbled upon this one.
But what was he like as president, and as the leader of the free world? How did he make decisions, direct subordinates, and deal with world leaders such as Charles De Gaulle and Nikita Khrushchev? These are some of the questions Richard Reeves sought to answer when he researched and wrote "President Kennedy: Profile of Power." The introduction summarizes what he discovered about our nation's 35th president, and later illustrates in the book. "(Kennedy) was intelligent, detached, curious, candid if not always honest, and he was careless and dangerously disorganized," writes Reeves. "He was also very impatient, addicted to excitement, living his life as if it were a race against boredom."
Kennedy said governing was choosing, but he tended to avoid making decisions for as long as possible, wanting to keep his options open. Avoiding decisions, especially the big decisions, however, was in itself a form of decision-making, and did in fact trap his presidency and the nation in a brutal, prolonged and ultimately unwinnable war in a small, insignificant country on the far side of the world--Vietnam.
Reeves' book follows Kennedy through a number of crises: the Bay of Pigs, the meeting with Khrushchev (which left Kennedy "shell-shocked" and looking weak in the eyes of Soviet leadership), the Berlin Wall crises, the Cuban Missile crises, civil rights unrest in the Deep South, and the decision to send American boys to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia, something Kennedy said he would never do. In fact, the Vietnam War was the one constant of Kennedy's presidency: it wouldn't go away but rather grew worse with time.
U.S. involvement in Vietnam started small, with about 600 American advisors stationed in and around Saigon, a number in line with the Geneva Convention, that Eisenhower authorized prior to Kennedy taking office. Kennedy was looking for a small conflict to exercise his belief in the viability of limited warfare, while at the same time showing Khrushchev he was tough. Vietnam was that place. This was in 1961, before anyone in the U.S. had ever heard of Vietnam, never mind being able to locate it on a map.
In fact, the road to the Vietnam war was paved with a series of small, seemingly insignificant decisions, made without a lot of thought or investigation or soul-searching, small decisions that Kennedy believed could easily be reversed and therefore were in line with keeping his options open. However, once he upped the ante toward the end of 1961--sending 3,300 aircraft and doubling the number of American advisors (breaking with the Geneva mandate)--the press began sending journalists to cover the war and the decision to withdraw became increasingly difficult. By the summer of 1962, Vietnam was making the front page of newspapers across the country. For Kennedy, it meant Vietnam was now a very real issue calling into question American resolve and prestige, demanding more of his attention, and eliciting more and more questions from the press. And it only grew worse as he upped deployment to 11,500 American soldiers by the end of 1962, and 16,000 by the end of 1963. By then, Kennedy was appearing on the major network newscasts such as CBS and NBC, defending his Vietnam policy.
Kennedy did not live to see the outcome of his Vietnam decisions. Whether or not he would have managed the war differently than Lyndon Johnson or withdrawn completely will never be known. However, the advisors Kennedy picked and relied upon in 1961-63, such as Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, and McGeorge Bundy, were the same men Johnson relied upon in 1964-68.
Reeves casts an unflinching eye on Kennedy's many illicit love affairs while in office, and his ongoing (and secret) struggle with Addison's Disease, which threatened his life. Most reviewers find Reeve's account of the Kennedy presidency to be even-handed. I believe that too. However, those who still want to believe JFK was a saint should look elsewhere.