BOOK REVIEW / Honkers against the White House: Godfrey Hodgson on Kennedy, first leader of the new age: President Kennedy: Profile of Power - Richard Reeves: Macmillan, pounds 12.99

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In May 1961 a group of 13 passengers, seven of them black and six white, bought tickets on two buses from Washington to the Deep South. Their aim was to test a ruling by the United States Supreme Court that racial segregation of facilities for interstate travellers was illegal.

These were the Freedom Riders, and in 1961 their seemingly simple act demanded almost insane courage. As the buses crossed into Alabama, one was firebombed; the other made it to Birmingham, where the Riders were beaten with baseball bats and lead pipes.

President Kennedy was informed. What did the man who was to be remembered as the champion of civil rights movement do? He called in Harris Wofford, now a senator, but then the only committed civil rights activist in the White House. 'Can't you get your goddamned friends off those buses?' he said.

'Stop them.'

The President had other things on his mind. He was preparing for a meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader - a meeting at which the Ukrainian coal-miner was to shake him to the core. He was worrying about how to hide from the world that he was secretly ordering American troops to fight in Vietnam.

Only three weeks earlier, the Russian cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, had made the first space flight, and Kennedy was infinitely more interested in catching up and then passing the Soviet Union's propaganda achievements in space than in protecting blacks and white liberals foolish enough to try to help them.

For Kennedy, in fact, as Richard Reeves points out in this definitive political biography, the Freedom Rides were simply a 'giant pain in the ass', in the grunted schoolyard language in which he communicated with his brother Bobby, the Attorney General.

Richard Reeves does not hide the yawning chasm between the Kennedy of propaganda, manipulation and legend, and the real man, charming, cynical and political to the tips of his fingers. He points out that the man, still younger-looking than his age, who made 'vigor' a slogan of his politics, was in fact a sick man, with Addison's disease, agonising back pains and chronic gonorrhea.

He made much of his youthful energy, but he spent more than half of most days in bed. When his Administration seized on a craze for hiking as a way of dramatising its youthful energy, the President followed a group of his friends in a white Lincoln convertible.

His doctors fought over his body, one pumping amphetamines into him, another corticosteroids and a third massive injections of novocaine. His remarkable sexual appetite may itself have been a side-effect of cortisone injections.

Yet he denied taking cortisone. 'The new President,' Reeves comments, 'was an Addisonian, a liar - and a brave stoic, too.'

Reeves certainly paints his man warts and all. But he is not primarily interested in the warts. Indeed, he is not essentially interested in Kennedy as a man, although his portrait is on the whole the best of the two dozen or so I have read.

Kennedy's first priority, Reeves makes plain, was political survival. But getting re- elected always came first. He was not a liberal; indeed he and his brother often mocked the liberal wing of the Democratic party as 'honkers'. He had 'little ideology beyond anti-communism'.

His reputation rests on a number of achievements, each of which, on examination, turns out to be bogus or at least not quite what it seemed.

Kennedy is still revered by many American blacks, and by non- white people the world over, for his leadership of the civil rights revolution. The fact is that he did his best to prevent Martin Luther King from holding his great March on Washington. Lyndon Johnson, the southerner and the supposed representative of the old politics, understood far more clearly what was happening and what needed to be done.

The Cuban missile crisis was hailed as a triumph of the will. But Kennedy successfully concealed in his lifetime that, in order to get the Russian missiles out of Cuba, he had done just what he denounced others for proposing, and traded them against American missiles in Turkey.

Kennedy was obsessed in a personal way with the conflict against the Soviet Union and against communism. There was something almost adolescent in the aggression he put into that conflict, wanting to know whether Khrushchev or Castro was as 'tough' as he was: a key concern, the need of the sickly rich kid to believe he was as tough as the others.

His understanding of what was happening in the swiftly changing world of the early Sixties was rudimentary. He was bored by economics, and also by domestic policy; instead he focused almost exclusively on 'foreign policy', meaning the Cold War. He was trapped by his own dishonest 'missile gap' campaign rhetoric. Above all, he failed to grasp that the political revolution in the South was actually more important, for the Democratic party and for the country, than his meeting with Khrushchev in Vienna.

And yet . . . he was the first president of the television age, and his style, his wry, self-deprecating humour and his gift for projecting himself as simultaneously a prince and a regular fellow, were perfectly attuned to the new politics. With imaginative and thorough research and balanced judgment Richard Reeves has recorded this triumph of image over substance, and chronicled the first, but not the last, American president to see the White House not as a pulpit or a command post but as a prize to be won and enjoyed.

Reeves, aware of all the ambiguities, even asks the shrewd question whether Kennedy was the first of the new, or the last of the old. He was, of course, both.