John Morton Blum, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale, captures the crisis of confidence that overcame the States in the late Fifties - the defining years of the American century. The economy was mired down. Unemployment was rising. Healthcare was costly and inadequate. Poverty was rediscovered. Racial tensions were growing. Education and technology were widely deemed disaster areas. Alarmist books with titles such as Why Johnny Can't Read sold in their millions (which at least suggests that Johnny's parents could pick their way through simple prose).
The main difference between the Fifties and the Eighties was that - incredible as it may seem today - the supposed achievements of the Soviet command economy still looked impressive to many of the liberal elite. They believed that planning was both morally superior to the market and more likely to deliver the goods.
The Soviet success in launching Sputnik, the first earth satellite, was, Blum argues, a psychological body blow that fed American paranoia. Those politicians who did not take Nikita Khrushchev's sabre-rattling seriously, pretended to do so. Thus, Kennedy seized the time and campaigned against a menacing but non- existent Soviet 'missile gap'.
The Kennedy campaign worked, but only just. JFK was elected President by one of the narrowest margins in American history, with the assistance of Mob money and corrupt Democratic political machines that rigged the ballot in Illinois and Texas - the latter state controlled by Lyndon Baines Johnson, the vice-presidential candidate. Kennedy's rival, Richard Nixon, was advised that he could challenge the vote and almost certainly overturn the result. Nixon declined, on the grounds that the exposure of dirty tricks would damage America's international reputation. So it was that, to parody Kennedy's inaugural address, the torch passed (uncertainly and under squalid circumstances) to a (relatively) new generation of Americans.
In office, Kennedy calculatedly built up the imperial presidency that Nixon was eventually to inherit and discredit. For a while it really felt like Camelot, although style was more important than substance. Nixon was himself elected in 1968, supposedly the most radical of years, over the political corpse of Lyndon Johnson. Then, in 1974, he finally boarded the helicopter that was to take him from the White House lawn into internal exile, the only American president forced from office as a result of his own criminal activities. Apart from the cover-up, Nixon's crime had been to bug and tap his political enemies - as had Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower and Roosevelt before him. But, Blum argues, Nixon operated outside the liberal consensus, and he paid a fearful price for this audacity.
Boast - as Kennedy had done - that you and your country will 'pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty' and you are all too likely to end up in imperial overstretch. The killing fields of My Lai and the bugging of opponents' offices were consequences of an arrogance of office, which ended with Nixon on television protesting to an incredulous audience, 'Your President is not a crook'.
Between them, the Kennedy/Johnson/Nixon years covered the rise and fall of an arrogant, imperial presidency. The American constitution with its separation of powers is hard for the British to grasp. But it
contains wonderful, self-balancing mechanisms. How an independent- minded Congress and an activist, agenda-setting Supreme Court tamed the Presidency has seldom been better described than in Professor Blum's lively but authoritative