Read an Excerpt
Chapter 15: JAMES BUCHANAN
SURVEY RANKING: 39
BORN: April 23, 1791, Mercersburg, Pennsylvania
MILITARY EXPERIENCE: Pennsylvania militia (private)
OTHER OFFICES HELD: Pennsylvania state representative (1814-15), U.S. representative (1821-31), U.S. senator (1834-45), U.S. secretary of state (1845-49)
TOOK OFFICE: March 4, 1857
VICE PRESIDENT: John Breckenridge
LEFT OFFICE: March 4, 1861
DIED: June 1, 1868
BURIED: Lancaster, Pennsylvania
by Christopher Buckley
It's probably just as well that James Buchanan was our only bachelor president. There are no descendants bracing every morning on opening the paper to find another headline announcing: "Buchanan Once Again Rated Worst President in History."
Their only consolation is that political scientists occasionally tire of ranking him last and, just for the heck of it, bump him up to next-to-worst president, with Warren Harding (temporarily) assuming the bottom slot on the greasy pole. But then what can one hope for, of an executive whose most famous utterance was to his successor on the day he handed over the reins of the fractured nation: "My dear sir, if you are as happy on entering the White House as I am on leaving, you are a very happy man indeed"? And how would you like to be followed by Abraham Lincoln, number one or two on the top ten list of great presidents?
Considering Buchanan's curriculum vitae leads one to ask, What, oh what, went wrong? His achievements and honors positively shimmer. He was an excellent lawyer pulling down $11,000 a year, no small sum in the 1820s. He was elected to the Pennsylvania legislature, then to the U.S. House. He was elected chairman of the Judiciary Committee, appointed minister to Russia (by President Andrew Jackson, in order to keep him from running for vice president), elected to the U.S. Senate and reelected twice, appointed secretary of state, appointed minister to Britain. James Buchanan was a résumé god, a nineteenth-century George H. W. Bush. If only he'd stopped there. But whom the gods would make worst president in U.S. history, first they convince to run for the White House.
An essay on Buchanan by the historian Jean Harvey Baker in a collection entitled ironically, in his instance To the Best of My Ability contains the following phrases: "ill suited...undermined his pledge...advice of cronies...inflammatory position...improperly intervened...infuriating...limited himself...passed over for renomination...schism in the party...vacillating...rudderless...bungled...presidential failure...erratic trimmer...twisted...stubbornly...deaf ear...feckless...exculpatory vehemence."
The Greatness That Was the Buchanan Era included Dred Scott, the economic panic of 1857, secession, and Fort Sumter. You have to look hard to find four more dismal nodes in American history. Open the Buchanan file to any random page and you'll find such accolades as: "never regarded as a brilliant speaker," "neither a brilliant nor visionary thinker," and even "expelled from college." The one woman about whom he was serious was the daughter of Pennsylvania's leading ironmaster, who, by the way, didn't like Buchanan and tried to break up the courtship. After he fumbled the romance, she committed suicide. Later on, there were rumors that his persistent bachelorhood was owing to an abiding Uranian affection for Alabama senator and, briefly, vice president under Franklin Pierce William Rufus King.
On the plus side, Buchanan was known for a sense of humor, though alas this "seldom showed itself in his public statements" (Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission). Well, let's not pile on. The record shows that he was "distinguished looking." And he was. In photographs, he looks out at us with a becoming, diffident sense of his own handsomeness, head tilted forward and to the left. This was not a pose. He was farsighted in one eye and nearsighted in the other. Historians have remarked on this ophthalmic peculiarity as emblematic of his karma: Some things he saw clearly up close; the big picture was well, a bit blurry.
Buchanan saw the major issue of his day slavery both ways, as (a) evil, but (b) a state issue. Buchanan's 1856 platform was premised on the idea that the Compromise of 1850 ought to stand, and that Congress had no constitutional mandate to intervene in the matter of slavery. It was a principled, lawyerly view. The only problem with it was that it was (a) wrong and (b) ultimately dividing. While Buchanan dithered and finessed and tried to have it both ways, a senatorial candidate named Lincoln was out on the hustings famously declaring that a house divided against itself could not stand. Tempting as it is to blame Buchanan the lawyer for his nearsightedness on the issue, Lincoln was also a member of the bar.
He was consistent. As early as 1826, thirty years before becoming president, he was parsing away: "I believe [slavery] to be a great political and great moral evil. I thank God, my lot has been cast in a State where it does not exist. But, while I entertain these opinions, I know it is an evil at present without a remedy...one of those moral evils, from which it is impossible for us to escape, without the introduction of evils infinitely greater. There are portions of this Union, in which, if you emancipate our slaves, they will become masters. There can be no middle course." Boldly put, sir!
The Buchanan treasury of quotations, such as it is, is marked by an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand evenhandedness that leaves him with sores from straddling the fence:
"It is better to bear the ills we have than to fly to others we know not of."
"What is right and what is practicable are two different things."
"Liberty must be allowed to work out its natural results; and these will, ere long, astonish the world."
"All that is necessary to [abolish slavery], and all for which the slave States have ever contended, is to be let alone and permitted to manage their domestic institutions in their own way."
In 1854, two years before assuming the Mantle of Ungreatness, he championed the Ostend Manifesto. (You may remember it as a trick question on your last American History final exam.) In Ostend, Belgium, he declared that the United States had the right to purchase Cuba, or to annex it by force if necessary. Well, that's certainly bold. But this had less to do with Manifest Destiny which the expansionist Buchanan resolutely favored than with giving the South another slave state. It's hard not to level the charge of appeasement against Buchanan.
He tried to win by splitting the difference. In the end, it came to naught, as appeasements invariably do. In January 1861, the ship he had dispatched to resupply Fort Sumter was fired on and forced to withdraw. One month later, the Confederacy was officially inaugurated in Montgomery, Alabama.
He was passed over by his own party for renomination. (Four years before, he had carried only 45 percent of the popular vote in a three-way race.) There was, at least, a happy by-product to his failure: The schism he created within his own party ultimately assured the election of the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Soon Buchanan was on his way to the Capitol in a carriage with his successor, telling Abe how relieved he was to be rid of the job.
He retired to Wheatland, his estate in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he died in 1868. Though domestically tranquil, his remaining years could not have been happy. He was blamed for the Civil War. Vandals kept defacing his portrait in the U.S. Capitol, requiring it to be removed for safekeeping. (That must have hurt.) Posters calling him "Judas" were plastered on walls.
He finally did what most Democratic ex-presidents do write a book blaming everything on the Republicans. It was not a best-seller. One of his last pronouncements upon himself has a sad quality to it. "Whatever the result may be," he said, "I shall carry to my grave the consciousness that I at least meant well for my country."
"At least he meant well" isn't quite up there with, say, Edwin Stanton's pronouncement at the deathbed of Lincoln: "Now he belongs to the ages."
Yet let's cut the poor guy some posthumous slack and grant him the benefit of the doubt that he did, at least, mean well. Perhaps historians, the next time they convene to decide who was the absolute worst president ever, will also factor in his good intentions and move him up two notches so that his ghost can experience the giddy feeling of looking down if only temporarily on Warren Harding and Franklin Pierce.
Mr. Buckley is editor of Forbes FYI and author, most recently, of Washington Schlepped Here (Crown, 2003).
Copyright © 2004 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Chapter 16: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
SURVEY RANKING: 2
BORN: February 12, 1809, Hardin County (now Larue County), Kentucky
WIFE: Mary Todd
MILITARY EXPERIENCE: Illinois militia (captain)
OTHER OFFICES HELD: Illinois state representative (1834-41), U.S. representative (1847-49)
TOOK OFFICE: March 4, 1861
VICE PRESIDENTS: Hannibal Hamlin (1861-65), Andrew Johnson (1865)
DIED IN OFFICE: April 15, 1865 (assassinated)
BURIED: Springfield, Illinois
by Jay Winik
It was the loneliest of decisions. On his first day on the job, in March 1861, Abraham Lincoln, bags under his eyes, already faced a military crisis: Fort Sumter was surrounded by rebel batteries, and supplies were running dangerously low. What to do? Reinforce it? Give diplomacy a chance? Force a showdown?
Lincoln prevailed on the best and the brightest in his cabinet for advice. The legendary General Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican War and a towering fixture in Washington, counseled surrender of the fort it was, he said, of inconsequential military value. Gideon Welles, Lincoln's navy secretary, also favored giving it up. So too did Secretary of State William Seward. Echoing the sentiment of much of the country, he emphatically wanted to evacuate: Any aggressive moves, Seward contended, would eviscerate Unionism in South Carolina and ignite a civil war; the best way to end the crisis was to give Sumter up and provide Unionists throughout the South time to consolidate their strength. This way, those who endlessly harangued about Republican coercion would be silenced, a great crisis could be ended, and a ghastly civil war avoided. (In fact, behind Lincoln's back, Seward had already brazenly assured Southerners that Sumter would be evacuated.) And Lincoln's troubles with his advisers were compounded by his public tribulations. One New York Times headline blared: "WANTED: A POLICY."
What to do indeed. But Lincoln would soon rip back no concessions. "The tug has to come," he memorably said, "& better now than any time hereafter." He told his cabinet a supply fleet would be dispatched to Sumter. Soon thereafter, Sumter fell. Lincoln shrewdly announced the rebels had fired the first shot, "forcing" on him a decision of "immediate dissolution, or blood." And thus would commence a chain of events leading to a great war that would drag on for four bloody years and consume some 620,000 lives.
Lincoln's niche in history and in our affections is secure. His greatness comes from many things: He ended slavery, saved the Union, stitched the country together toward war's end, and gave a new birth to freedom. He penned eloquent addresses that will forever reside in the nation's memory. He died a martyr. And almost uniquely, he was a leader of such inexhaustible magnanimity and vision that by war's end he could put himself in the position of rescuing not just the North's bloodied young men but, in his own distinct manner, those of the South as well.
Lincoln seems to rise above other presidents onto a different moral plane, becoming a Christ-like figure, or the closest thing that exists in our national consciousness. Yet he was a riddle of quirks and eccentricities. His self-derogation was real: "My poor, lean, lank face." So was his simplicity: His clothes were invariably out of season or fashion; he referred to himself as "A" and greeted visitors with "howdy"; and he stuffed notes in his pockets and stuck bills in a drawer. He abounded with contradictions: a man of great moral fiber who was a shameless politician; a man of vast intellect who scoffed at great works of literature or history because they were "too heavy for an ordinary mind to digest"; a man of humble origins who blazed with ambition and never quit. (Local settlers once gibed that he was a "wild, harum-scarum kind of man who always had his eye open on the main chance.") No wonder The New York Times called him "peculiar."
More books have been written about Lincoln a staggering seven thousand by one estimate than any other single American figure. Yet one question remains. Its answer is elusive but it is well worth dwelling upon. How, when the country was suddenly confronted by the mightiest challenge since its auspicious birth, did Lincoln manage to rise to the occasion?
Neither history nor our love affair with Lincoln should obscure just how ill-prepared he was for the job, or the many mistakes he made early on. Before he became president everything about his career smacked of the persistent efforts of a political junkie and an average political hack. He had not held office in over a decade and had never been more than an obscure one-term congressman. Unlike George Washington and Andrew Jackson, he had virtually no military experience. Unlike Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, he had virtually no diplomatic experience. He had never lived or even traveled abroad. He had no executive experience, almost no formal education, no powerful mentors, and had never overseen anything larger than a two-man law office. He was risk-averse to boot. And then there was the matter of his fragile temperament. He was a man so prone to gloom that he once mourned, "I laugh because I cannot weep."
Was this the man to guide the country in its greatest crisis? Where would he find the inner resolve and wisdom to weather the cataclysm he now faced? To be sure, he craved this war like a criminal wants a firing squad. Yet somehow and this is the source of the Lincoln legend and of Lincoln's greatness as well in the sobering months and years ahead, this once second-rate politician would find himself. By some combination of design and fate, he would become this nation's greatest war president and make this country what it is today.
It was never easy. Not in the beginning, not in the middle, not in the end. From the outset Lincoln, inexperienced and disorderly, found he had to address daunting matters for which prescriptions and precedents scarcely existed. Every executive agency, from the White House to the army, was in turmoil. Cabinet members worked at cross-purposes when they weren't undercutting the president. A military machine had to be built literally from scratch. And there was the "Negro" problem, stalking and haunting Lincoln at every turn. Finally, Washington itself was a whirlwind of disarray and confusion. But Lincoln pressed on.
He made tough, controversial decisions. Concerned about "the enemy in the rear," he was unapologetically zealous in censoring telegraphs and the mail; in suspending habeas corpus and in imprisoning ordinary citizens (so-called disloyalists) and even duly elected legislators; in defying Chief Justice Roger Taney (when Taney rebuked Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus, Lincoln fired back, "Are all the laws but one to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces lest that one be violated?"); and in even closing down newspapers. He bravely weathered a storm of public opinion arrayed against him, year after year, every bit as fierce as the Vietnam War protests. In 1864, the North was still in a foul mood. As famed journalist Horace Greeley put it, "Our bleeding, bankrupt almost dying country longs for peace." It did indeed. That year, in the presidential election, Lincoln's own former top general, George McClellan, ran against him on a peace plank. Yet Lincoln pressed on.
And he pressed on even though he had generals who wouldn't fight, couldn't fight, or failed to press the advantage when they did fight. In turn, he sacked general after general. But with brooding detachment, Lincoln endured his own mistakes they were many and the brittle highs and deepening lows of the war. And he did so with dogged tenacity.
Dogged tenacity. It is a simple explanation for greatness but in Lincoln's case, probably quite true. One of the great questions in history is, Why didn't Lincoln give up or give in? Why, when the opportunity for ending the killing presented itself, did he not grab the easy way out, or the expedient way, as a lesser man and a lesser president might have been tempted to do (and as Lincoln himself had done in the past)? He would have been no different from a long list of kings, monarchs, emperors, and other heads of state who bowed to the irrepressible pressures for compromise, or to the forces of nationalism sweeping the globe and who, far from being condemned for it, were praised for their statesmanship.
Consider how tempting it might have been to any other president. At several points during the war, it looked as though the Confederacy could, or even would, win, or at least not lose, which amounted to the same thing. The worst riots in American history, the four-day New York draft riots of 1863, raged after Gettysburg, and left anywhere from 105 to 1,000 dead, with black residents lynched and hung from lampposts. And there was no respite; storms of antiwar protests sliced through the Midwest. Once Lincoln had finally appointed Ulysses S. Grant, it was unclear whether the public would persevere with him. The Democrats were demanding an immediate cessation of hostilities ("after fours years of failure...by the experiment of war"). As the appalling number of Union casualties rose in 1864 yes, as late as 1864 the North was still far from victory, and nearly 200,000 men had deserted the federal army.
The toll on Lincoln's psyche was brutal. During the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864, when Grant and Robert E. Lee squared off for the first time, Lincoln barely slept for four days, wandering the White House corridors. ("I must have some relief from this terrible anxiety," he muttered over and over, "or it will kill me.") Even then, as the war dragged on and the carnage mounted, it became clear that the sacred struggle would be neither brief nor easy nor, for that matter, necessarily victorious. While Bill Sherman was stalled in the West, Grant suffered some 52,000 casualties in those six weeks alone nearly as many as were lost in the entirety of the Vietnam War; at Cold Harbor, he lost a frightful 9,000 men in one hour three times as many as had died in Pickett's Charge the year before. Lincoln himself declared the "heavens hung in black." But when Congress and even Mary Lincoln called for Grant's head after this terrible carnage, Lincoln snapped back: "I can't spare him. He fights!"
The critics of Lincoln never let up: "There is a cowardly imbecile at the head of the government," warned one newspaper. "Disgust with our government is universal," said another critic. In one of the unkindest cuts of all, the dapper Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner called him "a dictator," while another senator, Benjamin Wade of Ohio, speaking for the elites of Washington society, wrote him off as "poor white trash." Yet into the volatile mix, Lincoln, who deeply hated slavery, would issue the most revolutionary document since the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation and then later he would lobby vigorously for the Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery for all of time. And into this mix, at war's end, he would, in the last speech of his life, declare his support for some blacks to vote another first in this nation's history (prompting one John Wilkes Booth to growl: "That means nigger citizenship").
And when the war stalled, we saw another side of Lincoln: a man tough as nails. By the summer of 1864, Lincoln understood that only the strongest measures would save the Union. He embraced the concept of total war, an escalatory measure that would have been unthinkable at the conflict's outset and that the South itself had rejected and let loose General Bill Sherman. Sherman's March to the Sea unleashed hundreds of miles of death and destruction. The South got the message: "Since Atlanta I have felt as if all were dead within me forever," Mary Chesnut, the Southern diarist, shuddered. "We are going to be wiped off the face of the earth!"
Yet Lincoln's heart was never hard. Having waged total war, at war's end it was he who spoke of a magnanimous peace to knit a badly divided country back together again ("with malice toward none; with charity for all"); it was he who stood up to the radical Republicans and those voices in his own cabinet who wanted harshness and revenge, instead embracing charity and compassion toward the defeated Confederates; and it was he who sketched the postwar vision to knit the country together in April 1865, thus sparing America the grisly wake of internecine war that has too often been the norm throughout history, as in Northern Ireland or the Balkans or even the Middle East today. As Lee himself put it, "I surrendered as much to Lincoln's goodness as I did to Grant's armies."
There is one more thing worth pondering. As the Civil War entered its waning months, far from being triumphant or cocky, Lincoln was an overwhelmingly melancholy man. Instead of glory, Lincoln once confessed, he had found only "ashes and blood." Like many great generals who have had to send tens of thousands to their deaths, he had a corner of remorse lodged deep in his gut, furiously eating away at him. It is little wonder that the whole experience of the presidency was barren for him; Carl Sandburg once remarked that there were thirty-one rooms in the White House, and Lincoln was not at home in any one of them. But even as a deathly weariness settled over him, Lincoln was never mawkishly self-pitying. Again, he pressed on. It was remarkable, and we are once more forced to ask, how did he do it?
In watching Lincoln evolve as president, one comes away with the sense that he began to feel as if he had somehow been placed on this earth, elected as president, in the eye of this terrible war, as part of some grander design to save the Union. And then, for perhaps the first time in his life, he felt not the familiar drumbeat of ambition or of political satisfaction, but of destiny. And when that happened, he was a rock.
And if that meant preserving the Union, well, all else be damned. Perhaps this even explains his curious, almost indifferent attitude toward his own death. "I long ago made up my mind that if anybody wants to kill me, he will do it," Lincoln remarked. And this too: "It is important that the people know I come among them without fear."
On April 14, 1865, as Lincoln readied himself to go to Ford's Theatre, he had been told several times that the evening would be a particularly dangerous one; yet he refused to take along an extra guard. To some, these are the convictions of a man without hate or malice, or the signs of a cavalier recklessness or a morbid bit of bravado, or evidence of yet another troubling blind spot. All this might be true. But with hindsight, we can perhaps also see that they are the actions not of a passive man, but of a man hurtling toward his ultimate fate, without fear or hesitation.
Then came the loud muffled sound, like a violent clap of hands, or the crack of wood. It was the bullet, fired by John Wilkes Booth, that bore into Lincoln's brain.
Presidents may do many things, but they do not have the luxury of complaining, or blaming others, or eluding responsibility, no matter how terrifying its dimensions. Why is it that some lose winnable wars, but others win losable wars? Or some evade the issues of the day, while others tackle them head-on? These are the mysteries of leadership. Second-rate presidents may act "great" during routine times, when it is easy to do so, but only the truly great ones rise to the occasion in difficult times. And where second-rate presidents are somehow always shaped, and prodded, and manipulated by the forces of history, great ones find ways to bend those forces of history to their goals. Thus it was for Lincoln.
He instinctively understood the moral burdens he had to shoulder; he appreciated the high seriousness of the crisis; he grasped its tragic dimensions while never losing sight of the good that could somehow be made out of this awful conflict. And he did this with both a human empathy and a steely resolve that, even now, history has trouble fully sorting out or explaining.
Mr. Winik is author of April 1865: The Month That Saved America (HarperCollins, 2001), which aired as a two-hour History Channel documentary special in April 2003.
Copyright © 2004 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Chapter 35: John Fitzgerald Kennedy
SURVEY RANKING: 18
BORN: May 29, 1917, Brookline, Massachusetts
WIFE: Jacqueline Bouvier
RELIGION: Roman Catholic
MILITARY EXPERIENCE: U.S. Naval Reserve (lieutenant)
OTHER OFFICES HELD: U.S. representative from Massachusetts (1947-53), U.S. senator (1953-60)
TOOK OFFICE: January 20, 1961
VICE PRESIDENT: Lyndon Johnson
DIED IN OFFICE: November 22, 1963 (assassinated)
BURIED: Arlington, Virginia
by Peggy Noonan
History will take a cool-eyed look at John F. Kennedy and his accomplishments and failures only when all who were alive when he was alive are gone. Until then his reputation will be dominated by twilight remembrances and "Where were you when you found out?"
The numerically biggest generation in all American history was at its most impressionable when he was at his most lionized, in the years after his death. Boomers now run the world. It doesn't matter what they know of JFK now, as adults, or what they've learned. They're not going to shake their sense that he was King Arthur lost upon the field. They're not going to let you shake it, either.
But let's try anyway. Let's try not to be partisan or swayed by glamour, or reflexively hostile, or reflexively anything. Let's try to look at him apart from all the hype and hagiography of the forty years after his death.
Start with what we know of his personality. I wish I had known him because I feel certain I would have liked him. By all accounts he was witty and humorous, teasing and bright. He was not an intellectual but he was quick, and one can see from his writings and the testimony of his friends about his conversation that he had a talent for focus: He could see the point and get to it. There is no evidence that he ever read or gave any thought to political philosophy. Having fun and enjoying life were important to him. His friends attribute this to his ill health; he wasn't sure he'd be here long. Maybe they are right, and maybe it is also true he just liked having a good time.
He was an attractive and athletic man; he cared how he looked. He was the first big league politician to use ManTan, the sunless tanner of the 1950s; he thought it made him look vigorous and windblown. He was well tailored and cared about the cut of his suits and the style of his collars. He loved gossip; Gore Vidal said that when he died, the history of everyone's private life went with him.
He knew great and persistent physical suffering, the kind that wears you down and strips the good nature from you. But he was capable of detachment even from this; he had fantastic self-discipline.
He served his country in the navy. He didn't pull strings to get out of the war, he pulled strings to get into the war. He fought World War II as the skipper of a PT boat, a glamour posting at the time. One night his ship was chugging along in the darkness in the Blackett Strait when a Japanese destroyer came along and smashed it in two. He rallied his men and saved one of them by clenching a strap from his lifejacket in his teeth, swimming for five hours in the cold, tugging them both to safety.
He had guts. He had guts in terms of the world of electoral politics, rolling the dice to run for the presidency when he was only forty-three, when others were ahead of him in line (Senators Stuart Symington, Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey). He worked, planned, strategized, and spent. He faced down anti-Catholic feeling with style and shrewdness; read his speech to the Baptist ministers in Houston and you realize his argument was essentially this: I'm Catholic but I'm not that Catholic. He won.
And he remained glamorous.
Here we get to the nub. John F. Kennedy didn't know what he was about in terms of his leadership. He didn't know what he stood for, except winning. He had no particular reason for being in politics beyond the sense that it was the family business Honey Fitz, his father, Joe, his older brother's political destiny thwarted by death and his father wanted him to do it. Young JFK was very frank about this in his letters to friends and comments. He could feel his father's eyes "burning into the back of my head."
Kennedy's father was a charming monster who was an isolationist in foreign affairs and a constant interventionist in all other spheres, especially that of his family. In Clark Clifford's memoirs, the old Democratic Party warhorse-in-lawyer's-pinstripes wrote of his first meeting with JFK, in the 1950s. Senator Kennedy was pliant, pleasing, in need of legal assistance. During the meeting old Joe Kennedy called Clifford's office to bark instructions and yell at the senator and at the attorney. Clifford found it chilling. JFK handled his father coolly. To read the scene is to wonder what toll the facts of his life took on JFK, and to ponder a paradox. Old Joe's blind ambition probably made his son president. Old Joe probably made his son sick too, and less capable of performing the job.
Kennedy had a beautiful sense of rhetoric, and made the White House, when he inhabited it, seem a very exciting place youthful and full of "vigor," his great word. But again, toward what end? Looking back forty years later it appears Kennedy was largely driven by fear, not hope. He was the age of anxiety. He feared the world would think him weak if he didn't move on Castro; he feared the world would think him belligerent after he moved on Castro. He feared the joint chiefs would be a little too enthusiastic in their anti-communism. He feared the Republicans would call him soft on communism if he didn't cleave to the chiefs. He feared Khrushchev would move on Berlin; he feared Khrushchev would put up a wall; he feared that if he responded to the wall it would heighten tensions.
It is there in the lines and between the lines of all of the histories. He constantly feared looking weak. He feared the nascent civil rights movement would force him to take actions that would be politically unpopular; he feared Democrats who favored civil rights would abandon him if he didn't stand up for blacks; he feared that if he were energetically liberal on civil rights the old Southern mandarins of the party would kill his programs on Capitol Hill; he feared inviting Martin Luther King for a meeting; he feared and feared. For a supposedly sunny man he could see the downside of everything.
But the larger point is that Kennedy never seemed to believe in anything. This would seem an odd thing to say. After all, his rhetoric believed in something: It was pro-democracy, anti-communist; it celebrated liberty. But what did he think of communism? We don't know, really. When he first met Khrushchev, in Vienna in 1961, he proved, according to the State Department notes, incapable literally not capable of asserting the moral and practical superiority of free markets over totalitarian economics. What did he think of capitalism? In all the memoirs of his thousand days, in all the biographies, he does not speak of this. One senses that on capitalism he felt the ambivalence of the son of a rapacious millionaire who'd seen dad up close. Hard to be romantic when Pop was such a pirate, and the system allowed such swashbuckling.
He seemed to have believed he could manage better than others, and he seems to have believed in himself. Which gets us to what are called "the latest revelations." There have been many. Most recently, in 2003, the historian Robert Dallek published a Kennedy biography in which he details JFK's illnesses, which were varied and potentially debilitating including Addison's disease, chronic pain due to the collapse of bones in his spinal column, and intestinal problems including colitis and ulcers and which should have been fully divulged to the American people both before they voted in the 1960 presidential election and as they observed and judged his presidency. Dallek then recounts the medications President Kennedy took, including corticosteroids, procaine, antispasmodics including Lomotil, testosterone, amphetamines, Nembutal, and, for a few days, an antipsychotic drug.
All of which makes JFK unusual as a president but not necessarily as a man of his time. He was in fact very much of his time of the Sinatra generation. They got through the Depression, fought the war, and came home too hip for the room. People think the boomers discovered sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll, but it was their parents, really children of immigrants, home from Anzio and the South Pacific, beginning to leave the safety and social embarrassment of their parents' religion, informed by what they'd been taught as children about World War I and what happened at Versailles, influenced by Scott and Ernest and the lost generation.
Add some Marx and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, throw in some Vat 69 and Freud, add some pills put that all together, shake it, and pour it out: what you get is partay. The greatest generation on Saturday night. They were a great generation, and they were more than that, and less. They created the boomers, the welfare state, the world we live in. They were one rocking group, and JFK was very much of them.
Dallek is perhaps too quick to assert that none of JFK's medications or the drugs he took seems to have impaired his leadership. He notes that Kennedy had three doctors treating him, one of whom, the famous "Dr. Feelgood," Max Jacobson, was apparently giving him amphetamine shots during that first summit with Khrushchev in Vienna. After the meeting Khrushchev operated with a new belligerence, sundering Berlin with a wall and placing missiles in Cuba.
President Kennedy did not mean to, but he ushered in the age of political weirdness, the age when it became a cliché that to be a president you had to be media-savvy, compelling, stylish. You had to be first an image, then a man. This has not served us well. Since his time we have seen a fairly odd assortment of individuals as president.
But in part for just that reason, history is not going to stop being fascinated by him. He was the beginning of the modern age.
Ms. Noonan is a contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal and a columnist for OpinionJournal.com. She is author of When Character Was King: A Story of Ronald Reagan (Viking Penguin, 2001) and A Heart, a Cross, and a Flag: America Today (Wall Street Journal Books, 2003), a collection of her post-September 11 columns.
Copyright © 2004 by Dow Jones & Company, Inc.