As someone with a vivid memory of Kennedy’s brief and lackluster term as president, I have been amused over the following 44 years to watch the myth of the greatness of John F. Kennedy grow. Here was a president who initiated no impressive programs, was less than notably courageous in coming to the aid of civil-rights workers in the South, got the nation enmeshed in one of the most unpopular wars in our history (Vietnam), and brought it to the edge of nuclear war in a probably unnecessary war of nerves with Nikita Khrushchev over the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba. In short, John F. Kennedy was a president who, based on the decisions he made or didn’t have the courage to make while in office, deserves to go down as one of the resoundingly mediocre figures in American presidential history.
And so he would have done but for the one brilliant decision he did make — to surround himself with a staff of Harvard men and Cambridge intellectuals who continue to supply him with an unrelenting public relations build-up. A powerful PR man named Ben Sonnenberg used to say, apropos of his clients, that he made large pedestals for small men. Mr. Sonnenberg could have learned a thing or two from the Kennedy staff men. To invent a greater Camelot, alas, one has to sham a lot.
Epstein’s latest book is “Alexis de Tocqueville: Democracy’s Guide.”