Richard Reeves, author of "President Kennedy: Profile of Power," where do you put President Kennedy in the 41 men that have been president of the United States in importance and popularity and success?
I would put him very high. I would probably put him toward the bottom of the top 10, maybe the top of the next round. But I think that it was not all politics. I think that he had enormous impact as a cultural figure and almost as an artist in the sense that he made us see things differently. He made us see ourselves and our country differently because there was a role model effect of his coming along when the country first got very rich and when technology made it enormously richer in a very short period of time, the jet planes being the best example because they democratized travel and other things.
I think that people looked for a role model at that time as to how we were supposed to act now that we were these kind of rich people. I think he filled a lot of that, and he set a tone -- both favorable and unfavorable -- culturally, which was just about don't wait your turn, just go out and do it. Now I think everybody does do that, and a lot of institutions have suffered fairly and unfairly because of that. As to his presidential decisions, I would say that he has got two big good ones and one big bad one and that they were linked in a certain way. I think that he was the man who decided, alone really, that the United States government would be on the side of the minority in the period of civil rights. It would be on the side of the then Negroes -- now we tend to say blacks -- and up to that point the government had tried to stay neutral.
I think that he handled Europe in the end quite well. I think he did it in ways we didn't really understand at the time. But the Berlin Wall, for all the celebration of its coming down, its going up probably prevented a confrontation between the Soviets and the Americans in Berlin in that period. Then he went into Vietnam for all the wrong reasons but left the country in a terrible position there because at the time he died we had just overthrown, with him signing off on it, a legitimate government in South Vietnam because it wouldn't take orders from us. From then on I think that it was pretty much an American colony run by military people who we paid and who we order around.
As you travel around and talk to people, do call-in shows, get reviewed, what's the thing that people go for first in this book?
The thing they go for first is not in the book particularly. It's the similarity between John Kennedy and President Clinton and how alike they were in many ways: men who have worked their way to the top pretty much on charm, kind of serial seduction, and felt that they feel that they can always prevail one-on-one, which Khrushchev disabused Kennedy of that a little bit. But that tends to be what the first thing that comes up.
What's the first thing in the book?
The first thing in the book, really, in terms of page 1 or in terms of what's most important?
The thing that people ask you about once they talk to you about this book. What's the thing they always go to first?
I haven't found a pattern yet, but I know where I go first. I think that I wanted to write a book about being president, about what it's like to be president, so I tried to isolate everything I could find into the Oval Office and figure out what it was like to be John Kennedy and what it's like to be president. The reaction I've had has been very different, depending on where it's coming from.
You say in the book you never met President Kennedy.
I didn't, no.
How about the family?
I knew Robert Kennedy pretty well. I traveled with him a couple of years for the New York Times, and I know Senator Kennedy -- Teddy Kennedy -- from interviews over the years and being in the wrong place at the wrong time with him. But John Kennedy, I was in college when Kennedy ran.
What did you mean by being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Well, I just meant Democratic political conventions and that kind of -- not the kind of places that keep people off the streets.
But you do say that you asked Ted Kennedy three times to talk to you about this book and he turned you down all three times.
Yes. He would not talk about it. I don't know why.
Did you try to go to friends at the time?
I did. I more or less considered him a friend, but he didn't want to do it. Other people who talked to him would not do it. I know there are always stories about how the family has hindered or helped people. I don't think they did either to me. Mrs. Kennedy -- Jacqueline Kennedy -- agreed to answer fact-checking questions through a third party, her secretary. I talked at some length to Steve Smith, the president's brother-in-law who I had known for a long time. Beyond that, the real problem of doing things like this on the Kennedys is that they run the library. They run the Kennedy Library, and it is less user-friendly and less research-friendly than the other presidential libraries I worked in on this book.
A lot of the Kennedy stuff is from the LBJ library. Both the Eisenhower and Johnson libraries are much more friendly and you don't get the sense that they are trying to defend a position. Families should not have control of these libraries; this is the public's business. I have no great anger about it, but I think that I could have been saved a lot of time and a lot of other things if the Kennedy Library were, as it were, a non-connected institution.
You write about that in the back. You explain about the Kennedy Library and other libraries. Let me go back first before I get into that and ask you when did you start this book?
I started about six and a half years ago. I had read a book called "The Emperor" by Ryszard Kupscinski, the Polish journalist, about the fall of Haile Selassie as emperor of Ethiopia, and I found myself, as he described the court around Haile Selassie, wondering what all this looked like to the emperor himself. I tried to write a novel called "The President's Diary," trying to look at the presidency from a president's perspective. It was a failed novel; I didn't publish it. Then I thought I would try to do the same thing in nonfiction, and I began the nonfiction six years ago.
What were you doing for a living at that time?
Writing, you know, by the pound. I had a syndicated column, and I was living -- when I began I was actually living in France, but I was doing my column and then began the research on this.
What made you think that another Kennedy book would sell?
I don't know if I thought about it in terms of sales at the beginning. There are really only two Kennedy books, by my perspective with what I tried to do. I mean, Sorensen and Schlesinger are where you have to go. They are the essential books, and then you've got a thousand books which focus on one thing or another, some of them important and some of them not. I thought there was time to do an objective book about what happened in those three years, and I thought I had found a different way to do it; that is, the scenes are Kennedy. I mean, we're next to Kennedy in that book: This is what he sees, this is what he hears, this is what he read and this is what he does, so that I didn't have that sense. Beginning outside the country might have inoculated me a little bit from people telling me, "What, are you crazy, writing another book on the Kennedys? Who cares?"
What were you doing in France?
Living, writing. My wife was the public affairs director of the Herald Tribune.
And how did you start a book like this over in France? What kind of libraries were at your elbow there that you could delve into?
I did a lot of the work in Europe in terms of research, but that was mostly Moscow and there was some in Paris. I came back for long periods and worked in the Kennedy Library or collected material. I would think that, in doing a book like this, by the end of the first year you've got it all figured out. By the end of the second year you know you knew nothing about what really happened. Then came the four years of plugging away and then of accumulating it and then of sculpting it down until I got to what I thought was John Kennedy inside that. But the first year was largely reading of material shipped over from the U.S., and I had a researcher who worked every day in the library so that I could get a feel of what was there and what wasn't.
You give credit to your researcher who started with you as a student.
Yes, his name is Peter Keating, and he's terrific. I put a notice on the bulletin board at Harvard. I wanted someone to go over to the Kennedy Library and Xerox things I was taking from the indexes. Peter was a junior at Harvard who knocked on my door -- we have a house at the end of Long Island -- and who is this Irish, New York political junkie whose mother was the bursar of the little Catholic college my wife had gone to, St. Joe's in Brooklyn. So he was heavensent for me.
As I read the book, I kept seeing quotes or even references to "the president said this and he sat up in his bed and was reading the New York Times; and then his breakfast was brought in by the butler" and all. You go back in the back and try to find all of that. Some of it is there -- I mean, there is a tremendous amount of source notes -- and some of it isn't. How does a writer do that?
Well, in the case of a president, I think, first, there were many more tapes of things that anyone ever knew, I think, anyone ever knew until now.
No, tapes. The Oval Office and the Cabinet room were recorded under Kennedy -- the same reason that Nixon did it. Kennedy wanted to write his memoirs, and he wanted a record of what had happened. Many of his phone calls -- in those days phone calls were often monitored by secretaries who kept notes on them -- but, in his case, they hadn't invented the tape recorder yet really. There was a wire recorder controlled by his secretary Evelyn Lincoln, and he would flick a switch and if he wanted a phone call recorded, so that there was that.
But basically what there is, people who work for presidents or who deal with presidents are like athletes dying young; that is, the peak for most of them is so high that they write down everything and remember everything so that in meeting after meeting or scene after scene, I was able to talk to six or eight people who were in a room of 10, and the rest of the them had either notes on what they did or had talked about the scene in their own oral histories at the Kennedy Library. The oral histories at the Kennedy Library were done mainly in 1964, which was for me a tremendous help because many people in 1988 tell different stories, particularly about Vietnam, than what they were telling in 1964, so you've got a real reality check of what happened.
Did you listen to the oral histories, or did you read the transcripts?
I read them.
Would they let you listen to them if you'd like?
I actually don't know if tapes actually exist. I listened to the tapes of Oval Office meetings and that kind of thing, which were often difficult. They've not all been transcribed. They're often difficult to hear, and in some cases people like McGeorge Bundy, who were in the room, were willing to try to figure out parts of it. It was a particular problem. This is probably of not great interest to most people, but it's a problem distinguishing between the voice of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy on a lot of those tapes. It takes enormous concentration and effort to do it. You find things that -- and again I wasn't playing; I was trying simply to compile as much as I could on what John Kennedy did say in this 24-hour period or whatever. Lyndon Johnson had a military attach‚ named Burris, who on national security meetings sat in and took notes for the vice president, who was rarely there. Col. Burris was a terrific reporter. The files in the LBJ library on some of those meetings perfectly complement the official note-taking records from the president's people, so that you got a much richer picture of what happened in a room.
How many interviews did you do?
It's somewhere between 100 and 200. Probably 40 or 50 of those were key, really opened my eyes to new . . .
And who was key?
Who was key? The interview I will look back on, I think, and remember longest because it was an epiphany for me, was with Steve Smith, the president's brother-in-law who was to be his campaign manager in 1964. Because Steve -- he has since died -- was part of a group of people who, as far as I could tell had unresolved doubts in their own mind about the fact that their lives became subsumed, if that's the word, to John Kennedy. Dean Rusk falls in that category; Stewart Udall is in that category; Fred Dutton is in that category. These are all people -- Harris Wofford -- who were there but who never took the final rite of initiation, tried to hold some of themselves back because Kennedy was a furnace in the sense that if you got near him you melted into him. He was a lovely, likable guy to most people. But the people who served him were not that different than the court that served Haile Selassie -- if they got too close to the sun, as it were.
What Steve Smith told me that I didn't know was the bond between these people and between John Kennedy and between many of the people who supported him, voted for him, was the war veterans. Steve, rather than give a grandiose exposition on why he thought Kennedy was important and what he had done and what not, tended to shrug it off and say, it was just really the veterans. He was the first one who came along and represented the veteran. If you then went to talk to people within that context, and also if you then went back and looked at the propaganda movies in World War II and realized one of the principal themes of them was that Catholics were Americans, too, that there was always Richard Conte or William Bendix in these movies playing a guy from Brooklyn, an Italian guy or an Irish guy, and this wasn't an accident. Thirty percent of the country was Catholic. Catholics had always been discriminated against or looked down on a bit by the Protestants from the 18th century on. It kind of brought me into a whole area that laid the groundwork for who John Kennedy was and how he was perceived by the people who might have supported him or voted for him. His first political slogan was "The New Generation Offers a Leader," and that was pegged to veterans, who by then were getting antsy about how the country was going to treat them.
Who else besides Steve Smith?
In that group of people?
No, but who you interviewed and who made a difference in this book?
A man named Louis Martin, who was the only black man near Kennedy at all.
What about his aide?
No, I'm sorry, I'm talking about his valet.
Oh, George Thomas.
Right. Well, George Thomas was a black man, but he was his valet. There was no meaningful communication, I think, although people had interviewed George Thomas at length, particularly Jim Bishop, if you remember "A Day in the Life Of" books. But I didn't consider that . . .
Let me stop you because you point out that Arthur Krock suggested George Thomas to John Kennedy. Who was Arthur Krock, and how did that work?
Arthur Krock -- it's funny -- if Arthur Krock ever knew that people had to dredge up -- was the bureau chief of the New York Times in Washington for years, decades; he was also a columnist, not a daily columnist -- I think it was three columns a week; had great power. He was very close to Kennedy's father. When Jack Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946, Joe Kennedy asked Krock, could his son borrow George Thomas to take care of him because Kennedy was not the kind of guy who knew how to take clothes to the cleaners or that kind of thing. I mean, he lived a very Scott Fitzgerald kind of life. There were always people to clean up the messes, whether it was throwing his clothes -- he changed clothes five times a day from the skin out.
Then there were people, George Thomas, to pick those clothes up where he had no idea where they went but they came back. He was forever questioning people about how much money they made, what they did with it, because he had never really, as they say, worked for a living. His salaries were from the government, the Navy and the presidency, and he donated those to charity. So Krock delivered George Thomas to that operation. Krock also edited Kennedy's first book, "Why England Slept." Both of Kennedy's books were knockoffs of Winston Churchill books. There is a certain controversy: Did he write his own books? Well, he probably did, but they were written first by Winston Churchill, the same books, where Winston Churchill did a book on British political leadership at the turn of the century which was exactly the same as "Profiles in Courage." Some of the sentences were exactly the same. Why England Slept, which was Kennedy's college thesis, was taken from and often repeated Winston Churchill's book "While England Slept."
You have the similarity to the language in the footnotes in the back. Why isn't that plagiarism, and why isn't that roundly criticized?
On his part?
On anybody's. In other words, isn't this considered plagiarism?
Yes, I would consider it plagiarism, but I'm a professional writer. I don't think that it was or that the general public considers that sort of thing to be plagiarism.
I think it's like any other business. It's only of interest to the people who do it. Journalism, in a way, is probably plagiarism from the beginning in that you are using other people's words. By now if something gets into Lexis/Nexus I think it probably goes on forever, long after you and I are here. But I think it is only a thing that is of concern to people in the business.
"Why England Slept" and "Profiles in Courage" play what role in his political visibility?
A great role. They were both best sellers. "Profiles in Courage" won a Pulitzer Prize, which was an intellectual ornament that Kennedy very badly wanted. I don't know that he was an intellectual, but he certainly was at ease with ideas and he enjoyed doing that. He intended to write his memoirs, and I think that he thought he would do it pretty well. It was a thing he thought was worth-while in his life, which he considered a pursuit of excellence, although other people, me among them, might characterize it as a race against boredom. He was a politician. He couldn't stand to be alone, he couldn't stand silence and he structured his life with as much stimulation as possible.
Do you have any idea whether the Pulitzer board or governing board back then knew that he had taken this language from the Winston Churchill books?
I don't know if they did. Arthur Krock was the major force in the Pulitzer Prizes in those days. He certainly knew but he was the one who got Kennedy the prize. John Kennedy was not the first or the last to get a Pulitzer Prize through pull of various kinds. In thinking about Krock and about Kennedy, they ended very badly. They came to dislike each other intensely. One of the reasons was that Krock was a great champion of Moishe Tshombe, who was the minister of the breakaway Katanga province when there was a civil war in the Belgian Congo. The idea of Krock and other people was that Tshombe should be brought to America -- he was a right-winger in that context -- and there would be rallies and things like that for him. Kennedy refused to let him have a visa, and at one point Kennedy in a speech to a smaller group said that I'll be glad to bring Moishe Tshombe over to speak to Congress if Arthur Krock will invite him for lunch at the Metropolitan Club. Tshombe was black and those clubs were all segregated then, and Krock was a great champion of that.
Let me ask you some questions about you. Where were you born?
City. I was born across the street from Gracie Mansion and then grew up in Jersey City.
What was your family like?
My father was a Republican politician who through great luck -- he was a starving lawyer really; we lived in a three room apartment on the fifth floor walk-up -- was appointed a judge because the new constitution in New Jersey required an equal number of judges in each county from each party, and he was the only Republican in Hudson County, New Jersey., as far as I could tell. He had been a musician and my mother had been an actress; that's when they met. He was quite a guy in terms of bringing up -- his father had run off. My father loved responsibility, and he took care of all these families.
How many brothers and sisters?
One. I have one brother; he is the athletic director at Columbia.
Where did you go to school?
I went to Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. I'm a mechanical engineer by education.
When did you get into journalism?
I worked in a factory in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, on the Delaware River. I was an engineer there. I hated it. I wasn't good at it, and I didn't like corporate life either. I didn't like the complaints of my fellows. I found a guy in the town who wanted to start a newspaper. He had been in advertising, and we started a newspaper together. I did that at night with no one knowing it for about a year until we got it off the ground. The Phillipsburg Free Press still exists out there.
And then what?
Well, then I knew I was not born to be a manager, and the paper became successful and we had employees. We had started with three people; we had fifty. I was the general manager and the editor, and I just did not like being the boss. I'd see people would think I was lying to them when I said there was no money, we were still paying off the debts we started with, and I didn't like it. I went to the Newark News as a reporter. I got lucky on a couple of stories, and then I went to the Herald Tribune. They hired me in New York in 1965, and the Trib folded in '66. The New York Times hired me, and I stayed there through the early '70s and then went out on my own to write books. I also went in on the founding of New York magazine, which was old Herald Tribune people -- Tom Wolfe and Jimmy Breslin and Clay Felker, Gail Sheehy, Gloria Steinem. All of us had had a connection with the Trib when we were kids.
I don't know if you want to say it; did you vote for John Kennedy in 1968?
No, I voted -- you know, you're the first person who has ever asked me that question since that day -- I voted for Nixon. I was in college at the time, but the Republicans made up the construct of my life at that time.
Have you changed your politics since then?
My politics are quite different now. I'm not registered -- well, I am registered in the party. I'm registered Democrat to vote for my wife, who is running in California.
She ran last year for the state Senate.
Did she win?
She lost to Tom Hayden, as a matter of fact. It was a three-way race and it was very close. It was a very interesting piece of business to see it from that side. Her name is Catherine O'Neill; she doesn't use Reeves. She is pretty well-known politically in the West Coast. I love telling the story. She was a 29-year-old housewife when the local Democratic club chose up all its candidates. They were all white male lawyers, and she ran on her own and won the primary and then came within a couple hundred votes -- this is 1972 -- of being the first woman in the California state Senate. We then went and lived various parts of the world, and when we decided to go back to California, she decided she'd run again pretty much in the same district. But Tom Hayden now is a very rich man and spent a million and quarter dollars on the state Senate campaign.
When did you move permanently to California?
Early in 1990.
What do you do? I think I noticed that you teach also.
I teach political science. I have a professorship at UCLA.
Do you have any idea why you really got into the business of writing in the first place? Was there anybody out there that encouraged you?
My mother said she encouraged me. I always wanted to be a writer. I just happened to grow up in circumstances -- that's all I wanted to do. But I grew up in Jersey City. I had good marks in high school. There was no such things as guidance in that world and whatnot. If you went to college it was either be a lawyer, a doctor or an engineer. My father was a lawyer, and I didn't love what I saw him doing. I knew I could never be a doctor, so I thought I'd be an engineer. It was only in later life that I learned you could just sit and read books, and that was an education.
How many books have you written?
This is the eighth.
Which one of those did you enjoy the most?
The one writing the book I wrote on Alexis de Tocqueville ["American Journey"]. This was a hard piece. I think this looks easy, I hope it reads easy, but it's hard to make things easy. I did a book retracing Alexis de Tocqueville's travels across the United States.
Why did you like that the best?
Well, I was walking in great steps and I was living -- I did it from his notes. I went the same places that he had gone and talked to the modern equivalents of the people he had talked to, working from his original notes, so that I was able, I thought, I hoped, to see America whole in the sense that I was seeing it in two centuries, in two periods 150 years apart. I'd read his notes, and I'd go question. He questioned John Quincy Adams; I questioned Richard Nixon, asked them the same questions and again I got about the same answers.
What caused you to change your politics from Richard Nixon to being a Democrat? Are you a liberal Democrat?
I'm a liberal Democrat. I don't know. It came naturally. I don't remember, as my father would have said, backsliding to this, but I don't remember any -- it could have been as simple as the fact that when I went to Phillipsburg that was essentially a working-class town, it was a Democratic town. When I immersed myself in the politics of that place it may well have been that that was the reason. I just had then, probably, more sympathy because I'm a little older, but I didn't have a lot of sympathy with the Republicans in those days -- in the ideology, not the people.
Now that you spent all this time with John Kennedy, six and a half years -- when was the last word written, by the way?
Some time in early July.
Of this year?
Would you vote for him for president today?
Today? I would vote for him for president today, but he would not be president today. His health problems would have become public, and they were just too severe and too debilitating to make it possible. Today's press and political context are such -- the man was taking, in constant pain, every drug known to man including being injected with amphetamines. Dr. Max Jacobson, later to be known as Dr. Feelgood, traveled secretly with Kennedy to keep him up with corticosteroids. These things all had side effects, including depression. Increased sexual desire was one side effect.
All of that would have come out, including the fact that he was lying about having Addison's disease, which was a terminal disease that he kept in check by stashing medication in safety deposit boxes around the world because he was the first Addisonian to ever survive traumatic surgery, which trauma triggers the -- the disease is a withering away of the adrenal glands, and when they're gone you die. But the cortisone could substitute, they found during the war. His operation, without his name on it, was so famous among doctors that his entire medical history was in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1957, without his name. It just said, "the 37-year-old man," but today the press would have found it.
You tell us early in the book that he lied.
He lied very easily.
That bother you?
Lying in America bothers me. To an enormous extent I think that it's undermining both the democracy and the republic. People are not being punished for lying. In that time you were punished more for lying but he was facile at it. One of the reasons Khrushchev beat up on him so badly was that Kennedy had told people that he had studied at the London School of Economics under Harold Laski, but he had never been there. Everyone thought that this was a real scholar on Marxism -- John Kennedy -- and on communism, but he knew almost nothing about it. It was the reason that Khrushchev was able to tie him in knots at the Vienna Summit in June of 1961. Kennedy is sitting there defending colonialism and imperialism in the military dictatorships and like that, because he went in there and tried to defend the status quo against a trained dialectician, and he was eaten alive. He walked out of the that room and said, "We have to go into Vietnam. We have to confront them because they think I'm too weak and foolish."
On page 300 you say -- the set up is this is all around the steel pricing -- "Kennedy laughed. Within hours he was angry again after watching the 15-minute `NBC Nightly News.' He thought anchorman Chet Huntley was being too kind to big steel." This was where he jawboned the steel prices.
"He picked up the phone and got Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, 'Did you see that goddamn thing on Huntley-Brinkley? I thought they were supposed to be our friends. I want you to do something about that. You do something about that.'" Newton Minow, 1962 or whatever. What's that about?
That's how he operated. He did that every day.
He called the Federal Communications Commission chairman, which was not legal?
Well, certainly not ethical. But if it wasn't illegal, he did many, many things that were illegal. There was much wider spread wiretapping and that kind of thing. The Justice Department searched George Lodge's and Eddie McCormack's service records when Teddy ran against them for the Senate in 1962. Obviously the public didn't know about many of these things, but as far as I can tell, they thought that that was the way the game was played.
What about that? Was NBC News at that time friendly to the president? I mean, were they friends? Was that the right way for him to characterize it?
Well, friendly didn't mean that they were having tea together. It meant that they had never done anything that caused Kennedy pain. There were many instances in the book where he picks up phones and calls reporters, and if saying they're friends doesn't work, I mean, he would bully reporters and threaten them and scream at them. Hugh Sidey at Time magazine got that treatment while Kennedy was welcoming John Glenn back from the first orbit. He was reading him out. He had a real temper.
I've got it underlined here. I'll read it, but I want to ask you the source is on something like this. Do you remember what the Newton Minow source was?
It wasn't Newton Minow who I talked to. I don't remember what the source of that phone call is, maybe Salinger, but I don't know. The other one is from Sidey's files to Time magazine. It was never published in Time, but it was in the files.
Is this the first time this Sidey business has been published?
Yes. I think so. I shouldn't have said that so quickly. Some of Sidey's stuff is, some isn't.
They're talking about the cover of Gentlemen's Quarterly.
Do you want to explain that? Then I want to ask you a question.
Yes. Well, Kennedy was incredibly upset. John Kennedy spent hours on this every day; he was extraordinarily interested in what was said about him, and he had also been a newspaper reporter. He had worked for Hearst. What this was about was Gentlemen's Quarterly. GQ was a men's fashion magazine, and they had a picture of Kennedy on it. Kennedy didn't like that because the Kennedys were pretty homophobic, and they considered GQ a magazine for homosexuals, which they used much more colorful language than I.
You quote Robert Kennedy as calling it a "fag rag."
Yes. That didn't bother him as much as the fact that Time magazine then said he had posed for exclusive photographs for GQ, which was not true. They had used file photographs of some sort and what Kennedy was mad at was the fact that people thought he was posing for, as Bobby said, this "fag rag." He worked Hugh over pretty well over that, stopping to say how wonderful it was that John Glenn was back safely to earth and then hang up the phone and then went right back at Sidey again. But that was the way he operated. The whole thing about news management and everything and whatever anyone thinks of it, for John Kennedy, people in this town, in Washington, covered the agencies and covered the bureaucracies out there and whatnot. Kennedy almost immediately centralized all press release work into the center, into himself.
That's when we built up this gigantic staffing of the White House because he made the White House the center of action to the point that there was no point in being out at the Agricultural Department because everything was going to come through the White House the way the White House wanted it. Suddenly you had this centralization of media control.
This scene, "`You've done it again' Kennedy snapped at Sidey back inside his office. `Done what?,' Sidey said." Later on President Kennedy is quoted, "`I'm not kidding,'" -- talking about the GQ magazine and the characterization that Hugh Sidey made in his column -- "`I'm goddamn sick and tired of it. This is all a lie. I never posed for any magazine. Never posed for any picture.' `We'll correct it,' Sidey said. But that didn't stop Kennedy. `I never posed for any picture. Anybody who reads this would think I was crazy.'" He goes on and there is some on the next page -- strong language. Did the press get treated that way, and did they go along with being treated that way by a president?
Yes and yes.
Characterize how the press felt about John Kennedy back in those years.
Well, they had about the same feelings that we did, and there was a wonderful generational match that worked for them. After all, their generation was now taking over power. You get some of that with Clinton too, but the way the press in the country was structured then, and Time magazine was still run by its founder -- it was a very personal operation. If a reporter messed with the president of the United States, particularly this president of the United States, Henry Luce was going to get a phone call about postal rates, so that we didn't have the access and the spontaneity and all of that that we now have. The information is out and about before anyone can try to block it these days.
A lot of the reviews say you don't talk about the womanizing.
I found a lot of references in here. Are you surprised when you read that in your reviews that this book doesn't deal with womanizing?
I have actually been mildly surprised by that, but, of course, it doesn't deal with womanizing because most of the other books are on womanizing. That's about all they're about. My major take on it was, one, people who live that kind of life have to lie all the time. So the part of the facility as a liar comes from covering up clandestine affairs of some sort and that it was incredibly corrupting, I thought. I think that to him it was like tennis, in a way, and it took less time than scheduling tennis games. But the logistics were a heck of a lot more complicated so that everyone up to Dean Rusk had to run these operations with helicopters and cars and whatever to get women here and there. Then they'd be with Kennedy for 12 minutes or something and they were gone.
Many of these people were proud to do that because they felt it was a rite of initiation -- that they had been brought in; they were closer. That corruption of his own people and breaking them essentially, many of them, what was I found interesting and significant about the womanizing. The fact of it itself I didn't -- it had to do with lying and with the corruption of other people, where it was important. We're talking about Daisy Buchanan in a way in "The Great Gatsby" -- this rich boy who does whatever he wants, and there are people there to clean up the mess whether it involves paying off people or whatever it takes. That John Kennedy, at least to me, is pretty unattractive.
Here's that page. You've got pictures of several of the women who were supposedly in his life. This is Ben Bradlee's former sister-in-law.
And Judith Exner next to her.
Right. That is not what Judith Exner looked like, though, of course, when this was all happening.
And then down below that you have Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield?
No, Angie Dickinson.
Angie Dickinson. How do you know? You've got a footnote back here. You've got a book that you refer to in the back about Fiddle and Faddle, two of -- what? -- secretaries that worked for him.
That's what they referred to him. James Giglio -- was that his name?
James Giglio; he's a professor. I used that for a particular reason, but yes.
But how can you be sure that all of these stories are accurate? You list a lot of other names: Tempest Storm, Blaze Starr. He had relations with those people?
I didn't use that in the book. That's according to Giglio. I started with airplane logs and coming-and-going logs, beginning with the Inauguration when Angie Dickinson was with him during the inaugural after Mrs. Kennedy went home and up to the point -- and in some cases some people told me, particularly grand women in this city. I don't know about Blaze Storm and Giglio's list, although he's a very respected teacher -- but the people I use in the book, I was totally satisfied that they were telling the truth or people who handled the logistics of moving them in and out were telling the truth. The whole idea of the book was what it's like to be president, what a president does, how it feels -- only 42 people know -- and I did not want to get myself drowned by what was, in some ways, the least interesting part of his life and a relatively small part, although it would be foolish to ignore it or to pretend it didn't happen.
Another thing that you say is his reputation for reading over 1,500 words a minute was not accurate?
It was total fabrication.
Who fabricated it?
Well, it worked. Eunice Shriver sat next to Henry Luce at a dinner party and talked to him about how much and how fast her brother read. The next day Luce called up Hugh Sidey, who was then their White House correspondent of Time, and said, "Check this out" -- that Kennedy can read this fast. So Kennedy was open to it. Again, it was part of presenting an image of intellectualism, and Sidey gave the president a reading test. It was 700 words a minute, which is about what most intelligent college-educated people read, somewhere around that rate. Then they went into a negotiation with Kennedy saying, "We can't say it; that's low." They finally compromised on, as I recall, 1,200 words a minute, which was what was printed. Again, it was like the London School of Economics. Kennedy had said he had taken a speed reading course, and in fact, he signed up for it but never went.
You write in the back, "Kennedy's death was followed by a wave of reverence that created and cemented the Camelot myth. JFK was enshrined as war hero, family man and world leader. He became a symbol of toughness and peace, healthful idealism and realistic political sense, brilliant intelligence and compassion, grace and salty good humor all at once." How much of that was he?
He was all of those things. He was a lot of others, and things existed in combination. But all of that happened. Jacqueline Kennedy, to a large extent, orchestrated that. Camelot was never mentioned while Kennedy was alive. The word was never mentioned. Mrs. Kennedy brought that to Teddy White in doing a portrait of him, a posthumous portrait of him in Life magazine. But he was a hell of a guy. Every person I talked to said that they thought he was the most charming human being they ever met, that he lit up a room and that there was incredible pleasure just being in his company. Paul Fay's book was called "The Pleasure of His Company." So he was all of those things, and that got him to the White House. He charmed his way. Politics is institutionalized charm, and he got that far. But he was those things.
Did she know about all the other things that you talked about here and others have talked about -- you know, the speed reading, the plagiarism?
I doubt that. No, I think drugs and women and things like that she knew about. The other things were of no interest to her.
Did that bother her?
Bobby Kennedy was Jack's political wife. A man or a woman needs someone they can turn to they trust completely and know they have no other ax to grind but their own interest. Usually that's a husband or wife. Jacqueline Kennedy had no interest whatever in any of those things, and Bobby served that function for his brother.
But she knew about his other activities?
It was a very tense place sometimes.
Why did she then want to paint the picture that this paints with Teddy White after he was killed?
Well, first, she was 30 years old when all this happened. She was our Princess Di. It was a very similar story in many ways, but she's also a very, very bright woman and she's got the choice of facing history as the princess of this wonderful golden period or as a young wife who is being deceived by a lusty and sometimes pretty nasty husband. I think she made an intelligent choice. Why should she wallow in that stuff?
Go back to the library. You say the family has a lot of stuff all tied up. How do they do that?
Under our system, the families control the presidential libraries, which is an outrage. They should be controlled outside the family, and they should just be there for history. The way that it's been done is it's like Kennedy's theories about how you control the press; that is, you've got to get it in -- you've got to stop it before the first mention because once there's a first mention, everyone else can lean on that. In the libraries, there's enormous amounts of material that had not been indexed and categorized. That's done by professional librarians who work for the federal government -- not only at the Kennedy library but at all federal libraries. There are none of those people anymore. Those are the kind of people who are eliminated in job freezes. It's easy to let librarians go, so that the whole process has largely been stopped and only with family permission can one look at certain things and only with the permission of this kind of Kennedy industry.
Arthur Schlesinger, for instance, has been allowed to see things that no one else has ever been allowed to see because the family trusts him. That was a long time ago, but it helped him enormously. A lot of that stuff is not public from other places, but there is an obvious and visible attempt to control what information comes out. The most striking example to me was my discovery that Max Jacobson, treated Kennedy which was stunning -- stunning that the president was being shot up this way. Max Jacobson became known as Dr. Feelgood in the 1970s when the New York Times -- first New York Magazine and then the New York Times -- found out that he was having his medical license taken away because he couldn't account for what amounted to gallon upon gallon of amphetamines.
Where did all this go? From the day his name appeared in the New York Times, any flight manifest or housing list when the president traveled that was indexed or cataloged after that date when the New York Times story ran is classified. Anything before it shows the trip to Vienna. Max Jacobson is shown as being housed with the military attach‚s and his comings and goings are recorded in all this paperwork because the people handling those papers had no idea what the name of Max Jacobson meant nor did anyone else until the middle '70s. In anything cataloged after that point he's been kind of excised from history. To what extent I don't know, but that stuff does go on all the time.
We're running out of time and there are a couple of issues I want to quickly ask you about. The missile gap? Did you find anything new? He told the country in 1960 when he ran that there was a missile gap. Was there?
There was a tremendous missile gap, but it was all in our favor. It's possible at the time he was saying that that we had 1,500 deliverable nuclear weapons and they had four or five, although the entire United States was galvanized by the language of the missile gap, that they had more than we had. I should say in fairness that the missile gap figures even that Kennedy used inaccurately, and that Henry Kissinger was the great champion of at that time, were projections. Our intelligence was totally wacko. The reason there was a missile crisis was that the Russians were so far behind that Khrushchev -- and we had them surrounded by land based and polaris missiles -- Khrushchev gambled and sent almost half of his stuff to Cuba. We had no southern-facing defenses. We had defended the country electronically from the north, and he thought that if he could get in behind us that there would be a balance of terror in the world because the true balance of terror was aimed then only at the Soviets, not at us.
Did he call for the assassination, or did he engineer the assassination of Diem in Vietnam?
He didn't call for it, but he engineered it. He signed off on it, in essence, although that word is never used on paper except for the two or three times I was able to find. But I would answer that question yes.
Was he asked that question publicly and what did he answer if he was?
He was never asked that question publicly to my knowledge. He always denied any U.S. involvement in assassination, but we were spending enormous amounts of money. On the day he died we were passing weapons to try to assassinate Castro.
What involvement did he have on the assassination attempts, or did he try to assassinate Fidel Castro?
Yes, although everybody has done -- there's a memo from Arthur Schlesinger on how lying should be done to protect the president. The whole idea is to have a cut out and not to -- Bobby oversaw all of that. McNamara over-saw a little bit of it, but these people did not operate without the president. It was on the president's orders.
How many private letters were exchanged between Nikita Khrushchev and John Kennedy?
I think it's about 30. All but one have now been released because I got some of them released and then, for me, the great kind of research coup was the messenger between them was a KGB colonel major named Georgi Bolshakov, who ostensibly was in the United States as the editor of Soviet Life magazine, an English language magazine. But he in general, sometime Pierre Salinger, carried the messages between Kennedy and Khrushchev, and I was able to find him in Moscow after the Soviet Union began falling apart.
Are you surprised at some of the things you've got in this book that have not been discovered by the press so far?
I guess I am, but, I mean, it's an 800-page book. It's 400,000 words.
Give us some examples of what you're surprised they haven't found yet.
I think that the section on, one, the president's health, I suppose, has not been heavily emphasized and also the whole business -- we should check this on presidents -- the fact that he was not against the Berlin Wall, he was for it, it seems to me a revelation since we've lived with this myth for 30 years. It's amazing how much of that has been forgotten. I thought that would be major and would be discussed at great length. Probably the single thing that is most unbelievable that I was able to dig out because of Averell Harriman's papers because he had recorded the conversations, and that is that Kennedy tried to get Khrushchev to consider a joint American-Soviet air strike at China to destroy their nuclear capability. It literally was lined up. It was going to be done like a firing squad; that is, neither the Russian crew nor the American crew would know that they had the real weapon. One weapon would be a dud; one weapon would be real, as they do on a firing squad so every man can think he didn't fire the fatal shot if he wanted to. Khrushchev turned him down.
Do you have another book?
I'm going to do a little book on the Oregon Trail, but I have to fill the well before I come back with something like that.
What would make this book a success for you?
It's already a success for me because the reviews have talked about what I wanted to do, which is I wanted to show who John Kennedy was -- he wasn't this sort of clown or Lothario figure. He did all those things, but that's not what he was about. When the New York Times Book Review came out and said,"This makes us for the first time look at what the presidency really is and what it means," that was enough for me. I was ready to go home and get a tan.
This is the book. It is called "President Kennedy: Profile of Power," and our guest is the author, Richard Reeves. Thank you very much.
Thanks so much, Brian.