What He Did for His Country, In Crisis and From the Podium

Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America, by Thurston Clarke. Henry Holt, 272 pages, $25.

High Noon in the Cold War: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, by Max Frankel. Ballantine Books, 206 pages, $23.95.

All of us, even those born after he died, can still see and hear him, brushing his thick chestnut mane, punching the air with a finger, displaying his self-deprecatory wit at a press conference. In word-association games, the response to “charisma” is “John F. Kennedy.” Though historians place him in the middle of the pack of Presidents—judging him too cold a warrior, timid on civil rights, ineffective with Congress, reckless and immoral in encouraging so many women to go all the way with J.F.K.—to most Americans he’s one of A.E. Housman’s “lads that will die in their glory and never be old.” Imagining a second term that never was, biographer Robert Dallek declares Kennedy a statesman who “spoke to the country’s better angels.”

Thurston Clarke agrees. In Ask Not, he claims that Kennedy, not Theodore Sorenson, was the “stonemaker and mason” of the inaugural address, one of the great orations by a 20th-century politician. To deny Kennedy full credit “diminishes his legacy and weakens his claim on the hearts and minds of future generations.”

In his fascinating, almost hour-by-hour narrative of the run-up to the inaugural, Mr. Clarke unearths a gold mine for Kennedy fact-fetishists. Next to the dour minks of Mamie Eisenhower and Pat Nixon, he writes, Jackie’s Oleg Cassini outfit, a fawn-colored coat with sable at the collar and a pillbox hat, was a “more daring departure from the norm than her husband’s address.” Among many other nuggets: daiquiri and Heineken were Jack’s beverages of choice; Nancy Hanschman (later Dickerson), the first female television anchor, once dated the man she interviewed at the inauguration; Kennedy wore long underwear so that he could shed his top coat on that frigid day; Rose Kennedy railed at her row-end seat because it kept her out of the photographs; Eleanor Roosevelt sat below with the diplomatic corps rather than be within shouting distance of Joseph P. Kennedy, whom she loathed; Tip O’Neill sneaked a crony onto the dais, to the chagrin of the President, who had micro-managed the event.

To establish Kennedy as the “principal architect” of the inaugural address, Mr. Clarke dissects every scrap of available evidence. He doesn’t deny that Mr. Sorenson submitted several drafts; nor that Kennedy used suggestions by Adlai Stevenson, Gore Vidal and John Kenneth Galbraith (“Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate”). But Kennedy’s dictation to Evelyn Lincoln (during a flight to Palm Beach on Jan. 10, 1961), in which he departed significantly from the text that Mr. Sorenson had furnished, as well as the evolution of his “Ask not … ” master sentence from his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention to his inaugural address, has convinced Mr. Clarke that the President-elect wrote most of the memorable phrases he uttered 10 days later.

Mr. Clarke acknowledges that the intellectual intimacy between Kennedy and Mr. Sorenson makes it difficult to know who was responsible for which phrases in any given speech. The inaugural may not be an exception. Kennedy was an accomplished stylist; he certainly made many changes to the drafts he reviewed. But if it’s reasonable to assume that Kennedy was familiar with Cicero’ s admonition, “You should do something for your country once in a while instead of always thinking about what your country can do for you,” isn’t it equally reasonable to conclude that Mr. Sorenson knew about it, too? Burned by charges that Mr. Sorenson had ghostwritten Profiles in Courage, Kennedy went out of his way to convince reporters that he himself had written the inaugural. With a strong will to believe (Kennedy, he repeats, “had not just dictated, but had lived the words”), Mr. Clarke pushes aside questions about the documentary record he left behind—or destroyed.

It doesn’t really matter. Ask Not provides compelling evidence that Kennedy, at his best, was a poet laureate of politics with few peers among the Presidents. As Mr. Sorenson has said, Kennedy “decided on every word and, more importantly, on every idea” for a speech that inspired a generation and continues to be quoted 40 years after it was delivered. That’s not an insubstantial legacy.

Kennedy’s reputation, of course, rests most heavily on his handling of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, the subject of Max Frankel’s mistitled High Noon in the Cold War. For Mr. Frankel, who reported on it for The New York Times, the missile crisis was a “macho crisis,” a standoff between two powerful men whose fear of weakness begat belligerence. Aware of the massive military superiority of the United States, Khrushchev remained restless and impetuous. Still smarting from the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the tongue-lashing Khrushchev gave him in Vienna, Kennedy failed to understand that his rival’s approach was “defensive, even isolationist.” When he learned that camouflaged among Cuba’s palm trees were Soviet missiles with a range of 1,100 to 2,200 miles, Kennedy exclaimed, “He can’t do that to me.”

The crisis, Mr. Frankel insists, did not bring the world to the brink of nuclear war. Kennedy and Khrushchev were responsible, rational, intelligent leaders, firmly in charge of their governments and determined to avoid a war. When his prediction that the Americans “will make a fuss, make more of a fuss, and then accept” the missiles came a cropper, Khrushchev ordered that nuclear weapons not be used even if Cuba was invaded. He didn’t challenge the U.S. blockade or retaliate in Berlin, as Kennedy feared, or threaten bases in Turkey. After he gave his impulse to take out the missiles a reality check, Kennedy rejected the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs for an invasion of Cuba. If we “do what they want us to do,” he told Ken O’Donnell, “none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.” Instead, Kennedy ordered a blockade—actually, a “quarantine” aimed only at offensive weapons. A show of strength and determination, it provided time for negotiations. To close the deal, we now know, Kennedy promised Khrushchev that if the Soviets removed their offensive weapons from Cuba, he would withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey within five months. By keeping the swap a secret, he preserved the appearance of a totally triumphant United States. In 1962, Mr. Frankel recalls, he “never fully appreciated the extent of Kennedy’s statesmanlike restraint in steering his team to a diplomatic resolution.”

Both leaders found it useful to argue that the Cuban missile crisis had been high noon in the Cold War. Embattled at home (he was forced to resign in October 1964), Khrushchev insisted that, almost singlehandedly, he had saved the world from a nuclear holocaust. For Kennedy, making the other guy blink while rescuing humanity from the brink was evidence of leadership at its best. Journalists, scholars and screenwriters, Mr. Frankel concludes, “gladly exploited such hyperbole, practicing a literary brinksmanship about the nearness of the brink to enhance the drama of their renderings of the affair.”

Are they wrong? “By temperament and predicament,” Mr. Frankel acknowledges,Khrushchevand Kennedy brought on the Cuban missile crisis. That their prudence, pragmatism and decisiveness helped resolve it—that they were determined, even if “conventional” war broke out, to step back from the brink—doesn’t mean that they could or would have done so under different circumstances. Accident, miscalculation and mischief often change the dynamic in a crisis, mocking the firmest intentions. How reliably prudent was the volatile, possibly manic-depressive Khrushchev? What if Castro, who was convinced that an American invasion was imminent, had launched a preemptive attack on the U.S. base at Guantánamo? What if the Russian commanders, who had already shot down one U-2 spy plane, downed several more? What if Cuban exiles had entered the fray? Would Kennedy still have bucked the Joint Chiefs and the hawks in the U.S. Congress—many of them in his own party? Can we be as confident as Professor John L. Gaddis, whose authority Mr. Frankel enlists, that the “macho” Kennedy “probably would have backed down, in public if necessary, whatever the domestic political damage might have been”?

There’s a consensus among those who’ve written about the missile crisis that Kennedy managed it with consummate skill and that Khrushchev, who may not have known when to hold ’em, did know when to fold ’em. But no matter what Max Frankel tells you, it was a close, close call.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.