Excerpt from The Kennedy Men by Laurence Leamer, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Kennedy Men


by Laurence Leamer

The Kennedy Men by Laurence Leamer X
The Kennedy Men by Laurence Leamer
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  • First Published:
    Nov 2001, 912 pages

    Oct 2002, 928 pages


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The Kennedy staffers were mainly in their thirties and early forties. They were for the most part veterans of World War II who, like their leader, had served in combat. They had the stamina to work twelve-hour days, six days a week. Like soldiers in the front line, they worked all night when they had to, and through the next day. They shared a deeply rooted patriotism and a can-do attitude about endeavors large and small. Kennedy was fond of quoting the famous St. Crispin's Day speech from Shakespeare's Henry V ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother"). Kennedy paid each member of his band of brothers the same salary, $21,000, and would gladly have given them all the same title, special assistant. He wanted no staff meetings, no thicket of bureaucracy. He wanted his men to come to him.

Shortly after the election, Kennedy's staff had sat with the president-elect trying to figure out how they could make sure that only important information got to the Oval Office. Kennedy was obsessed with the fear that he would be locked off from knowledge. "Listen, you sons of bitches, I want you to remember one thing," he exclaimed as his neighbor and friend, Larry Newman, sat listening. "You know there's a guy right behind each of you who's working for me. And there's a guy behind him who's working for me. So there's not a goddamn thing any one of you guys can do to keep things away from me. So if you try to pull any bullshit, the next thing you know you'll be out."

Kennedy set up a system so that there would be no crucial information that he did not hear. He was interested in the most arcane nuances of policy, in the details of initiatives, and in the most trivial gossip. Although he appeared to take no pleasure in reading the FBI reports on his aides, he told Feldman, "I never knew my staff led such interesting lives."

Bundy's deputy, Walt Rostow, observed that Kennedy "was capable because of his great energy and human capacity to maintain more reliable bilateral human relations than any man I have ever known." He rarely praised. These were his men, and it was praise enough that they served him. They may have been his band of brothers on the field of political combat, but he would no more have socialized with them than Henry V would have sat down to dinner with his soldiers.

For the first time since the New Deal, sizable numbers of people wanted to come to Washington to work in this new administration. The president-elect deputized Shriver to seek out the best whether or not they appeared ready to come to Washington. The word went out that the Kennedy administration sought not only men who were intelligent and honest but also those who had a quality that had never been one of the necessary credentials for public service. They wanted men who were tough. "By 'toughness' I meant 'tough mindedness,"' recalled Adam Yarmolinsky, one of Shriver's aides interviewing candidates, "but when the list inevitably leaked to the press, candidates for appointment appeared in the talent search offices at the Democratic National Committee, flexing their muscles, and proclaiming, 'I'm tough, I'm tough!"'

The man who probably exemplified the ideals of these Kennedy men better than anyone was Robert McNamara, the new president of Ford Motor Company. McNamara and his "whiz kids" had transformed the automobile industry with their acumen. The incoming administration had the audacious idea that McNamara could do the same with the Defense Department, though he professed ignorance about defense. "Well, you better give me a day to familiarize myself with this," McNamara said. He began shortly after dawn in a room at Washington's Shoreham Hotel reading memos, books, and briefing materials and talking to knowledgeable sources. He worked until late that night and began again the next morning. Within two days he could give the reasonable impression of a man deeply versed in the theory and practice of defense policies. By these efforts, McNamara had become a legend even before Kennedy took power.

From The Kennedy Men by Laurence Leamer. Copyright Laurence Leamer 2001. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, William Morrow.

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