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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McNamara had one other quality that Kennedy found essential in his associates. He spoke the fast-paced, urgent shorthand that was the natural language of Kennedy and his siblings. It was a cinematic way of talking, following the basic rule in scriptwriting: always enter the scene as late as you can. Everyone knew the back-story, and if you didn't, if you asked for it to be repeated, then get out, get away, be quiet. "People, even if they were brilliant and even if they had things he was very interested in, if before they came to the point they had to explain the whole build-up and background to what they had to say, these people in the end bored him," reflected his old friend David Ormsby-Gore, the British ambassador in Washington. And if they bored him, if they courted him with their meandering soliloquies, they were often soon gone, exiled to some region where he would not have to endure their endless pedantries. Most of these men may have been numbing bores, but at times men are ponderous because there is much to ponder, and slow making decisions because the decisions are hard and close.

On his first day in office, Kennedy walked into the Oval Office early in the morning. Only a fool or a megalomaniac -- and the new president was neither -- would have entered what was now his citadel of power without a momentary sense of inadequacy, uncertainty, or self-doubt. Despite his accomplishments as a politician, he had never administered anything grander than the PT-109. The new president sat in an office stripped of photos, paintings, and memorabilia behind a desk suitable for a middling insurance executive. He stared at a floor that looked as if it had been savaged by a regiment of termites who had begun gnawing their way from behind the president's desk, continuing their meal out to the door. The holes, as Kennedy soon realized, were left by the golf shoes that Eisenhower wore when he used the putting green outside his window. By the evidence, he had practiced regularly, a fact that brought the figure of the former president down to a mortal level.

"We ought to have a list of all the promises we made during the campaign," Kennedy said as he sat there for his first hours of work. His inaugural address had been singularly devoid of specific proposals, but now was the time to begin. "Didn't we promise West Virginia that we would do something about poverty? We ought to do something about it now."

"We thought about increasing the food allotment to those getting surplus food," Feldman said.

"How do we do that?" Kennedy asked, still unsure about the mechanisms of governance.

"You write an executive order," Feldman replied.

"Well, do it," Kennedy said, and turned to other matters. Feldman left the room to write Executive Order No. 10914 dated January 21, 1961, and then gave it to Salinger to issue as a press release. The release was hardly on the wires when government bureaucrats alerted the new administration that that was not how it was done. The president had to publish his orders in the Federal Register for thirty days, get comments, and then perhaps hold hearings.

Later that day, Kennedy met with John Kenneth Galbraith to discuss balance-of-payments problems. The Harvard professor seemed scarcely aware that a "briefing" is called that for a reason. On and on he went, in his professorial monotone. Kennedy had one of the greatest gifts with which a human spirit can be blessed, an Odysseus-like enchantment with the world around him. Even now, in the midst of Galbraith's lecture, he could not abide sitting any longer when there was a world to explore. He suggested that the professor continue his monologue as the two men took a tour of the White House.

Kennedy's interest in music reached no higher than the Broadway musical. His knowledge of art was limited to the greatest hits of Western culture that his mother had drilled into her sons. His curiosity about antiques stopped at the price. For the most part, his cultural taste developed by osmosis, from living with Jackie. Yet he did not envision himself living in a White House that was decorated with all the panache of a businessman's hotel. He roamed through the rooms, criticizing the lackluster furniture, the sad reproductions, the dreary decor. Despite his bad back, he got down on his hands and knees and looked underneath some of the tables. He moved from room to room, even entering storerooms where presidents rarely or never ventured. On another one of his early explorations, he discovered what appeared to be two large covered portholes upstairs in the wall of the Oval Room. The mysterious coverings opened up to disclose matching his and her television sets that the Eisenhowers enjoyed in their cozy evenings at home.

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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