Barbara Leaming''s well-written 2006 book JACK KENNEDY: THE EDUCATION OF A STATESMAN deepens our understanding of JFK''s relationships within his family, of his relationship with his long-time friend David Ormsby Gore, and of JFK''s intellectual development -- which is what...
Barbara Leaming''s well-written 2006 book JACK KENNEDY: THE EDUCATION OF A STATESMAN deepens our understanding of JFK''s relationships within his family, of his relationship with his long-time friend David Ormsby Gore, and of JFK''s intellectual development -- which is what Leaming means by the education of a statesman.
Leaming holds a Ph.D. from NYU. Her 1976 doctoral dissertation was a study of the transition to socialist realism in the Soviet cinema of the 1930s. As an undergraduate at Smith College, her field of specialization was Russian studies. She has published biographies about Grigori Kozintsev (1980), Roman Polanski (1981), Rita Hayworth (1989), Orson Welles (1995), Bette Davis (1992), Katharine Hepburn (1995), Marilyn Monroe (1998), and Jacqueline Kennedy (2001).
In the process of detailing JFK''s purported education as a statesman, Leaming focuses on how important lively conversation, including lively political conversation, was in JFK''s life. In my judgment, this is the major strength of her book - the lively quality of JFK''s mind as he engaged in spirited political conversation.
In approximately the first half of her 2006 book, Leaming details the life and death of Kathleen ("Kick") Kennedy (born 1920), JFK''s younger sister who was very fond of him and supportive of him within the family where their father overtly favored his elder son Joe Jr. (born 1915; died in war on August 12, 1944). After Kick''s death in a plane crash in 1948, her mother stated that she had been her father''s favorite child.
When Joe Sr. (born 1888) served as ambassador to England (starting in 1938), his daughter Kick turned 18. In short order, she became a superstar among a certain set of young British aristocrats, eventually marrying one of them on May 6, 1944, Billy Hartington (born 1917; died in war on September 10, 1944).
When her favorite older brother Jack (born 1917) eventually joined the family in England later in 1938, he was welcomed into Kick''s circle of aristocratic friends and became one of the group of young people who gloried in talking with one another. From an early age, the Kennedy children had learned to engage in spirited table talk with their verbally combative father. For their part, Kick and Jack so enjoyed talking with one another that certain people described them as being almost like twins. For his part, Jack had started reading books by Winston Churchill when he was a teenager, so he fell in naturally with the political talk among the young British aristocrats in Kick''s set of friends, one of whom was David Ormsby Gore (born 1918), himself a second son overshadowed by his older brother just as Jack was overshadowed in his father''s eyes by his older brother Joe Jr.
Later, when his friend Jack Kennedy was the president, David Ormsby Gore was appointed the British ambassador to the United States. In the latter half of her book, Leaming centers her attention on the frequent conversations between Jack and David, and on the important conversations between President Kennedy and British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan. Churchill''s thought and example formed the conceptual framework for those spirited conversations about the demands of the politician versus the duty of the statesman.
Prime Minister Macmillan eventually prevailed on President Kennedy to play the role of the statesman and advance the test ban treaty with Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Union, which the U.S. Senate approved by a vote of 80-19 on September 24, 1963. Kennedy signed the instruments of ratification on October 7, 1963. In accord with the subtitle of her book, this is the culminating event discussed by Leaming because at long last Kennedy had acted like a statesman. But she does have a brief epilogue about a commemorative event in England in 1965.
As chance would have it, I did not read Leaming''s 2006 book about JFK until after I had read James W. Douglass'' fine book JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE: WHY HE DIED AND WHY IT MATTERS (Orbis Books, 2008). Even though Douglass cites an impressive number of books about JFK, he does not happen to cite Leaming''s book.
But the lively quality of JFK''s political conversations that Leaming details goes a long way to explain the emerging independence of mind that Douglass praises Kennedy for in five different ways that he discusses in detail: (1) the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis, (2) JFK''s June 1963 American University address, (3) the 1963 test ban treaty, mentioned above, (4) the beginning of a back-channel dialogue with Fidel Castro, and (5) JFK''s order to withdraw troops from Vietnam (an order that was not carried out). Those five things do indeed represent a gradual turning toward peace on JFK''s part, as Douglass claims.
Douglass himself sees those five things, following the debacle of the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, as five further ways that JFK frustrated his more militant military advisers - in short, five further ways he was a traitor to the Cold War cause as they understood it.
But as Leaming shows, JFK had devoted considerable time over the years to turning over and over different possible options in spirited political conversation. In other words, his eventual turning toward peace in the five ways that Douglass praises did not come out of the blue as it were, but out of years of practice in turning over and over different options in spirited political conversation.
Moreover, in addition to the 1963 test ban treaty, which Leaming also discusses at length, the other four things that Douglass praises JFK for could arguably be seen as further examples of what Leaming means by a statesman, as distinct from a mere politician.