Historian Robert Dallek

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The noted presidential biographer assesses the contributions of President Kennedy’s brain trust to the successes and failures of his administration.

Robert Dallek is an acclaimed historian of the American presidency. Emeritus professor of history at UCLA, he's taught at Columbia, Oxford and Boston University and won numerous awards for scholarship and teaching. His texts include the classic two-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson and the best-selling bio, An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy. Dallek currently teaches at the Stanford in Washington program in Washington, DC, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, Atlantic Monthly and Vanity Fair, among others. In his new book, Camelot's Court, he takes an insider's look at how the influence of JFK's team of advisors shaped the Kennedy legacy.


Tavis: It’s been estimated that over 40,000 books – 40,000 – have been written about President John F. Kennedy. Two of the most respected come from presidential historian Robert Dallek, who’s been called by “The New York Times” Kennedy’s leading biographer.

His new tome is titled “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House,” and on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Robert Dallek joins us tonight from Washington. Mr. Dallek, good to have you on this program, sir. Thanks for your time.

Robert Dallek: Pleasure to be with you.

Tavis: Fifty years later, over 40,000 books, and still we are fascinated by the life and times of John F. Kennedy. Why so?

Dallek: Yes, it’s really a bit amazing, isn’t it? But I think part of it has to do with the fact that he was assassinated, and he’s frozen in our minds at the age of 46, so young, vibrant, witty, charming, as we capture him, or can still capture him on the tapes of his press conferences that we have to this day.

But it’s not just the assassination, because there was a very popular president assassinated in 1901 – William McKinley. He had been elected to a second term, and 50 years after his death hardly anybody remembered who he was.

So I think television has a lot to do with it. The fact that we can still see Kennedy, that he looks like one of us, that if he walked into this room now he would be a familiar figure. We can’t imagine that if he were alive he’d be 96 years old.

But I would say there are at least two other things which give him this hold on the public’s imagination, and it’s not just here in the United States. It’s around the world. There are documentaries in Britain, in France, in Germany about him, and there’s interest in newspapers and magazines all over the globe.

At any rate, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that people are not happy with the subsequent presidents – Johnson with Vietnam, Richard Nixon with Watergate, Ford and Carter, seen as failed presidents, the first Bush, defeated for reelection when he runs for his second term, and then of course the second Bush, the younger Bush, who leaves under a cloud because of Katrina, because of the Iraq war, with no weapons of mass destruction, and because of the economic downturn.

So Kennedy, we remember his words: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” He promised to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, he spoke of a new frontier.

This gave people – it was inspiring, it gave people hope, and that’s what I think they associate with him. But finally I’d say it’s also the Kennedys. The Kennedys are America’s royal family – not the Roosevelts, not the Bushes, and for two reasons, I think.

One is because they are the embodiment of the American success story – Irish Catholics who achieved such great wealth and fame. On the other hand, they are star-crossed.

The older brother killed in World War II, the older sister killed in a plane crash in France in 1948, the president assassinated, his brother Robert running for president in ’68 assassinated, Ted Kennedy goes through a tragedy at Chappaquiddick with a young woman killed. The son, John Kennedy Jr., killed in a senseless plane crash off of Cape COD.

So it’s a combination, I think, of all these things that continues to recommend Kennedy to us as this very, very appealing figure.

Tavis: Mr. Dallek, I wonder whether or not whatever John Kennedy did or did not accomplish, and you’ve just laid out some things that he did get done, there are those who to this day are concerned about the hype on the Kennedy years, and they see him as a mediocre president at best.

Not a failed president, as you said earlier, but mediocre at best. My question is whether what he did or did not accomplish in life will always be overshadowed by how he died.

Dallek: Yes. Well, he did have some accomplishments. There was, of course, the most, the striking feature was the way in which he led the country through that Cuban missile crisis, and we know in retrospect that he avoided a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union.

Then he seized upon that success to make his famous American University speech in which he spoke about thinking anew, afresh, about our relations with the Soviet Union.

I think if he had lived, we would have had d├ętente sooner under him than we had under Richard Nixon. Then, of course, he gets the nuclear test ban treaty, which eliminates radiation pollution from the atmosphere.

He did put the civil rights bill before the Congress and it was an act of courage in the sense that he and his brother Robert, who was the attorney general, were fearful that this could cost them the election, because they had won in 1960 by a very narrow margin with Southern states coming on board.

So there were some accomplishments, but I think his greatest accomplishment is the fact of his post-presidential hold on the country. The extent to which he still has a kind of inspirational quality to him that people identify him with a better America, a better day for their children, and that may last for a long time in the future.

Unless some other president comes along who has such a commanding hold on the public’s affection, I think Kennedy is going to remain a kind of heroic figure.

Tavis: What do the people that Kennedy chose to be around him, to your book now, “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House,” you mentioned his brother Robert, of course, as attorney general, but what do the men that Kennedy chose to be around him say to us about him?

Dallek: Well, what they say to us, of course, there was Robert McNamara, secretary of Defense, George Bundy, the national security adviser, Arthur Schlesinger, the White House historian.

There was Ted Sorensen, of course, his wordsmith, his great speech writer, and of course most of all there was Robert Kennedy, who was the adviser in chief, as I call him in my book.

They remembered him after his assassination, understandably, with great affection, great regard, and they weren’t critical of him at all. But historians have been critical of him because, of course, they found out about his womanizing, and that they saw him as jeopardizing his presidency.

I found out about his health problems and all the medications he was on, and that there was a cover-up of his health difficulties. But this doesn’t seem to affect his standing with the public, and I think in part because people see him as a kind of celebrity, and they don’t care about the womanizing at this point.

After all, he’s gone – no recriminations about it at this point. As far as his health goes, people are impressed with the fact that he was so stoic and able to overcome the pain of his – the back pain he suffered, and all the difficult medical problems he confronted to achieve an election to win the presidency and then to function quite effectively as chief executive.

Tavis: I wonder whether or not it is impossible at this point in history, given that so many of us believe that America lost its innocence when JFK was gunned down the way he was 50 years ago in Dallas, whether or not it’s possible then, Mr. Dallek, that any future president could ever rise to the level of adoration that we had for John F. Kennedy, not just because he was handsome, not just because he was eloquent, not just because he was married to Jackie O, not just because of the way he died.

Because there were so many comparisons between, say, a Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy when he ran, and he got the endorsement of Caroline Kennedy and Ted Kennedy. Before Barack Obama, there was the picture of Bill Clinton shaking JFK’s hand on the portico at the White House, and he tried to get some of that Kennedy mystique.

I wonder, though, whether or not, when all is said and done, it is impossible, given the cynicism, given the nature of our society today, that anybody will ever rise to the level of celebrity as president that John Kennedy had and still has 50 years later.

Dallek: I think you’re absolutely right, that it would be a monumental achievement, because the kind of 24/7 news cycle that presidents have to struggle with, but also it’s the fact that Kennedy had an unfinished presidency, and we can write on that blank slate anything we want.

When a president serves eight years the way Bill Clinton did, and now the way Barack Obama is serving, people see their flaws. They are not able to sustain that kind of magic, that sort of mystique, which they entered the office with.

So Kennedy still holds on to that or has that because we didn’t see the end of his presidency. He was only there for a thousand days. If he had spent eight years in the White House, I doubt very much that we’d be talking about him now or that the public would have this kind of regard for him that it expresses.

Tavis: Fifty years after his death, over 40,000 books have been written about John Kennedy, but you won’t find any written better than those written by Robert Dallek. The latest from Mr. Dallek is called “Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House.

Mr. Dallek, thank you for your work down through the years, and an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Dallek: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure to speak with you.

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Last modified: November 22, 2013 at 9:44 pm