An odd work of personal and political disembowelment--with an important thesis and a ringing climax. Drawing on the books...



An odd work of personal and political disembowelment--with an important thesis and a ringing climax. Drawing on the books that broke the Kennedy enchantment--from Joan and Clay Blair's The Search for JFK, which introduced Inga Arvad et al. and punctured the PT-109 mystique, to Peter Wyden's The Bay of Pigs--Wills has come up with a set of notions that together comprise the titular theme: power as imprisonment, in intimate or international relations. The works of Kennedy champions--Schlesinger and Sorensen, in particular--serve as counterpoint: the illusions they fostered are also to be overcome. Nothing new is disclosed by this exercise (though few, probably, will have read Judith Exner and James Barber); Wills' ideas, in turn, differ wildly in reasonableness and import. Thus the first section, ""Sex,"" sees the Kennedy sons as legatees of their father's flagrant, insensitive womanizing: JFK, the crassest, elevated ""ballsiness"" to national policy; Robert, the exception, was hostage to what J. Edgar Hoover had on Jack; Edward, a public offender, ""suffered for trying to honor Robert's boiler room workers"" (Wills, that is, doesn't think Chappaquiddick was an orgy) and couldn't recapture his neglected wife (Joan is made much of). ""The power over women that was promised him, almost as a birthright, has turned on him, has tripped him up."" Section two, a mÉlange entitled ""Family,"" presents the Kennedys as ""semi-Irish' (fugitives ""from origins to opportunity"") and ""semi-English' (infected, by JFK's reading-taste, with the English adventurer-aristocrat's attitude toward sex and politics); and, more materially, discusses the debilitating effect of the ""honorary Kennedys""--on Robert in '68, torn between old and new cohorts; on Edward at Chappaquiddick, tempted not to report the accident (or to deny his involvement) by knowledge that his ""courtiers"" would back him up. ""Reliance on honorary Kennedys can, after a while, sap the strength of real Kennedys."" The third section, ""Image,"" harks back to Kennedy senior (and the Blairs): ""what the moguls did for 'starlets,' Kennedy would do for his offspring""--and JFK did for himself (by inflating his war record, by claiming authorship of Profiles in Courage); what Mailer celebrated at the antithesis of the--boring--Eisenhower style, became ""the pursuit of style as if it were substance"" (and ""the seduction of the intellectuals""); what had worked for his brothers, worked against Edward--when Roger Mudd made him look bad in '80. ""The whole point of being a Kennedy, in the father's scheme of things, was to look good."" Section four, ""Charisma,"" develops the dominant political-science line that the Kennedys' ""uniquely personal power"" crippled their successors: ""Inheriting a delegitimated set of procedures, they were compelled to go outside the procedures too--further delegitimating the office they held."" The payoff comes in section five, ""Power,"" where Wills closely develops the argument that l) JFK did not learn from the Bay of Pigs debacle--he went on pursuing his ""guerrilla strategy,"" domestically and abroad; and 2) that he did not act with ""restraint"" in the Cuban missile crisis (rather, Khrushchev did)--and the outcome was not an American ""triumph."" American leaders were obliged, thereafter, to humble their foe before talking peace; ""Assertions of power rarely teach what the powerful intend."" Wills concludes with a tribute to Martin Luther King, as the Kennedys' opposite, that's apiece with some of the Kennedyite pieties that he mocks. But if he is neither moderate nor discriminating, he has the virtues of his faults--a driving passion and an omnivorous intellect.

Pub Date: March 8, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: Atlantic/Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1982

Close Quickview