British commentator Hodgson (Martin Luther King, 2009, etc.) dissects the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
As a White House correspondent beginning in the early 1960s, the author quickly learned the ins and outs of politics in Washington, D.C. He recalls plenty of fortuitous meetings, the people who helped him with background information, and dinner-party politics. During that time period, a more open environment, he was able to absorb the capital’s methods. Here, Hodgson looks at the two men and two significant questions: if he had lived, would Kennedy have expanded the Vietnam War as Johnson did, and could Kennedy have passed Johnson’s vast domestic reforms? The author compares these two men, certainly apples to oranges, simply stating that Kennedy’s qualities were exaggerated and Johnson’s, underestimated. To be sure, their ambitions were different. Kennedy looked to make his name in foreign policy but was hampered by domestic problems, especially the civil rights movement. Both were devoted to continuing the New Deal and its attendant policies, but Kennedy’s approach was much more cautious. Johnson broadened the scope and accelerated the timetable for projects begun under Kennedy. Of course, Johnson was also undone, in his case by the Vietnam War. Hodgson does an excellent job of analyzing Kennedy’s administration in both the Cuban and Berlin crises. The author also applies his sharp observations to Johnson and his astounding domestic reforms: Medicare, Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, immigration reform, and federal aid to education. Occasionally, Hodgson gets bogged down in Johnson’s nemesis, the Vietnam quagmire, but his portrayal of these two presidents clearly demonstrates how “how vulnerable public opinion in a democracy is to deceptive stereotypes.”
A deeply detailed, fascinating characterization of two men, a country, and an era. Sometimes it takes a non-American to see what we all missed.