Wednesday, June 24, 2020

ecce homines, pars XII

As the public libraries are reopening, it's time to resume my three-volumes-at-a-time survey of the American Presidents series, edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. This installment covers the presidencies of 1961-1974.

These are the presidents of the war in Vietnam, which gets a full chapter in two volumes and much consideration in the third. They're also the presidents of my childhood, the first ones I remember being in office. The authors of these books remember them too: Brinkley remembers Kennedy's image from his boyhood; Drew eschews personal reminiscence, but draws from her own magazine reporting at the time for her portrait of Nixon.

Alan Brinkley on John F. Kennedy gives more space - about a third of the book - to the pre-presidential period than the previous couple books did. Brinkley, an academic known for books of serious popular history, essentially gives us a vivid and lucid tour of JFK's brain. The best parts of the book are the focused and detailed looks at Kennedy's thought on some critical issues: the greater experience with which he approached the Cuban Missile Crisis after dealing with the Bay of Pigs; his gradual evolution to full support of the civil rights movement; and Vietnam, on which Brinkley says JFK held two mutually inconsistent positions: that the Vietnamese were going to have to defend themselves, and that the U.S. couldn't let them down. JFK never reached the crisis point where he'd have to choose between them, so it's impossible to say what he would have done if he did. If this is a book on JFK's brain, it admits that he had a body also, but Brinkley doesn't think that JFK's health issues or his sexual adventures had much of an effect on how he conducted his presidency.

Charles Peters on Lyndon B. Johnson is the blandest book of the three on the most colorful of the three presidents. Peters, a journalist and founding editor of the Washington Monthly, gives full consideration to LBJ's earlier life, but you can see him following Robert Caro's biography both in what he puts in and what he leaves out. The result is rather bloodless, particularly anemic in describing the programs of the Great Society without enthusiasm. Peters' answer to why LBJ persisted in Vietnam is simple: he was afraid he'd seem weak if he pulled out. There's no consideration of what he seemed by not doing it. Though Peters can be critical of LBJ, there are sudden defensive spasms: he reaches fundamental dishonesty by accusing the press of falsely portraying Tet as a defeat when the US won the battle. This misses the point. It matters less that the US eked out a win than that the invasion itself revealed how badly the war was going: if US reports had been true, the North should never have been able to mount the offensive at all, let alone take the Americans by surprise. Peters pulls a similar shady trick with the 1968 New Hampshire primary, which technically LBJ won, but so narrowly that that became the story. There's also an irritating tendency to refer to politicians by offices they didn't yet hold at the time referred to.

Elizabeth Drew on Richard M. Nixon is an awesomely sharp portrait of a very peculiar man. As with Truman and Ike, this book disposes of the subject's pre-presidential years with a very abbreviated summary (there's far more detail on his post-presidential comeback tour). Unlike with them, though, the presidency here is treated thematically rather than chronologically. A chapter on Nixon's governing style depicts him as both smart and skilled yet disorganized, presiding over a shambles of an administration, self-obsessed and paranoid, and even addled by drugs and alcohol. On domestic affairs, Drew says Nixon was no progressive, as he's now sometimes pictured; he was an opportunist and pragmatist in a progressive age. On foreign affairs, Drew credits Nixon (and Kissinger) with some brilliant high diplomacy, yet with foolishness and incompetence in other areas and brushing off ones that didn't interest them. On Vietnam, Nixon had no plan, but he had a lot of lies implying he did. And then there's Watergate. Drew is mostly content to narrate the events lucidly, without getting lost in detail, but she does conclude that the whole sordid mess stemmed from Nixon's personality and governing style; you can't separate it from the rest of his presidency because it was an expression of his fundamental traits. She finishes by stating that he was a talented man who was not fit to be president.

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