The Kennedy era: a new interpretation; Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of Sixties, by Harris Wofford. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $17.50.

Despite the many attempts to discover the meaning of Camelot, there seems scant likelihood that the quest will be soon abandoned. Surely not so long as the Kennedy years remin as a nostalgic beacon for those in search of a philosophical point of reference.

Which is precisely why Harris Wofford's account of the '60s will find a ready market. For not only does he reprise the Kennedy era, he mercifully spares us the smarmy tone so common to the genre.

Though Wofford makes no pretense of neutrality (he was civil rights coordinator and Peace Corps organizer in the New Frontier), his analysis is tempered by the perspective of time and an appreciation for political happenstance. For it was Wofford who urged that JFK make his famous call to Coretta King regarding her husbands's incarceration in a Georgia prison during the 1960 campaign.

Teddy White and others would have us conclude that this masterstroke showed how well-oiled was the Kennedy machinery. Wofford's explanation provides less grist for the legend makers; that call, in basic conflict with the strategy that had been devised to avoid alienating the Southern states, resulted from spur-of-the-moment decisionmaking. It happened because the author enlisted Sargent Shriver to slip the idea to Kennedy after advisers Sorensen, Salinger, and O'Donnell had left the room and were unable to object. Sensing the call was appropriate, JFK seized the moment and picked up the phone.

It was this kind of reflexive spontaneity that drew so many to him. Wofford recalls that Kennedy's independence sometimes led him to paradoxical positions, which he was forced to finesse with his charm. Some hasty promises came back to haunt him. Chiding Eisenhower's reluctance to lead in desegregation efforts, JFK assured everyone that as President would eliminate racial injustices with a stroke of the pen, via executive act. Later, faced with a balky Congress, Kennedy delayed action, and thousands of pens arrived in the mail from a disgruntled civil rights constituency. An NAACP leader growled that the New Frontier seemed "suspiciously like a dude ranch with Senator James O. Eastland as the general manager."

Admitting that the jury is still out on this President, whose promise far exceeds his tragically abbreviated term, Wofford offers a personal assessment:

"For the students and others interested in making sense of the Kennedy era, there is a good prop to the imagination behind the JFK library: the President's boat, the Victura,m poised gracefully in the grass, as if sailing close to the wind, with the blue harbor on a clear day looming in the background. I think of John Kennedy as a sailor, with a seaman's sins and a skipper's skills. His odyssey was an American one, and it continues."

"Of Kennedys and Kings" is a splendid navigational aid to the Kennedy era.

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