You would have to go back to David Halberstam's ''The Best and the Brightest'' (1972) for a book as irreverent and as entertaining as this new Garry Wills extravaganza. In life Wills doubles as professor and journalist, but he now shows his true colors as never before: In his heart of hearts he is an iconoclast. Conventional wisdom is shredded, little tin gods fall in windrows, as he delivers his all-out assault on the Kennedy family.
The subtitle of the book is ''A Meditation on Power,'' but in truth there is nothing meditative here. The book trips, tumbles, and capers like James Joyce's Annie Liffey. It is gossipy, trivial, flawed, and outrageous--illuminated by sudden flashes of insight, and never for an instant dull or boring.
Joseph P. Kennedy, we are reminded at the outset, created a ''miniature aristocracy'' consisting entirely of his own children. He insisted that, particularly for the boys, no available world was too good in their quest for the glittering prizes. First Joseph Jr., then Jack, were earmarked to study under the great Harold Laski at the London School of Economics. Joe did; Jack was ill and didn't. But his entry in Who's Who repeated that he did, for ''studying with Laski mattered less than being known for having studied with him ,'' Wills charges.
The pattern of deception grows apace, by his account. Wills tells us how Jack Kennedy came to write ''While England Slept,'' and how Arthur Krock largely rewrote it to make it publishable. We learn how ''Profiles in Courage'' was for the most part the product of other voices and other rooms than Jack Kennedy's sickroom.
The core of Wills's book--the chapters published recently in The Atlantic--is a critical reexamination of the Kennedy presidency. ''Kennedy's short term in office was not just an acceleration of prior trends. It added something new--not so much the Imperial Presidency as the Appearances Presidency.'' Because government by committee was seen to be the numbing sin of the placid (if peaceful) Eisenhower years, the New Frontiersmen dismantled such protective apparatus as the National Security Council and tended to see the Congress (arch-symbol of rule by committee) in an adversary role. So there came into being what Henry Fairlie, as quoted by Wills, called ''guerrilla government''--the domestic counterpart of the much-touted overseas counterinsurgency program. ''The Kennedy teams lived on the move, calling signals to each other in the thick of the action . . . like basketball players developing plays while the game moved on.''
In a telling phrase Wills sums up the hazards of such a government: ''For some crises to be overcome, they must first be created.''
Among the crises, created and otherwise, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis bulk large in the Wills lexicon of disaster. In the author's rear-view mirror, the latter was the more dangerous, for the United States failed to give the Russians a diplomatic out by privately negotiating the issue of the missiles. Kennedy insisted on public humiliation. ''Macho appearance, not true security, was the motive for Kennedy's act--surely the most reckless American act since the end of World War II,'' Wills writes.
The title of the book has a double meaning. Wills argues that John and Robert Kennedy were, and that Ted still is, a prisoner of the charisma and machismo which their father required them to produce in filial fashion. And Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan have each been to some degree captives of the same legacy.
We are told on the book jacket that Wills approaches the case of Edward Kennedy with compassion, but in truth there is none here, for compassion is not one of the arrows in an iconoclast's quiver.
What, you may well ask, is the purpose of all this rather frenetic revising of history? One answer is to counterbalance the too-hasty, too-fervent chronicles of Sorensen and Schlesinger. Eventually it might play a healthy part when the final verdict, with more historical perspective, comes to be written.
This reviewer has a favorite quotation from William Bolitho, the British historian, which seems relevant here: ''Life, that winged swift thing, has to be shot down and reposed by art, like a stuffed bird, before we can use it as a model,'' Bolitho observed in his fine ''Twelve Against the Gods.'' This holds true, I think, both for the writer-artists who are overzealous in their praise and for those, like Wills, who specialize in destruction.
Garry Wills shoots down his bird all right, stuffing and mounting the Kennedy family for our edification. But, because John F. Kennedy himself was winged and swift and the other Kennedys at the very least full of life, they are part of our heritage. Some of the magic clings and always will.