JFK biographer Robert Dallek looks back at the life of the 35th president

JFK biographer Robert Dallek discusses the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy's relationship with his vice-president, and what we can learn from his life.

Robert Dallek is the author of 'Camelot's Court.'

President John Kennedy wanted smart advisers, and he got them – a gang of successful men brimming with confidence and not a small dose of arrogance, too. But there were other men there first, the members of the capital's military and intelligence establishment, and they wanted to manipulate the young and largely inexperienced JFK.

This isn't an exceptional story in American politics. A century earlier, a cadre of military and political advisers tried to run over another inexperienced president named Abraham Lincoln. He'd develop his own circle of trust and his own savvy and stubborn independence. As revealed in historian Robert Dallek's new book, Kennedy did much the same thing.

Dallek is best known for 2003's "An Unfinished Life," widely considered one of the best Kennedy biographies. In "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House," he chronicles how JFK managed to navigated the roiling waters of those who sought to guide and manipulate him.

"The Kennedy who will emerge from the pages of this book is an astute judge of character and reasoned policy," he writes. "He was an imperfect man whose foibles made him receptive to some bad advice that triggered misjudgments.... [But] his successes eclipsed the failings of his thousand days."

In an interview, Dallek talks about Kennedy's distance from his vice president, the lessons he learned from a foreign policy disaster and the risks of arrogance.
Q: We know that Barack Obama was influenced by how Lincoln created a "Team of Rivals," as Doris Kearns Goodwin put it. What was Kennedy's approach to choosing those who'd work with him?
A: There were at least two things that played on his mind. One was the fact was that he had won the 1960 election by only 118,000 votes. He felt compelled to bring some Republicans into his administration to create a kind of national government.

So he brought in Robert McNamera as secretary of defense and McGeorge Bundy as national security adviser, both Republicans. He kept J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, and Allan Dulles, who'd been Eisenhower's director of the CIA, and he took C. Douglas Dillon from the Eisenhower administration to be secretary of the treasury.

The other consideration was that he wanted to have what journalist David Halberstam described as the "The Best and the Brightest," what his adviser Ted Sorenson called a "Ministry of Talent." He needed someone he could put his feet up with and talk with candidly.
Q: Did he have any trust in Lyndon Johnson, his vice president?
A: He wanted him on the ticket because he was accurately convinced it would help him win some Southern states and, in particular, win Texas. But he kept Johnson at arm's length.

Johnson wanted Kennedy to expand the powers of the vice president, and Kennedy simply didn't want to do it. He didn't want Johnson as a co-president.

Kennedy was inexperienced and young, the youngest man elected to the White House. Johnson had higher public visibility than Kennedy and a more substantial track record as the majority leader of the Senate.
Q: Was Kennedy interested in hearing opposing points of view?
A: He was very willing to listen to opposing views, especially after the failure of the Bay of Pigs operation. He wondered, "How could I have been so stupid to have signed onto this?"
Q: Were his intentions misunderstood during the Bay of Pigs?
A:  He had told these exiles and advisers that he had no intention of putting American soldiers on Cuban soil. They didn't believe him. He said they thought of him as so raw and inexperienced, worried about suffering a setback and so fearful of being seen as too cautious, that he would intervene with American forces to save the invaders.

They didn't read him correctly, and that was really a big learning experience for him.
Q: How did his decision-making style evolve after the Bay of Pigs disaster?
A: He grew a lot, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he resisted advice that he feared would get into us into a nuclear crisis.

He had people around him, especially the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that were giving him advice that wasn't necessarily wise or all that sensible. He didn't throw them out or refuse to hear them. But he chided himself after the Bay of Pigs as having been too inclined to take the advice of the military and the CIA as experts that he couldn't match.

He accepted the proposition that he really had to be more critical of what he was hearing and use his own best judgement as opposed to be in any way intimidated or influenced by the brass, as he put it, with all those decorations on their chests.
Q: Kennedy may have sought "The Best and the Brightest," but many of his advisers had arrogant and superior sides, especially in regard to LBJ. How did arrogance affect the administration?
A: Sam Rayburn, the longest serving speaker of the House, said of some of the people around Kennedy: "I'd be comfortable if just one of them had just run for postmaster or dogcatcher."

McGeorge Bundy was a brilliant man who'd had a meteoric academic career and was the youngest man ever to be dean of the Harvard faculty. But he was also arrogant and looked upon all sorts of people and politicians as not to be taken all that seriously.

McNamara thought he had a formula for assuring some kind of successful outcome in Vietnam. He was miserably mistaken.
 Q: Was Kennedy aware of the arrogance in his staff and the danger of over-confidence that it posed?
A: He valued self-confident people, and they came to his administration with that arrogance. It was a product of men who were successful in their careers.
Q: What lessons can we learn from the way Kennedy made decisions when we make choices in our own lives?
A: Don't be intimidated by people who seem to be experts. Hear their points of view and get their judgements. But at the end of day, you've got to make a judgement because it's not their life that's going to be affected so much as your future. You really have to be careful and operate with a kind of caution.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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