Updated at 6:30 p.m. ET on October 19, 2022
As Peacefield readers may know, I taught for years at the Naval War College, a military graduate school in Newport, R.I., that educates officers on national security and strategic affairs. It’s an eclectic place that brings together people from many academic backgrounds. That’s how I met my friend Steve Knott, whose specialty is presidential history. Steve, who is about to retire, was my hallway neighbor in Newport, and I learned a lot from talking with him and reading his books on the presidency.
Steve’s latest book, about the life of John F. Kennedy, is not only a work of history but a personal journey. Steve went from a child of Camelot to Kennedy skeptic and back again. After his years of writing about presidents from Washington to Trump, I was curious why he came back to JFK.
Tom Nichols: Steve, we both grew up in Massachusetts having, shall we say, complicated feelings about the Kennedys. As you know, my parents were the classic case of Democrats-turned-Republicans after the late 1960s. But what made you decide to engage with JFK after so many years?
Steve Knott: My experience was somewhat different from yours in that I grew up in a Kennedy-worshipping household in Massachusetts, and as a young man I bought into the Camelot myth. That myth animated so many aspects of my early life: JFK is the first president I remember; my first memory is of the Cuban missile crisis; the first time I saw my mother cry was when JFK was assassinated; my first job out of college was at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.
My mother was Irish-Catholic, and when JFK broke the glass ceiling that kept Catholics out of the White House, he became a candidate for sainthood in my mother’s eyes. When I landed an early job training tour guides at the JFK Library in Boston, my mother was ecstatic, and when I was introduced to Jackie Kennedy, I immediately became her favorite son.
I should add that my late mother got tired of me writing about conservative presidents, and would always ask me, “When are you going to write a book about a good president, like John F. Kennedy?” I’ve finally done it.
Nichols: Well, wait. Our experiences weren’t that much different. My mother, too, was Irish-Catholic and venerated JFK. We had a picture of Jack in the dining room, and my grandmother even had a picture of Jack and Bobby in heaven with the Holy Spirit. Like, literally, floating in the clouds with a dove! But I’m a few years younger than you, so my first “Kennedy memory” in Massachusetts was Teddy and Chappaquiddick, and as a working-class kid, I just instinctively rejected the Kennedy claim on permanent power.
Knott: Well, ironically, it was my time at the JFK Library that soured me on all things Kennedy. While I worshipped JFK at the time, I was also devoted to the study of history, and I saw up close and personal the family’s efforts to deny “hostile” historians access to materials that were nonetheless open to courtiers like Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Nichols: By “hostile” historians, you mean “objective,” yes?
Knott: Yes. And of course, Ted Kennedy’s seemingly endless bender and the debauchery of the assorted nephews also turned me off, as did the repeated attempts to sanitize JFK’s record for the benefit of the latest Kennedy heir’s quest for office. As I got older, I moved rightward, and embraced the idea that Kennedy was something of an empty suit who would have been long forgotten were it not for Lee Harvey Oswald.
Nichols: See, that’s where I was for a long time. I used to bristle at the idea that the most important president of the 20th century was in office for less than three years, but some of that, I admit, was my old-school Republican obstinacy and a big dash of anti–JFK cultism. I still chafe at that blind Kennedy hero worship, but the passage of time has made me rethink a lot of it. What, specifically, made you think you’d gone too far in your criticism?
Knott: My rightward turn came to a grinding halt with the rise of Donald Trump.
Nichols: As happened with so many of us. And Trump inspired you—if that’s the right word—to write a great book on presidents and demagoguery, The Lost Soul of the American Presidency.
Knott: Thanks. And yeah, that’s when I began to reconsider the path I had taken. I decided to revisit my own thinking and my own past, which was tangentially but in an odd way firmly connected to John F. Kennedy both because of my career and my family history.
I began to see that whatever his personal flaws, and there were many, Kennedy’s lofty rhetoric appealed to what is best in America, without invoking the snarling nativism and conspiracy-mongering of his least illustrious successor, Trump. Sure, “Camelot” was a figment of Jackie Kennedy’s imagination, but she rightly detected a romantic streak in her husband, who saw the United States as a land of hope and promise, not a land in the grip of “carnage” whose salvation lies in a cramped nationalism rooted in race and reaction.
Nichols: I take your point that he wasn’t an empty suit, but when do you think he made that transition? Because at first, he was just a rich kid playing politics for a while. I’ve read the stories of how they’d have to go pull him out of a movie theater near the Capitol to go vote. When did the wealthy lightweight become a more responsible man?
Knott: He was something of a lousy congressman. He didn’t enjoy being a member of the House. When future Speaker Sam Rayburn told him that the way to get ahead in the House was to go along, his response was “fuck that.”
Nichols: I assume that’s a paraphrase?
Knott: Dave Powers, JFK’s friend and confidant, told me that this is exactly what he said.
Nichols: I withdraw the question.
Knott: But in the end he did, in a sense, go along. He basically bided his time before jumping to the Senate.
Still, even JFK’s most fervent admirers will admit that he was not a back-slapping, baby-kissing pol. He could be charming, for sure, but in a somewhat distant way. He was the exact opposite, for better and for worse, of Lyndon Johnson, the master of the Senate. JFK noted that his brother Teddy was the best politician in the family; Ted Kennedy was more like his maternal grandfather, John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, a classic Boston Irish pol.
Nichols: For people not from Massachusetts, guys like you and me say “classic Boston Irish pol” as a term of something like admiration, referring to the machine politicians who could get things done.
Knott: Yes, and JFK wasn’t one of those. Jack was more Choate than Charlestown, more Harvard than Southie. Those are not necessarily qualities that are going to endear you to your fellow legislators, even of your own party. The scene in the Democratic cloakroom in the House and Senate when he served was akin to Doogie Howser trying to bond with grizzled machine pols or rural southern committee barons. He just didn’t fit in.
But even in the Senate, as it had been in the House, his effectiveness was marred with near-death experiences from Addison’s disease. [Note: Addison’s disease is a debilitating and life-threatening chronic illness of the adrenal glands. You can find more here.] That may sound like an excuse for his weak performance as a legislator, but I think to some extent it is a legitimate excuse.
Nichols: And this is where I have to ask about his health and his personal morals. I think of JFK as a symbol now, as you do, but I also think he was a sexually neurotic man who abused women. I mean, he humiliated his wife with Marilyn Monroe singing to him right in front of her. How can we castigate men such as Trump, or (God help us) Herschel Walker, and yet excuse JFK? You and I would not have argued for that kind of slack when, say, Bill Clinton was president.
Knott: Don’t get me wrong. The man was a serial adulterer, and even one of his most devoted acolytes, Ted Sorensen, belatedly acknowledged that Kennedy knew that his serial adultery was wrong. His inner circle went to great lengths to conceal it.
My book does not focus on John F. Kennedy’s multiple affairs, but that should not be interpreted to mean that they were of no importance to his presidency. At any moment, his presidency could have imploded due to his repeated tendency to place himself in compromising positions. Needless to say, the damage he did to his wife is beyond imagining. Jackie Kennedy referred in a post-assassination interview to JFK’s “crude” side, although she tried to catch herself after she said this. So she knew.
Nichols: As with Clinton, he was risking being a threat to national security that way.
Knott: In the public sphere, at the very least, his affairs had serious consequences. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s knowledge of it, for example, kept the increasingly paranoid and dangerously autonomous Hoover in a position of power long past his time. Hoover’s leverage might even have contributed to Robert Kennedy’s decision as attorney general to approve Hoover’s request for electronic surveillance of Martin Luther King.
The scale of Kennedy’s philandering is simply hard to fathom. Perhaps it was due to the amphetamine concoction he took to ward off Addison’s disease and other ailments…
Nichols: Another reminder that he was lying about his health, a scandal in itself. He was in bad shape.
Knott: Such bad shape, in fact, that one theory is that he had been near death so often that he decided to throw all caution to the wind for the short time he had left. Kennedy’s friend K. LeMoyne Billings, for example, noted that JFK treated “each day as if it were his last, demanding of life constant intensity, adventure, and pleasure” due to repeated brushes with death in war or on the surgeon’s table, and being told that Addison’s disease would probably cause him to die young.
Whatever the reason, his behavior was reprehensible, his deepest character flaw, and it will continue to serve as a serious blot on President Kennedy’s reputation.
Nichols: This is the Kennedy—the guy risking his presidency on women, hiding his debilitating illness—that people like me for years rejected as a role model.
Knott: Understandably. But there was more to the man than just debauchery. There was a complexity to him that his critics refuse to acknowledge.
For example, I do find it admirable that this man, who was in constant pain from a degenerative back ailment and Addison’s, among sundry other ailments, never complained. He was not the vigorous, touch football–playing stud portrayed on the covers of Life magazine sailing his sloop off of Hyannisport. I suppose you can label that as deceptive, and the Kennedy family did lie about his struggle with Addison’s, but this was a man who never complained, and pushed himself as hard as any of his healthier contemporaries. Even with his spotty congressional record, he did make enough of a name for himself in the Senate to almost capture his party’s nomination for vice president in 1956, a near-miss that probably made him more viable as a candidate for the top spot in 1960.
Nichols: It seems that somewhere, JFK makes a transition to being a more responsible leader. What did it?
Knott: One event that shaped and matured him somewhat even before that—and I emphasize somewhat—was the PT-109 incident. It’s become the thing to do to bash him for this and to claim that this event was hyped by a publicity-conscious father. There’s truth to that. But Kennedy’s response to the death of two of his crew members and his effort to save one crew member who was seriously burned puts him, in my view, in a genuinely heroic light. Kennedy developed a hatred for war with a passion that he did not bring to other issues. His war letters home reveal this time and again.
And so later as president, despite some remarkably hawkish rhetoric, he went out of his way to avoid World War III by making concessions to the Soviets that might have gotten him impeached had they been known at the time. There’s a reason why General Curtis LeMay loathed Kennedy, and vice versa.
Let me add that this man knew death. Because of his illness, he had been given the last rites of the Catholic Church multiple times in the 1950s. He lost a brother in combat during World War II. His sister died in an airplane crash. When he and Jackie lost a child in 1963, he reportedly cradled his dead infant’s casket before a private burial, weeping uncontrollably.
Nichols: What about the Cold War? I know from memoirs that he was appalled at the horrors of nuclear war when he got his first nuclear briefing as a president.
Knott: The Cold War was definitely a factor in Kennedy’s maturation. This issue captured his imagination and challenged his intellect. He did, by the way, possess a first-rate intellect. He was not just a puppet reading Ted Sorensen’s lines. Foreign policy intrigued him, and domestic policy bored him, which was another factor in his nondescript congressional career.
Countless authors have argued that Kennedy was a slave to his macho instincts and led the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust. There are elements of truth in these accounts, in that Kennedy’s hard-line campaign rhetoric limited his options upon becoming president, especially in Cuba. But we now know from the secret Oval Office recordings that JFK was a conflict-averse commander in chief who agonized over the prospect of mass casualties. At the height of the missile crisis, when he was badly outnumbered by his hawkish advisers urging some type of military response, Kennedy noted, “We all know how quickly everybody’s courage goes when the blood starts to flow.”
Kennedy’s deal to remove missiles in Turkey in return for the Soviet retreat from Cuba could have finished him politically if it had been revealed at the time. Taking that risk is a form of maturity—and, I would argue, courage, a virtue he claimed to admire and one that he finally demonstrated between October 1962 and November 22, 1963.
One other point about the Cuban missile crisis. During the crisis, he spoke privately of all the children, including his own, who might be lost if the crisis spun out of control. His hatred of war and his desire to move beyond mutual assured destruction came to a head in June 1963, with his famous speech at American University, when he called for “making the world safe for diversity.” Those weren’t just words. He believed it.
Nichols: You know, some people reading this will think: Two old conservatives who didn’t like Trump, and now they’ve gone soft on Kennedy.
Knott: I have always believed that character matters in the presidency. I still believe that. The American president serves as the nation’s head of state, but he—and one day she—is also the personification of the American nation, its national figurehead. The office should be treated with due respect by its occupants. So, yes, while Kennedy’s rhetoric often appealed to the “better angels of our nature” and highlighted the best America had to offer, his private behavior failed what we should expect from a genuinely great president.
Nichols: And yet, after the Trump nightmare, I would celebrate the return of a man like John F. Kennedy to the White House. I think that’s the sense I got from your book.
Knott: Well, I don’t expect anyone to cut Kennedy the slack that I do, to a limited extent, in this book. As with some of his revered presidential predecessors—Thomas Jefferson comes to mind—his personal conduct fell far short of living up to the best ideals of the presidency. But, like Jefferson, I continue to believe that JFK’s aspirations for the nation have something important to say to us in 2022.
This newsletter has been updated to clarify that John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald was the maternal grandfather of Ted and John F. Kennedy.