Reviewer almost skipped this one
and now is glad he didn't
JFK's Last Hundred Days: The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President
Thurston Clarke, 2013
I recently finished reading JFK'S Last Hundred Days by Thurston Clarke. I initially decided not to read this book because of the subtitle, The Transformation of a Man and the Emergence of a Great President which sounds like hagiography, which is ridiculous with any political leader, a waste of time. However, my son in law assured me that this book is balanced and insightful, and his judgment was correct. Clarke admires Kennedy and believes he intended to do world changing positive things, but he is also clear eyed regarding Kennedy's character flaws; he just doesn't give them the same weight as I do. For example, what I describe as sex addiction Clarke calls "womanizing." Regarding his need for sexual excitement, Kennedy was reckless in the extreme. According to Clarke, his affair with Ellen Rometsch, a woman believed by the CIA to be an East German spy, could have led to his impeachment. In the weeks prior to his assassination, JFK and Robert Kennedy engaged in non-stop behind the scenes political maneuvering to prevent information regarding Kennedy's relationship with Rometsch from becoming public.
Clarke is insightful regarding Kennedy's irresolute waverings regarding the coup that removed Diem in South Vietnam and led to Diem's assassination. Ditto for his Administration's behind the scenes outreach to Castro, while also plotting with Mafia figures to have Castro assassinated! Kennedy was a complex person who wanted to be all things admired in his era, a cold warrior, man of peace, advocate for civil rights and pragmatic politician who wanted to contain the civil rights movement. Clarke admires Kennedy because he believes JFK had resolved his internal conflicts in favor of exit from Vietnam, arms control, and perhaps disarmament, and pushing through civil rights legislation. Clarke makes a strong case that Kennedy intended to remove U.S. advisers from Vietnam, but not as strong a case for his capacity to get a civil rights bill through Congress.
The most fascinating parts of the book have to do with Kennedy's premonitions and his fatalism regarding his assassination. Clarke tells one amazing story: in the late summer or fall of 1963, Kennedy and one of his several "pals" (Kennedy hated solitude and didn't like spending time alone) staged an assassination which they filmed!
Kennedy was warned by Fulbright ( a senator from Arkansas who opposed the Vietnam war) not to travel to Dallas. Several other people, including Adlai Stevenson (whom Kennedy mocked and treated cruelly), urged White House staff to change Kennedy's plans to visit Texas in November. Most of these warnings never reached JFK's ears because his staff knew he would disregard them. Kennedy openly discussed the possibility of a military coup at the time of the publication of the novel, Seven Days in May. He was aware that some military leaders viewed him as an appeaser of Communism, and viewed his success in resolving the Cuban missile crisis as a misfortune. As amazing as it sounds, there was active discussion between the military and Kennedy's national security advisors of a first strike on the Soviet Union in 1963 or early 1964 before the Soviets were able to achieve nuclear parity with the U.S.. Kennedy was ( to his credit) horrified by the prospect of nuclear war, but his Administration was a party to these discussions. Clarke's book is a reminder of the crazy, practically demented, political culture that had developed around Communism and the Soviet threat in the U.S., crazy enough to generate discussion of nuclear war over Laos in 1961-62. In my view, Kennedy's premonition of his assassination was the result of his intimate understanding of the political culture that surrounded him and of which he was a part.
Clarke makes clear that both JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy disliked and did not respect LBJ, and believed he would be a terrible President. However, Kennedy was not openly contemptuous and cruel toward Johnson in the way Robert Kennedy and other members of the inner circle were. In cabinet meetings and other meetings, Johnson had become silent and sullen. Kennedy had pretty much stopped having private meetings with Johnson following the Cuban missile crisis in which Johnson was a strong advocate of invading Cuba, very much a hawk. Kennedy was considering dropping Johnson from the ticket in 1964, and Johnson was fully aware that he was on the bubble, so to speak. Absent assassination, the Bobby Baker scandal may well have ended LBJ's political career within a few months, according to both Clarke and Robert Caro.
Clarke does not speculate regarding Kennedy's assassination, but it's impossible to read his book without being aware that all the ingredients for a coup were in play:
" ... high ranking military officers believed that Kennedy was a threat to the security of the country and that he was ready to capitulate to the Communists in Vietnam. Johnson was on the verge of being politically destroyed and dumped from the Vice Presidency. The CIA despised Kennedy following the Bay of Pigs fiasco. He was travelling to Dallas, a city in which Adlai Stevenson had recently been spit on and hit over the head with placards by demonstrators, a city in which it was illegal to fly the U.N. flag. Anything was possible."
Clarke is at his best in describing Kennedy's charm and charisma (he was sometimes described as "incandescent" and phenomenally attractive by both men and women). He was often genuinely kind and thoughtful toward people who lacked political power. At a deep level, he was sane regarding peace and war in a way that was unusual at the time, and which may have got him killed. His movie star looks, beautiful wife and children, wit, social self confidence, cultural literacy, his many close friendships, his courage and his desire for 'greatness' (which I view as grandiosity) represented to many Americans (not just his political supporters) the fullness of life. For this reason, his violent death not only altered the political history of this country, it also darkened the cultural/ spiritual cosmos in a fundamental way that could never be repaired.
© Dee Wilson