JACK BE NIMBLE : A QUESTION OF CHARACTER: A Life of John Kennedy, By Thomas C. Reeves (The Free Press: $24.95; 491 pp.)

Beatty is a senior editor of the Atlantic Monthly

'The real Kennedy--as opposed to the celebrated hero espoused by the Kennedy family, the media and the Camelot School--lacked greatness in large part because he lacked the qualities inherent in good character. While he had ample courage and at times showed considerable prudence, he was deficient in integrity, compassion, and temperance."

That judgment of John F. Kennedy comes near the end of this thorough, scholarly, not always fair thematic biography. I found it depressing and did not want to be persuaded by it, yet I think that Prof. Reeves largely makes the case on which his harsh judgment rests.

The John Kennedy who emerges from these pages was not a man of good moral character. He was not reared to be good but to win. His father dominated him, infecting him with his ruthless amorality. As for his mother: "My mother was either at some Paris fashion house or else on her knees in some church," he told a friend. "She was never there when we really needed her. . . . My mother never really held me and hugged me. Never! Never!"

From this lack of a satisfactory emotional connection to his mother flowed one of the character defects in Reeves' list--John Kennedy was incapable of sexual temperance. He could not bond with his mother, and he could not really do any better with the women in his adult life, though after the death of his newborn son, Patrick, in his last year, there was a new closeness between him and his wife.

Perhaps if he had lived, that closeness would have led him to swear off lechery in the name of love. But he did not live, and Reeves, who notes the change in that last year, is able to fill many pages with amorous adventures and few pages with examples of family love.

Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. was the source of his son's lubricity. "Dad told all the boys to get laid as often as possible," John Kennedy reported to Claire Boothe Luce. "I can't get to sleep unless I've had a lay." To judge from the prostitutes, waitresses, secretaries, actresses and other men's wives who claim to have had sex with him, he can have had few sleepless nights. He was with a blonde sailing off the coast of France while his wife was giving birth to a stillborn child.

One source quoted by Reeves--who is too ready to believe too many of these stories--says that he had a sexual encounter with a call girl 90 minutes before his first television debate with Vice President Nixon; another source says that he had a tryst with an unnamed woman the night of his inauguration. Marilyn Monroe was among his lovers, as was a woman (Judith Exner) who was at the same time sleeping with him and with a Chicago gangster. Much of this is known. Reeves merely collects the (damning) information compiled over the years by others, many of whom had axes to grind.

All this was and is a source of pain to Jacqueline Kennedy, and no doubt to his grown children as well, who must see their father's character assailed in books without end (two more biographies are due next year) and in reviews of those books. But does any of it matter in our estimate of Kennedy as President?

Inevitably, yes. Perhaps it's infantile of us, but we think we ought to look up to our Presidents. And it is not possible to admire the vain, self-absorbed, shallow, misogynist depicted in this book.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover knew about the liaisons of the Kennedys (for lubricity was, and apparently still is, a family trait--handed down the generations with the money). They could hardly object to his wiretapping of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his harassing of King and his associates. Hoover had the goods on the Kennedys--though, to be fair to Hoover, he claimed that the wiretapping of King had been Robert Kennedy's idea.

John Kennedy was thought to be an idealist; in fact he had contempt for idealists, and beyond that, he had no firm inner core of moral conviction about any public issue, So argues Reeves. The President's lack of integrity manifested itself, he argues, in Laos, where Kennedy launched a "secret war" against the Communist-controlled government that was "illegal, immoral, dangerous, and a far cry from the idealism so often expressed in the President's formal speeches"; in Cuba, where the President "ignored the legal and moral objections" to a U.S.-assisted invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and subsequently unleashed "Operation Mongoose," a clandestine program aimed at the assassination of Cuban President Fidel Castro; and in Vietnam, where the President was implicated in the coup that led to the assassination of President Diem, a long-time U.S. ally.

Under Kennedy, the number of American troops in Vietnam climbed from 685 to 16,732. Would Kennedy have pressed on up the ladder of escalation in Vietnam had he not been assassinated? Citing the President's tough rhetoric on Vietnam, his unwillingness to lose, his habit of seeing policy in political terms, Reeves seems inclined to say yes. Yet he is honest enough to cite a scholar close to Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., on the other side of the question: "He was a prudent executive, not inclined to heavy investments in lost causes. His whole presidency was marked precisely by his capacity to refuse escalation--as in Laos, the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, the missile crisis."

And what of compassion, the other putative lack in Kennedy's character that kept him from greatness? Was John F. Kennedy a hard and unfeeling President? Reeves is unimpressed by the domestic programs of the New Frontier. I do not have the space to detail this case, which is short on detail, but for an opposing view of the New Frontier the reader should see Irving Bernstein's "Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy's New Frontier," published last year by Oxford University Press. Marilyn Monroe cannot be found in Bernstein's index, but "Promises Kept" provides a richer account of Kennedy's domestic policy than Reeves offers.

From his unwillingness to tolerate the levels of unemployment that were routine in the Eisenhower years, to his commitment to raise the minimum wage, to his hard but unsuccessful fight for Medicare, to his efforts on behalf of depressed areas like Appalachia, to his belated but decisive embrace of the cause of civil rights for black Americans, to his constant insistence that the country could do better, the hallmark of John Kennedy's domestic policy was compassion, mixed, to be sure, with political realism. The charge that he lacked compassion does not stand. Lifelong suffering with multiple ailments did not turn his heart to stone, but made him care.

And of course there was his wit. In a trip to Wisconsin in 1959, then-Sen. Kennedy said: "Actually, I am not campaigning for votes here in Wisconsin. The Vice President (Nixon) and I are here on a mission for the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare to test cranberries. Well, we have both eaten them, and I feel fine. But if we both pass away, I feel I shall have performed a great public service by taking the Vice President with me."

It does not make up for his lack of temperance and integrity, but Kennedy's ability to say things like that, or to hire writers who could write things like that for him, was the most endearing trait of this gifted, attractive and flawed man. It is why, for all Reeves' strictures, one still misses him and remembers him with an affection proof against time.

BOOKMARK-For an excerpt from "A Question of Character," see the Opinion section, Page 1.

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