3 instructive books for a presidential election

Books on Kennedy, Johnson and presidential relationships add perspective about the men who have held the job


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While voters try to decide between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney for president, three books I recently have read are valuable in adding perspective about the presidency and candidates for it.

“Jack Kennedy,”by Chris Matthews, the television commentator, covers the life of John F. Kennedy.When I approached this book initially, I thought it was going to be a “puff piece” that a liberal Democrat wrote about a long-gone Democratic hero. Instead, it is a thoughtful recounting of President Kennedy’s life with a number of startling revelations.

First, Kennedy’s experience with illness throughout his lifetime was highlighted in the book as a formative factor in his thoughtful and fatalistic attitude.Second, the relationship Kennedy had with his mother, who apparently had little time for him during his youth, was a surprise.Finally, his continued and repeated relationships with women confirmed many other reports.

Matthews’ main theme, however, is how Kennedy conducted foreign policy after he became president. Initially accepting the plan of to invade Cuba by Cuban exiles, Kennedy did not adequately support the Bay of Pigs invasion -- a noted disaster that would haunt him.This may have emboldened the Soviet Union to put missiles in Cuba, leading to Kennedy’s largest challenge, the Cuban missile crisis.

Against the advice of almost everyone, Kennedy resisted bombing the missile sites, or otherwise taking action that might have forced Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev to start a nuclear war and, finally realizing that Khrushchev was looking for a way out, settled the matter without shots being fired.

This, Matthews asserts, was Kennedy’s largest contribution – the example of a president acting on his own inclinations and not following the advice of all of the other “experts,” military and otherwise.

*****

Next, Robert A. Caro’s “The Passage of Power,” the latest volume in his series, “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,”covers the period from the late 1950s, when Johnson was the Senate majority leader and most powerful Democrat in America, through the period of accomplishment after he became president.

Johnson hated the years as Kennedy’s vice president. He felt belittled and ignored, and by all accounts the Kennedy staffers treated him like a buffoon. All this changed, of course, on Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was killed in Johnson’s home state.

The book recounts in detailthe effective job Johnson did in consolidating power, reaching out to others and marshaling all of his skills learned as majority leader in getting the Kennedy program, which was stalled in Congress, passed.

Lessons for the present from this book include the important role personality has in presidential action and, more fundamentally, how important experience in the ways of Washington and legislation as well as interpersonal relationship skills are in getting things done.

Johnson, who had built up so many personal relationships, knew the players so well and had a personality that could cajole, bully and persuade, got some of the most significant legislation of the twentieth century passed.

On the other hand, Johnson was swayed by certain theories and prejudices that escalated the war in Vietnam, and the results of that policy not only ended his presidency early, but also changed a generation in which many of us grew up and remember.

*****

Finally, “The Presidents Club”by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy is a surprisingly interesting book that traces the relationships between former presidents and presidents, beginning with the relationship between Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover and continuing to the present.

Hoover was ignored and vilified during the Roosevelt administration, and after FDR died, Harry Truman reached out to the former president, tapping his wisdom and experience in international affairs and business with great success.

The book also traces the relationship between Truman and Eisenhower, which started when Truman offered General Eisenhower the opportunity to run for president instead of Truman in1948, continued with Truman’s distaste for Eisenhower when Eisenhower was the Republican candidate and refused to condemn Senator McCarthy and the right wing of the Republican Party in 1952. Their relationship was only salvaged after Kennedy’s death.

The relationships between all of the presidents, their contributions and surprising relationships, such as Bill Clinton’s reliance on Richard Nixon, are interesting components of this book.

Of more interest, however, are many of the reports in the book about incidents on which at least I had not focused previously.

For example, there’s the role of Nixon in trying to torpedo the Paris peace talks in 1968 by dissuading the South Vietnamese government from participating prior to the election, and Lyndon Johnson’s inability to call Nixon on it, since he learned of it by wiretapping Nixon’s plane.

As well, Jimmy Carter’s erratic behavior as a former president and the resentment of other presidents and former presidents to his antics may confirm the suspicion of many, but refutes Carter’s reputation as being a better former president than a president.

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.

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