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Book Review - "Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House" by Robert Dallek

The following book review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper.  You can read all of our book reviews by clicking on the Books category link on the far right sidebar.

9780062065841_p0_v42_s260x420With the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination, November 22, 2013, quickly approaching Americans will be inundated with volumes of material about the 35th President.  If you have to choose one book on the topic of President Kennedy Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House by renowned historian Robert Dallek is a compelling read. This book adds insight and knowledge to the era of the early 1960’s as Dallek discusses the Kennedy Presidency.

Americans have always adored this President for his youthfulness, wittiness, and his persona as evidenced by a telling statistic in the book: a 2010 Gallup poll gave JFK an astonishing 85% approval rating. Dallek commented to, “Kennedy’s phenomenal hold on the American imagination is due in large part to his relatability, especially since the Presidents directly after him where not very well liked.  There is this enduring effort to sustain a Camelot image.”

The author explores in his latest book whether or not this rating is warranted. He examined Kennedy’s effectiveness as a leader, presenting a gripping description of how Kennedy related to his advisors, centering around two important foreign policy issues: Viet Nam and Cuba. It is a fascinating look at the brain trust that encompassed a wide variety of opinions, attitudes, and political ideology. 

Dallek traces Kennedy’s learning curve regarding foreign affair issues starting with his almost complete dependence on his advisors during the Bay of Pigs. High points were given to President Kennedy for taking complete responsibility for its failure.  He did not blame the previous Eisenhower administration that came up with the plan, nor any of the advisors.  Dallek explained to that he hopes to show in the book how “Kennedy came to realize he is the Commander-in-chief and remembered what President Truman said, ‘The Buck Stops Here,’ the final decision rests with the President. There was also the advice by Charles De Gaulle who told him to listen to his advisors, but at the end of the day he must make up his own mind and rely on his own judgment.  He did this by correcting the course so this type of fiasco would never happen again.”

The author skillfully shows how, after this event, during the rest of his administration, Kennedy took De Gaulle’s advice into account when handling the other major national security issues: the Cuban Missile Crisis and Viet Nam.  Yet, at times Kennedy went to the other extreme and was hesitant to accept his advisor’s opinions. Dallek hammers this point home by explaining how the President did not just take the assessment of his CIA Director John McCone but had to be convinced that his views were shortsighted. Dallek noted, “Kennedy initially misread Soviet intentions of having a missile buildup in Cuba.”

A powerful quote from the book reflects Kennedy’s outlook, “domestic politics can unseat you, but foreign dangers can kill you.” The author demonstrates how in the midst of the Cold War Kennedy decided to have his advisors offer suggestions, but any final decision was based on his judgment. Kennedy’s growth as a leader is traced through the comparison of foreign policy issues from the beginning to the end of his term.  Camelot’s Court is a very captivating and interesting read since it shows how national security and foreign affairs shape a presidency, its agenda, and the relationship between advisors and a President.