JFK Got a Lot Wrong
An amazing number of people love Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. It’s fifty years old but it still enjoys good sales and lots of enthusiastic fans.
The book tells the stories of eight senators who supposedly were great American heroes, who supposedly should get more attention. Only trouble is, the book turns out to be wrong about quite a bit.
A recent, excellent book by Nicholas Lemann, Redemption, takes issue with the heroic treatment JFK accorded to a Mississippi senator, Lucius Lamar, from the post-Civil War Reconstructoin times.
To JFK, Lamar epitomized the high-minded leadership that was necessary to knit together the wounds following the brutal blood-letting of the war. For Lemann, Lamar was a sinister figure, a front man for a reign of terror that utilized widespread murders and brutality to re-oppress the freed slaves of the South and restore white rule.
From my work on Reconstruction for the book I’m writing on the Andrew Johnson impeachment trial, Lemann gets it right. Indeed, my book will be challenging another chapter in Profiles in Courage, the one about Kansas Senator Edmund G. Ross. Ross cast the key vote in May 1868 that spared President Andrew Johnson the ignominy of being impeached and removed from office — Johnson survived by that single vote.
Kennedy portrays Ross as a true-hearted patriot who sacrificed his career for the greater good of the nation. I don’t think so. In its best light, Ross’ vote was a careful political calculation designed to advance Ross’ career. In its worst light, well, it was a lot worse than that.
And JFK got the Pulitzer Prize for that one!