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Camelot’s Court by Robert Dallek

Source: Harper Collins
Hardcover, 512 pages
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Camelot’s Court by Robert Dallek (who was inspired to write the book after a poll similar to a recent one in Politico) is a highly detailed account of the Kennedy White House, but it also provides an inside look at the political machine the United States has become — from the bureaucrats with aspirations to rise above their stations to the military with its tunnel-vision to stop Communism at all costs.  One of the big takeaways from this book is JFK’s ambition to become president even when he won his first House seat — it was clear that he was bored with “small time” politics and merely cared about big picture issues, particularly foreign policy.  Dallek repeats most of what people already knew about Kennedy — that he liked the ladies, had an illness he hid from the press, and came from a rich family with some skeletons in the closet.  However, what Dallek provides is a comprehensive look at how dysfunctional an executive branch can be, particularly one with a young president at the helm who surrounds himself with the smartest of men (those that accepted the positions) and is forced to keep on less-than-desirable men for political reasons.  The interplay between the groups, the president, and even the brothers Kennedy is contentious, but it also becomes paralyzing.  However, it was not beneath Kennedy to use underhanded tricks or to dupe the press to get what he wanted.

“As Rusk sat in Kennedy’s living room, waiting to see the president-elect, he noticed a copy of the Washington Post sitting prominently on a coffee-table — it announced Rusk as secretary of state.  When Kennedy entered and saw the headline, he ‘blew his top,’ asking Rusk if he was the source of the leak.  Told no, Kennedy called Post publisher Philip Graham to chide him for printing the story.  After Graham explained that Kennedy was the one who had told him, Kennedy said, ‘But that was off the record.’  Hardly, since it was exactly what Kennedy wanted; Kennedy had no interest in giving Rusk a choice of accepting;”  (page 99 ARC)

Dallek carefully demonstrates his statements through dialogue from the men in the room with Kennedy when foreign policy issues were discussed, citing their own books, statements, diaries, and/or notes — not to mention the declassified government documents.  There are even quotes from Jackie Kennedy about private conversations she had with her husband or from conversations she overheard.  What’s telling about the situation when Kennedy was president is that he had the book knowledge from FDR and other presidents to guide him in building the best team, but that circumstances outside his control and his inability to ignore advice and go with his gut instinct often landed his administration in political hot water, like after the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.  The defeat left a bad taste in the administration’s mouth, which may have fueled the military’s fire to win anywhere at any cost against Communism — hence the entry into the Vietnam War.

For those interested in Kennedy the man, this is not the book; but for those interested in how an idealist with big aspirations and big ideas about solving foreign policy issues gets caught up in the political machine and essentially worn down, this is the book for you.  Camelot’s Court by Robert Dallek is not a linear tale, but does touch upon the forces at work against the Kennedy Administration and how the administration pulled the wool over its own eyes when it came to foreign policy issues.  In many ways, the book chronicles a young president’s dream of greatness that fell short of its goals, not because of an assassination, but because of inexperience and failing to ask the right questions.

About the Author:

Robert Dallek is an American historian specializing in American presidents. He is a recently retired Professor of History at Boston University and has previously taught at Columbia University, UCLA, and Oxford.

These are my 68th book for the 2013 New Authors Challenge.

  • I’d probably like this but I wish there was a more condensed version. I like to read about this period in history but 500+ pages on politics would be a push for me! It’s available in audio and I’m considering it… maybe.

    • I enjoyed it, but its a slow read as you go through each chapter. There is a lot of nuance and background in the book, so it takes time to sift through it.

  • One the one hand, it sounds really interesting, but on the other, I don’t think I’d be interested in actually reading it. Well, you know me when it comes to politics! I’m glad you liked it, though.
    Anna´s last blog post ..Mailbox Monday — October 21

    • I think you have to be really interested in politics to read this one. I have tendency to read certain periods in history…this being one.

  • I am so sick of the political machine, I could scream, but I bet my mother would love this book.

    • Reading this makes it even worse….what’s going on today has been going on for years…those we think are in charge and who get blamed for things that go wrong are so not the people causing much of the mess.