Books: Kennedy’s Ideal Biographer: Lord Longford |
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Kennedy’s Ideal Biographer : Lord Longford

I have never held with the common belief that Lord Longford is the greatest fool in England. There are professors in Cambridge who have to call the A.A. to help them park their cars. But it is certainly true that Lord Longford has always appeared to possess the combination of qualities indispensable to anyone wishing to be regarded as a great fool—i.e., considerable mental energy allied with a chronic inability to see the world as it is. On top of all that, of course, and lifting him from the ruck of ordinary great fools into the category of those who might be considered for the title of greatest fool in England, has always been his raging thirst for publicity. This ungovernable passion for getting his name and face in the papers and up on the screen would in itself be a good cause for giving him the title. When you add the piquant fact of his reiterated claims to Humility, it is hard to see how anybody else could possibly be considered for the championship: the laurels should be his in perpetuity.

And yet somehow he has never quite made it. Just as Joe Bugner can do everything but punch and David Bedford can do everything but win, Lord Longford somehow lacks that decisive touch—what football journalists call the ability to finish—which characterizes the genuinely transcendental fool. However fleeting, there has always been a gleam of sanity in those eyes. There has always been a disturbing hint of normality about his otherwise impeccably absurd behaviour. His new book on Kennedy, for example, is nothing like so ridiculous as one had a right to expect from a man of such distinction. Lapses into common sense disfigure it at every point, while a moment's reflection should have told its author that his major conclusions were far too reasonable for a man of his reputation to be caught arriving at.

Very little of the book properly fulfils the promise of its jacket, which has a toothsome photo of J.F.K. on the front and a rather less aesthetically pleasing, though arguably more awe-inspiring, snap of Lord Longford on the back. Look here, upon this picture, and on this. (The contrast is made no less edifying by the fact that J.F.K. turned out to be the satyr. Which makes you-know-who Hyperion.) ‘For John Kennedy, Lord Longford must be the ideal biographer,’ the blurb announces, but even though the proposition is self-evident there is a generous willingness to back it up with argument. ‘His family and the Kennedys are united both by their Catholic faith and their Irish heritage.’ (By the same criterion, Lord Longford must also be the ideal biographer of Sean McStiofain. Doubtless Lord Weidenfeld is already on to this.) ‘Moreover,’ the rhapsodist continues, as if further proof were needed, ‘Lord Longford is at home in the world of power, politics and diplomacy, which the young President entered with so little experience and so much ambition.’ The implications here are delightful, but we ought not to revel in them. It is, after all, undoubtedly true that the young President was destined never to attain the long experience of his ideal biographer; and anyway, in the book itself the ideal biographer is less keen to stress his own virtues than you might imagine.

Even more interestingly, he finds it hard to put his whole heart into stressing Kennedy’s, either. Here the ideal biographer’s legendary naïveté leads him closer to the truth than many sophisticates have been able to go. He quotes with seeming approval Arthur Schlesinger’s idea that Kennedy’s patronage of writers seemed ‘to prefigure a new Augustan age of poetry and power’. That this was always a deeply philistine notion Lord Longford has not critical powers enough to see, but nor is he ready to go along with the still-prevailing myth of the young President’s all-devouring intellectual curiosity. Lord Longford is able to see that the young President’s wide reading was in fact pretty narrow. He can’t quite bring himself to say so, but neither can he bring himself to endorse the contrary opinion. It would have been too much to expect that Lord Longford would follow up these leads and attempt a properly sceptical assessment of the amount of bogusness which went to supporting the Kennedy image. For the moment it is enough, and more than enough, that the ideal biographer’s innocent nostrils have detected the odd whiff of hokum.

The nostrils are in remarkable working order, considering the strain they are placed under by his radiant smile. They have also detected at least one red herring. Whatever the chip on Joe Kennedy’s shoulder, Lord Longford argues persuasively, there wasn’st even a splinter on J.F.K.’s. There was no element of revenge in his rise to the top. Here Lord Longford’s social instinct stands him in good stead. The ideal biographer, with his wealth of experience, is well aware that the route to the top has nowadays less to do with birth than with star-quality. There is no need for the stars to get in with the well-born. The well-born are too keen to get in with the stars. Lord Longford has never actually sat down and worked all this out, but he feels it, being a star himself. He can respond to the sheer kick J.F.K. got out of being on the make, since he himself is never off it.

But if innocence has pluses on top of its minuses, it has even more minuses on top of its pluses. Sophisticates profess to admire the young President’s achievements as a womanizer. The ideal biographer is too uncomplicated to be led into such a trap. ‘I am bound to record my opinion that here was a serious defect in his character.’ So far, so true; but Lord Longford in his pious reticence is unable to follow the matter up. A pity, because the subject ought to be illuminating. It is not just for moral reasons that a Don Juan is a sad thing to be.

Lord Longford thinks that J.F.K. was growing in the job and would have grown further, all the way to greatness. The proofs he adduces are not as substantial as he thinks they are. Nor is his otherwise salutary naïveté a sufficient instrument to get very far with the job of separating myths from realities. He can see that Kennedy’s fine phrases were put in his mouth by Theodore Sorensen but can’t see that the fine phrases were poor stuff whoever composed them. Kennedy was perfect casting as president only in the sense that the presidency is an actor’s role. It ought not to be. So the ideal biographer leaves all the real issues untouched. But that his book does not confuse them further is a disheartening portent. Lord Longford can no longer be counted on to say the one irrelevant thing. We could be witnessing the start of an irreversible decline into coherence.

(New Statesman, 21 January 1977)