Means of Ascent

Reviewed by Zachary Karabell




Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in 1948:

Learning the Secrets of Power

By Lance Morrow. Basic. 312 pp. $26

Some presidents shape their times more than others. The 1830s are known as the Age of Jackson, but few people think of the 1920s as the Age of Harding. The 1960s and 1970s were too dynamic and cacophonous to be defined by any one person, but Lance Morrow suggests that they were marked by three men who occupied the Oval Office during these years: John F. Kennedy, whose sudden death transformed him into an icon of progress and optimism; Lyndon B. Johnson, who managed to represent both the best of us with his commitment to civil rights and the worst of us with his mismanagement of the war in Vietnam; and Richard M. Nixon, whose fateful involvement with the Watergate break-in ended the proverbial innocence of America.

All of them took their own distinct path to power. But what if something had happened to alter the trajectory? How different would our history have been? Morrow, a longtime essayist for Time magazine, takes those questions and runs with them -- not only runs but bobs, weaves, dances and flits about, taking endless digressions and rarely missing an opportunity to play with the English language. His fulcrum is the year 1948, which he calls "a tangle of counterfactual possibilities" because that's when all three men reached a fork in their life. The route each of them took led to the White House.

Morrow is fascinated with the arbitrariness of the past, with contingency and the what-ifs that weren't. "Nineteen forty-eight was, for all three, a rite of passage and the moment of their political maturing," he writes. It was also a moment of truth. Kennedy faced the prospect of his Addison's disease being revealed, which probably would have ended his political career; Johnson "was locked in a fight for his political life in Texas -- a run for the U.S. Senate against the popular conservative former governor, Coke Stevenson"; and Nixon seemed destined for a quiet life in the House of Representatives until the hot summer of 1948 presented him with Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers and a national stage.

As it turns out, Morrow is more interested in floating the idea of "what if" than he is in pursuing it. Another theme he tosses into this hodgepodge of a book is that the three men represented archetypes -- not just of American culture but of classical mythology as well. JFK is "Apollo," the golden god; Johnson is "a shapeshifter," "the False Claimant," "a devouring Cyclops," "a tragic Monster-Idealist," "King Lear on the heath of the mad 1960s"; and Nixon is "Vulcan, god of the American underearth." Morrow also takes the name of a club that Nixon created as an undergraduate at Whittier College -- the "Orthogonians," who were "the squares, the poorer boys and scholarship students" -- and uses it as a trope throughout the book, at one point calling the '60s a "crisis of the Orthogonian, the shaking of the foundation" of normality that men like Nixon craved.

Nixon dominates Morrow's narrative, in part because the last fifth of the book focuses on the Hiss trial. Here and throughout, Morrow indulges his passions and lets them determine the arc of the book. This might have been exasperating in the hands of a less facile writer, but Morrow makes us want to go along with his ride. There is no particular reason for him to devote so much space not just to Nixon's role in the Hiss trial but also to the biographies of Chambers and Hiss, but Morrow is one of the many who have been fascinated by this piece of American tragicomedy, and he relishes the opportunity to add his piece to it.

The whole book, in fact, at times reads like an excuse for Morrow to tell yarns he's been itching to tell for years. Much of the book doesn't actually take place in 1948, and he has a reckless disregard for time and sequence. Some chapters begin in the late 1960s, go back to the 1930s and may or may not touch upon 1948 at all.

Somehow, though, it all works. Morrow weaves his quirky tapestry with the slightly eccentric hand of someone who's been living this stuff for decades. Why did Kennedy's sex life attract so much more attention than that of Johnson, a world-class philanderer in his own right? Morrow has clearly been chewing on this question for a while, so he answers it: "Johnson was too old and too gross a figure to imagine in a sexual context. Kennedy had been young and beautiful and sexual -- and he was dead." For good measure, Morrow throws in some psychosexual analysis of Nixon as well. Never mind that none of this was an issue in 1948; Morrow wants to write about it, so he does.

Readers who know nothing about any of these men might get lost in the tangled musings, and those who know a lot won't find anything particularly new. What is unique is Morrow's idiosyncratic take on familiar history, and that's enough to cast the three presidents in a different light. In his telling, each represents a distinct strand in American culture: Kennedy the playboy patrician; Johnson the ambitious cowboy with a conscience; Nixon the earnest, cerebral striver without one. And they fell like dominos, one after the other, as the culture around them frayed and almost collapsed.

None of the three, Morrow concludes, "was a great man. Each was incomplete and defective." And that, for him, is what makes them such compelling, complex characters. Their faults were America's. Having watched while it all unfolded, having spent time with all three observing them at close range, Morrow has written a book that reads as history but is, in truth, intensely personal. It is also immensely entertaining, often wise and, in its own way, the memoir of a journalist who has seen it all.