JFK’S GHOST

My new book was released by Lyon’s Press June 1, 2021. It’s titled, “JFK’S GHOST: Kennedy, Sorensen, and the Making of Profiles in Courage.”

My Dad gave me a copy of Profiles when I was a kid.

I still have it.

He also gave me my first history books­­. They were given away with a purchase of laundry soap each week at the A&P grocery store in Taylor, Michigan where I grew up.

John F. Kennedy, then the President of the United States, wrote the Foreword.

I’ve been interested in the Kennedy story ever since, and now I finally get the chance to write about it.

The story of the writing, publication, popular reception, of Senator John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, is in many ways a window into the era of all things Camelot to come. And as with so many legends, the myths had a superfluous quality to them, because so many of JFK’s accomplishments were significant on their own merit and in no real need of enhancement.

Kennedy’s rise to the pinnacle of political power after World War II is a compelling story of ambition, wealth, skill, and a measure of cunning. He was prone to sickness—near death on a few occasions—yet he won the White House in 1960 with an image of youthful and vibrant energy. He brought erudition, charm, wit, and charisma to the presidency in ways never before seen.

A few years later, Richard Nixon, Kennedy’s rival, would win the presidential prize. However, his pathway to it was mocked as contrived and image-laden. There was even a bestselling book written about it shortly after the Nixon family moved to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue called, The Selling of the President—a cynical look at how Roger Ailes (of future Fox News notoriety) and many others manipulated (in the book’s view) the political process and Nixon’s image en route to victory.⁠1 But Nixon’s 1968 team simply borrowed from the Kennedy playbook from the 1960 campaign cycle.

Not that anyone noticed.

Like all successful politicians, Kennedy brought a tight-knit entourage with him wherever life and work took him—men and women who would do just about anything for him, and often did. They covered for him at times and worked as one to keep the flame of his image burning bright even long after he was gone.

They still do.

Winning the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957 was a vital piece of the puzzle in JFK’s ascendance to the presidency. And it is clear that to Kennedy himself the award was one of his proudest achievements. He would be hyper-sensitive to his dying day about any criticism or rumor that cast doubt on his authorship of Profiles in Courage.

John F. Kennedy was 39-years-old when he won the Pulitzer, and it was well-timed. He seemed to instinctively understand how beneficial it would be to have that kind of award on his political resume. After all, the man he hoped to succeed in less than three years was nearly three decades older and had a career of hands-on leadership and management experience on his side. Jack had never run anything more than a small crew on a PT boat and his office staff. Hardly a match for the commander of all things D-Day. It was understandable that Jack was afraid of being perceived as young and inexperienced, not all that ready for the responsibilities of the presidency. He needed to add a good measure of gravitas to his c.v., and the Pulitzer was a pathway to what biographer Robert Dallek described as the “the stamp of seriousness” he needed to win high office.⁠2

With the publication of Profiles, Kennedy’s name recognition soared nationally. The book was an instant best-seller and received stellar reviews. Because of it, Jack would go on to receive several honorary college degrees. Profiles became a global publishing phenomenon, and was translated into dozens of languages, “from Persian to Gujrati.⁠3” He was increasingly seen as an erudite man of letters. Much of the book was reprinted in mass circulation periodicals. He was uninvited with new speaking invitations from far and wide, and all this with the 1956 Democratic National Convention scheduled for that Summer in Chicago, where he already had his eyes on the possible vice presidential nomination on a ticket with Adlai Stevenson.

Of all honors he would receive throughout his life, none would make him happier than his receipt of the Pulitzer Prize. And all of the abuse he would receive throughout his life, none would make him more angry than the charge a few months later that he had not really written it.

But winning that prize put a spotlight on Jack Kennedy, one that, at times, resembled a target on his back. The attention carried with it scrutiny of the sort he had never really experienced before on the national stage. There was a measure of envy on the part of his political peers, who resented all the attention he was getting. Soon rumors began to circulate—rumors that Kennedy had not actually written the book, and that sales figures were being manipulated to ensure the book’s longevity on bestseller lists. The FBI even started a file, sensing that Kennedy could be vulnerable to a fraud charge.⁠4

If the rumors were proven to be true, and there was a genuine charge of fraud, all of Kennedy’s hopes and dreams, as well as those of his diehard circle of admirers and boosters––not to mention his father––would come to nothing.

And there would never be that brief and shining moment in America remembered ever since as Camelot. — DRS

[David R. Stokes is a ghostwriter, best-selling author, historian, broadcaster, and retired pastor. His forthcoming book, JFK’S GHOST: Kennedy, Sorensen, and the Making of PROFILES IN COURAGE, will be published by LYONS PRESS June 1, 2021]

1 a cynical look: The Selling of the President, Joe McGinness

2 “stamp of seriousness”: An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, by Robert Dallek, p. 210

3 “from Persian to Gujrati”: Kennedy, Theodore Sorensen, p. 68

4 The FBI even started a file: An Unfinished Life, Dallek, p. 210

Three Presidents Who Roared in the 1920s

THE ROARING TWENTIES BEGAN 100 years ago this month. During that fascinating decade, the White House was occupied by three Republicans, who, though largely dismissed and forgotten these days, may actually deserve a fresh look.  

On August 2, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge had breakfast in the White House residence with his wife, Grace, and remarked to her “I have been president four years today.” It was one of those quick, concise, directly-to-the-point sentences she had been used to hearing since they met in 1905. It was also something the American people were familiar with, having nicknamed the 30th president “Silent Cal.” He had a 9:00 meeting with reporters in his office that morning. Before fielding a few questions, he told those gathered: “If the conference will return at 12:00, I may have a further statement to make.”

Curious, but compliant, in those long-since-gone days of semi-civility between presidents and the press, the journalists found their way back at noon. An hour or so before that conference encore, Coolidge took a pencil and wrote a message on a piece of paper. He handed it to his secretary with the instruction to take it to his stenographer and have him make several copies – enough for the newsmen who would be at the 12:00 meeting. Ever the frugal man, he suggested that the brief statement could be copied several times on the same sheet, thus only using a few sheets of paper. He told the secretary not to give the note to the stenographer, though, until about 11:50 a.m.

He really wanted to manage this story.

He asked for the pages to be brought to him uncut and before the reporters were admitted to the office, he took a pair of scissors and cut the paper into smaller slips. When he was just about ready, he told his secretary: “I am going to hand these out myself; I am going to give them to the newspapermen, without comment, from this side of the desk. I want you to stand at the door and not permit anyone to leave until each of them has a slip, so that they may have an even chance.” An “even chance” at a big scoop, that is. The handwritten note from the president said: “I do not choose to run for president in nineteen twenty-eight.”

Though the now classic Broadway play (made into several film versions), The Front Page, was yet a year away from being published and produced, it comes to mind with the image of dozens of reporters rushing to find telephones.

Calvin Coolidge could have been re-elected if he had wanted the job for another term. His anointed successor, Herbert Hoover, won big in 1928, though it is clear that Coolidge was less-than-enthusiastic about the “Great Engineer.” It is one of those curious “what ifs” of history – would Coolidge have dealt with the coming of the Great Depression better than his successor? Historians tend to bunch the three Republican presidents of the 1920s – Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover – together in a way suggesting they were identical triplets separated at birth. But there were many differences – some subtle, some not so much.

Herbert Hoover, all of his speechifying about “individualism” notwithstanding, was not the fiscal conservative many today make him out to be. He had a strong interventionist streak in his personality. In many ways, he helped to turn a recession into the Great Depression. Ironically, when closely examined, Hoover’s approach to economics had more in common with his successor than it did with the two men preceding him in the White House.

Warren G. Harding generally ranks in the bottom five when studies are done about the effectiveness of our chief executives. In fact, Hoover fares better than the man from Marion, Ohio. This is largely due to the scandals that came to light after his untimely death in San Francisco in 1923 – the affair known as Teapot Dome. Also, some of Mr. Harding’s personal behavior was less-than-presidential.

What is usually missed about Harding, though, is how effective he was on the issue of the economy. When he assumed the presidency in March of 1921, he inherited a mess. Woodrow Wilson had expanded the role and size of government dramatically, incurred a $25 billion dollar debt, and cracked down on political opponents – even imprisoning some (socialist activist Eugene V. Debs, etc.). In fact, the economic problems in the 1920-1921 depression were actually worse in many ways than the Great Depression a decade later. But that downturn didn’t last as long – thankfully. Warren Harding cut federal spending and lowered taxes. And in less than two years the number of unemployed in the country fell from 4.9 million to 2.8 million.

Oh – and Harding set the political prisoners free, even inviting Debs to the White House. He was a classier act than many now remember.

By the time Calvin Coolidge became president upon the death of Harding in August of 1923, the country was on its way to enjoying some great years of prosperity. He was a fiscal conservative who tried his best to stay out of the way. He knew that the government functioned best as a referee – not as a participant in the economic game – or as a team owner.

After he was elected in his own right, he told the nation in his March 4, 1925 inaugural address: “I want the people of America to be able to work less for the government and more for themselves. I want them to have the rewards of their own industry. That is the chief meaning of freedom. Until we can re-establish a condition under which the earnings of the people can be kept by the people, we are bound to suffer a very distinct curtailment of our liberty.”

Coolidge died suddenly on January 5, 1933, after Hoover had been badly beaten by Franklin Roosevelt. He did not live to see what a prolonged depression looked like, but one suspects that he would have ventured an opinion or two. His words would have been brief and directly on point. – DRS

David R. Stokes is a best-selling author, historian, broadcaster, and retired pastor. His forthcoming book, JFK’S GHOST: Kennedy, Sorensen, and the Making of PROFILES IN COURAGE, will be published by LYONS PRESS later this year.

The Crown & THE CHURCHILL FUNERAL PLOT

I’VE BEEN LOOKING FORWARD to season three of THE CROWN on Netflix for quite some time, but I did wonder if the change in the casting of major characters would work.

Karen and I watched the first episode of the new season last evening and all of my “concerns” about watching someone new in the lead role as the Queen vanished.

Olivia Colman brilliantly picks up where Claire Foy left off.

The new season begins in 1964––a fascinating time in Great Britain. Political change is in the air, a move to the left as Winston Churchill withers away.

And there is a hint of espionage involving politicians and even the royal household.

Being a student of that era, and having written about it in great detail in my books, I watched for historical inaccuracies and more than annoyed my wife with my running commentary.

The series is well done.

Speaking about my books, though it is certainly self-serving, I do very much believe THE CHURCHILL FUNERAL PLOT would be a great companion to this new season for THE CROWN.

If you haven’t yet read it––it might be worth checking out. I enjoyed researching and writing it a couple of years ago.

Here are the links:

Print Version

E-books:

Amazon Kindle Version
Nook (Barnes & Noble)
Apple Books

BLAIR UNDERWOOD to Star in Film Version of CAMELOT’S COUSIN

[From THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER]

Blair Underwood is heading to Camelot.

buheadshot2010_a_pThe actor’s production company, Intrepid Pictures, has acquired the rights to David R. Stokes‘ spy novel Camelot’s Cousin: The Spy Who Betrayed Kennedy. Intrepid will partner with Little Studio Films to adapt the thriller into a film with Underwood in the lead role.

Set amid the Cuban Missile Crisis, Camelot’s Cousin centers on the discovery of a long-lost journal that indicates one of President John F. Kennedy‘s closest friends was a Soviet spy. In the present day, scholar and media personality Templeton Davis (Underwood) decides to investigate the journal’s contents, which draw him into a decades-old international conspiracy…

[read FULL ARTICLE at THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER]

Race, Roe, & Dr. King

[The following appeared in the Washington Post six years ago this month, in January of 2009. I discussed the annual calendar convergence of Sanctity of Human Life Sunday with the Martin Luther King Jr. birthday holiday — DRS]
OnFaithPromo
This week’s sermon is by the Rev. David R. Stokes, senior pastor of Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, marking Sanctity of Human Life Sunday on Jan. 18. President Ronald Reagan established a National Sanctity of Human Life Sunday in 1984, to be held the Sunday in January that falls closest to the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade abortion decision handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

The recent passing of theologian Richard John Neuhaus brings to mind a passage from the book of Genesis: “There were giants in the earth in those days.”

As Michael Gerson mentioned in his recent tribute to Neuhaus in The Washington Post, there was a time when “the footsteps of theologians shook the land.” These days, he laments that the great thinkers who “provided the intellectual and moral ballast for a rough national crossing through the Cold War and civil rights movement are gone and the nation’s hungry sheep now look up to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra for spiritual nourishment.

Neuhaus was, according to Gerson, “first a man of the left, then a man of the right — yet entirely consistent on the things that matter most.” He walked with King for civil rights, and later “found the natural extension of those ideals in the pro-life movement.”

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave the address for which he is best known. Long remembered as the “I Have a Dream” speech, he said things like, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’ ”

Slightly less than five years later, the Dreamer was assassinated on April 4, 1968. In 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Roe v. Wade decision, hastening our societal slide toward a culture far too comfortable and familiar with violence and death. The legacy of Dr. King and the fallout from that 1973 legal bombshell sail very close to each other again.

Some see this as an awkward convergence. But it really isn’t. Back in the ’60s, while black preachers were mobilizing masses in the pursuit of civil rights, conservative evangelicals stayed largely on the sidelines. They weren’t all that interested in changing anything. In fact, it was not uncommon to hear white fundamentalist-evangelical preachers of the day, with voices animated by indignation, decrying the very idea that preachers should be activists in the streets, mocking them to get back to their pulpits where they belonged.

Many, if not most — some notably — would later change their minds. What was the catalyst bringing change to how conservative, white clergymen viewed and lived out their roles? What issue convinced these dogmatic men of the cloth to be willing to scramble out of the pulpit-pocket and into a measure of political involvement after decades of silent separation? Well, the winds of change began to blow in the aftermath of that landmark 1973 decision.

So, here we are again in another January, decades after a killing and a ruling, still marching about Roe v. Wade and honoring Dr. King — but seldom in the same room. The two constituencies, both fierce about the importance of faith, seldom find — much less look for — ways to reach out to the other choir. On Sunday, Jan. 18, some churches highlighted the Sanctity of Human Life issue. Others talked a lot about Dr. King and his dream to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which was celebrated Jan. 20. Usually it was one or the other. Some of us, however, tried to do both, because there ought to be an affinity between the two.

When Martin Luther King talked about a dream he had for his four little children and how he longed for them to grow up in a nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” beyond the amen and applause of the crowd around the Lincoln Memorial, far too many Americans ignored what he had to say. Or worse, some mobilized to polarize and oppose.

Those opponents were wrong. No matter how much they went to church, read their Bibles or professed the religion of Jesus, they were wrong. It was wrong for good, God-fearing Americans not to see how important it was, from a faith-based point of view, that this nation truly walk the walk it had long talked about.

And it is wrong for some people of faith today not to see the pro-life cause as very much a civil and human-rights issue.

We should have a dream that welcomes all to the table. And we should have a dream that welcomes all to life itself.

The calendar gives us a near-miss each year as these issues come close to collision. But social justice and embracing life itself as profoundly precious should not be either/or issues. They are very much both/and. And until we find a way to bring them together, it is not likely that anyone can really bring us together.

At this transitional moment in our country’s history, there are great and grave issues before us. Some wrongs have been righted. One great wrong — one that has been a hurtful wound for generations, since even before our nation’s founding — is being righted by an inauguration. Other wrongs are yet to be righted. We should celebrate the victory of wrong over right when it happens. And we should mourn when wrongs left untouched cry out for justice and mercy.

The ultimate way for us to see wrongs righted is for us to look back 2,000 years ago, to a great and grievous wrong inflicted on Christ himself. And it is through that wrong, the great finished work on the cross, that we can know what it is to be made right and whole. When our brokenness is taken to His brokenness, healing happens. And that healing transforms us into agents of light — to work for righteousness in a world of woe.