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Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House [Hardcover]

Robert Dallek
3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

8 Oct 2013

Fifty years after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, presidential historian Robert Dallek, whom The New York Times calls “Kennedy’s leading biographer,” delivers a riveting new portrait of this president and his inner circle of advisors—their rivalries, personality clashes, and political battles. In Camelot’s Court, Dallek analyzes the brain trust whose contributions to the successes and failures of Kennedy’s administration—including the Bay of Pigs, civil rights, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam—were indelible.

Kennedy purposefully put together a dynamic team of advisors noted for their brilliance and acumen, including Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, and trusted aides Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger. Yet the very traits these men shared also created sharp divisions. Far from being unified, this was an uneasy band of rivals whose ambitions and clashing beliefs ignited fiery internal debates.

Robert Dallek illuminates a president deeply determined to surround himself with the best and the brightest, who often found himself disappointed with their recommendations. The result, Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House, is a striking portrait of a leader whose wise resistance to pressure and adherence to principle offers a cautionary tale for our own time.

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Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House + The Kennedy Half-century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy + The Letters of John F. Kennedy
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (8 Oct 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 006206584X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062065841
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 9 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 216,473 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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“Dallek’s portraits of advisers including Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Walt Rostow are lapidary, and it is difficult to quarrel with his judgments.” (The New York Times Book Review)

“Dallek is an assiduous digger into archives. . . . The story of how a glamorous but green young president struggled with conflicting and often bad advice while trying to avoid nuclear Armageddon remains a gripping and cautionary tale of the loneliness of command.” (Evan Thomas, The Washington Post)

“Think The Best and the Brightest meets Team of Rivals. . . . Dallek is one of the deans of presidential scholarship.” (Beverly Gage, The Nation)

From the Back Cover

A Globe & Mail 100 Selection

In his acclaimed biography of JFK, Robert Dallek revealed Kennedy, the man and the leader, as never before. In Camelot's Court, he takes an insider's look at the brain trust whose contributions to the successes and failures of Kennedy's administration were indelible.

Kennedy purposefully assembled a dynamic team of advisers noted for their brilliance and acumen, among them Attorney General Robert Kennedy, his "adviser-in-chief"; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara; Secretary of State Dean Rusk; National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy; and trusted aides Ted Sorensen and Arthur Schlesinger. Yet the very traits these men shared also created sharp divisions. Far from unified, JFK's administration was an uneasy band of rivals whose personal ambitions and clashing beliefs ignited fiery debates behind closed doors.

With skill and balance, Dallek details the contentious and critical issues of Kennedy's years in office, including the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, civil rights, and Vietnam. He illuminates a president who believed deeply in surrounding himself with the best and the brightest, yet who often found himself disappointed in their recommendations. The result is a striking portrait of a leader whose wise resistance to pressure and adherence to personal principles, particularly in matters of foreign affairs, offer a cautionary tale for our own time.

Meticulously researched and masterfully written, Camelot's Court is an intimate tour of a tumultuous White House and a new portrait of the men whose powerful influence shaped the Kennedy legacy.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The basic premise of this book - looking at the Kennedy presidency through his interactions with his chief policy advisers - is certainly an interesting one, but having finished it I'm not convinced that it really contributed anything new to the already overwhelming number of books on Kennedy's thousand days in the White House. Dallek is author of one of, in my opinion, the best biographies of Kennedy available - John F Kennedy: An Unfinished Life - and with such a title already in his portfolio I'm not sure this one was necessary.

Another criticism (and really, it seems as though I didn't enjoy this book with all this carping, and I did!) is that it focuses almost exclusively on foreign policy issues. This is understandable, as foreign policy has always been one of the few areas where Presidents can flex their muscle, so to speak, where, short of war, they are relatively independent of Congress. And Kennedy faced some particularly pressing foreign policy issues in his short presidency - Cuba, Vietnam, the Soviet Union. But a book ostensibly looking at Kennedy's White House whilst devoting just a few throw-away lines to the Civil Rights Movement is really doing history a disservice.

That said, this is a good book. Dallek is a very good writer, clearly thoroughly familiar with the era and the personalities, and he draws heavily on much recently-released material on the Kennedy years - tape recordings, interviews, memoirs - to give a real in-depth insight into the psychology of many of the decisions made.
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34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Inside Kennedy's Cuba and Vietnam 12 Aug 2013
By Michael Griswold - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Even though Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House is billed as a look inside the Kennedy White House, the majority of the book is taken up by the two principle international affairs matters that occupied Kennedy during his brief presidency: Cuba and Vietnam. If one is looking for a discussion of Kennedy's domestic political debates then you'd be better served to look elsewhere as civil rights is often placed firmly in the background of Kennedy's international relations.

On the bright side, I thought that Robert Dallek did a really good job of reconstructing the problem of Cuban relations from the lead up to the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis to the perhaps less publicized aftermath. With every page, the reader can almost feel the tension between Kennedy's civilian advisors and the military men. Adding a wrinkle to the conflict was the diversity of opinions that existed between the civilian advisors and military men themselves. I really appreciated the depth of the Cuba portion.

The Vietnam section just didn't have the same bite for me. Perhaps it was because it was intertwined with the Cuba conflict in sections or if it just devolved into a mass of conflicting opinions so much that it was hard to keep up with who thought what about action x in Vietnam. At the end of the day, I'm not sure that its' breaking news that presidential administrations are rife with personal feuds. Those types of things have been going on since this country was founded.

The bottom line is that Camelot's Court is a worthy addition to a library on US Presidents with a good Cuba portion, but it makes it sound like domestic issues meant nothing to Kennedy and the Vietnam section may be difficult for readers to follow.
32 of 37 people found the following review helpful
By David Keymer - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
This is Dallek's thirteenth book and the second to deal specifically with the Kennedy presidency. The dust jacket describes it as "an insider's look at [JFK's] brain trust," what Ted Sorenson labeled the "ministry of talent," The book is a detailed analysis of the policy discussions that took place between president and advisors over the course of Kennedy's Thousand Days. This focus allows Dallek to zero in on the complicated, frustrating process of decision-making in a time when no one answer was clear and unequivocal and the consequences of a wrong decision frequently seemed dire.

Dallek judges Kennedy "an astute judge of character and reasoned policy . . . .a quick learner," echoing political philosopher Isaiah Berlin's observation after meeting Kennedy that the president was the best listener he had met in many meetings with world leaders. The president, Dallek makes clear, spent as much and frequently more effort in selecting the men who would advise him as he did in his Cabinet selections. (As important a selection as Robert McNamara for the post of Secretary of Defense was made with little prior knowledge of, or communication with, McNamara, because Kennedy intended to be his own determiner of military policy.)

From the start, the president encouraged discussion among his advisors. "The last thing I want around here is a mutual admiration society," he told press secretary Pierre Salinger early in his presidency. "When you people stop arguing, I'll start worrying." But it wasn't just expert advice he sought. He had read and absorbed Richard Neustadt's book on presidential power and taken to heart his analysis of how FDR kept power: FDR had sought advice from multiple sources, never letting one proposed solution dominate. As a result, only he decided the issues, instead of having to play catch up behind the runaway actions of his subordinates.
Foreign policy dominated discussion in the Kennedy presidency. (Kennedy famously said, "Domestic politics can unseat you, but foreign dangers can kill you.") The Cold War was going through a particularly dangerous phase with Castro newly seated in Cuba and Khruschev again making noises about sealing off access to Berlin. Nor, given the narrowness of his victory in the presidential race, could Kennedy ignore the hawks in Congress and the military. (Air Force general Curtis LeMay was the model for the character of Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 farce, Dr. Strangelove: How I learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.) He could not let his administration appear "soft" on communism.

The result was the poorly conceived and executed Bay of Pigs landing. Kennedy had followed the urgings of his more hawkish advisors and gone ahead with it against his own misgivings. Its failure made him question the value of "expert" advice, especially from the military. (He once commented, "The first thing I'm going to tell my successor is to watch the generals.") The Bay of Pigs fiasco put the president in an awkward position. It encouraged Khruschev to see him as weak and inexperienced and it lost him maneuvering room with his critics at home.

The Cuban missile crisis, and concomitant with it, the U.S. military's escalating involvement in Vietnam, indicated the limitations of even so well thought out a system of advising as Kennedy's, because in truth, most of his advisors didn't have a clue what to do or how to do it, and most, at one point or another, indulged in "auto-intoxication," their expert advising becoming little more than an exercise in guessing. Kennedy disdained Dean Rusk's State Department: "they never have any ideas over there, never come up with something new." As to the military and the CIA, his assessment of them at the time of the Cuban missile crisis was crushing: "If we do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong."

I'm not sure there's much new in this narrative but it makes you admire Kennedy for not being pushed further than his innate caution allowed him to go. We could have done a lot worse than JFK in such an uncertain time.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly and unsentimental 30 Aug 2013
By Noneofyourbiz - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
"Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us." That's a famous quote of JFK's and Mr. Dallek invokes it early on in this book to set the table for the emphasis on foreign policy herein. All the smart, spirited and patriotic men who advised the President on Vietnam, Cuba, Krushchev and DeGaulle are here. What comes out is that the decisions the President made were ultimately his, and he owned them. There's not only much to learn about the early 1960s and the Cold War and Vietnam, there's also a lot about leadership. It's an interesting and relevant book today as we look back on recent Presidential decisions on Bosnia, Rwanda, and Iraq, as well as ahead to Syria.

Dallek knows his subject cold -- not surprising when you realize he's also done well-respected books about other major players in Vietnam saga (Kissinger and LBJ and Nixon).

It's nice to read a serious, balanced book about JFK that focuses on what he did as President, not on the gossip about his personal life, and not about the grisly details of 11/22/63. However, I subtracted two stars because at times it was quite a slog. I felt that the author's earlier book on Kennedy, An Unfinished Life : John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963 was more readable. If you're more interested in Kennedy than you are in the Cold War, you might enjoy the earlier book more.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Ministry of Talent 19 Aug 2013
By JoeV - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
After winning the extremely close election of 1960, JFK was faced with the challenge of all new presidents - transitioning from campaigning to governing - the first task, naming a cabinet and forming a team of advisors. Camelot's Court premise/goal is to provide the reader a detailed view into the workings of the Kennedy White House - the personalities, discussions, differences of opinions and ultimately the decisions made, (or not made), and thus policy. If there was any doubt in your mind, this book will confirm how difficult it is being President - even with a bunch of smart and intelligent people around to help.

The good news is that what is covered here - JFK's foreign policy - is done fairly well. And foreign policy in the early 1960's meant the Cold War - the USSR and Khrushchev, Cuba and Castro, Berlin and of course, Vietnam. On the flip-side the narrative concerning US domestic policy during JFK's 1000 days is at best cursory; topics such as Civil Rights or the US economy minimally covered. (And because of this it's unclear to this reader as to why this book simply wasn't "positioned" as a JFK foreign policy/Cold War book.)

Back on the plus side of the ledger, Dallek, as usual, does a very good job of bringing these historical figures/players to life by utilizing a combination of biographical info, quotes, analysis and context; all without impeding the narrative. (As an aside, McGeorge Bundy does not fare well here.) If you are familiar with this period of history Camelot's Court is a nice "refresher", i.e. nothing really new here. Conversely if you are new to the subject matter, this is a great place to start.
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Round the round table..again and again 15 Aug 2013
By Quixote010 - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
We seem to have this utter fascination with the presidency of John much so that here we are again detailing events that we never seem to stop talking about.

Robert Dallek's presentation on the inter-workings of the 35th President doesn't seem to bring anything new to the table. Instead, he seems to take the best of the known (and suggested) facts of JFK and re-introduce them to a new generation. Dallek's summation of the principle's of Kennedy's cabinet,for example (Robert Kennedy, Dean Rusk, Robert McNamera, Ted Sorenson, et al), doesn't really tell us anything new that David Halberstam's outstanding book, the Best and the Brightest and published in 1973, hasn't already told us. Details regarding Kennedy's reluctance to invade Cuba and his concerns regarding Vietnam have all been previously documented in multiple books, some by Dallek himself in his previous book on JFK.

On the other hand, Dallek is an expert on a man many consider (rightly or wrongly) as one of our greatest presidents, and it is interesting to get an updated perspective on how Kennedy and his entourage shifted America's focus from a country leaving two massive wars and the leadership of an older generation reflected by Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower.

Perhaps Dallek's major accomplishment in the book is showing how Kennedy approached a new model of management to the presidency by pitting both liberal and conservative viewpoints against one another to provide him with multiple options. By selecting younger, highly educated, professionally successful men (there were no women in his cabinet) as his advisers, we sense from Dallek that Kennedy truly reflected a new generation of thought and process in his White House. This approach actually reflected the future corporation business model and is likely due to his large collection of Ivy League (particularly Harvard) graduates to his inner circle.

Dallek also focuses on Kennedy's early insistence that national issues supercede domestic ones. Although recognizing that integration, poverty , employment and medical care for all were important policy issues, Dallek contends that the president ultimately expected to have to deal with possible nuclear war that would eradicate mankind, an issue he felt necessary to deal with while leaving local concerns to a second term. To Kennedy, Communism dared to capture the world and spreading the American ideal was paramount to him. This is certain reflective in his instance on developing the Peace Corps and other programs abroad. Just as his Catholic faith spread the gospel by infiltrating communities, Kennedy foresaw a similar presentation of American doctrine by young students abroad.

Kennedy enthusiasts are not likely to discover shocking revelations that haven't been reported before; but for a new generation or for those wanting a refresher on John Kennedy's White House years, this book is worth reading.
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