“Strong, oddly cautious, a bit common (how cd he not be with those parents?) but unemotional, terre à terre, tough, quick, independent, ruthless, soulless, gifted, serious, anxious to pick up whatever he can.” So wrote Isaiah Berlin to his wife after meeting John Kennedy. The letter appears in Building: Letters, 1960 – 1975 and is reprinted in the most recent issue of the New Republic. The occasion was a dinner party in Georgetown. The date was October 16, 1962, when earlier in the day McGeorge Bundy told the President that the Soviet Union had placed missiles in Cuba.
It’s all fabulous, not the Camelot myth, but the long lost world of postwar America. Fabulous, and very nearly unimaginable today. Who can imagine the President of the United States attending a private dinner party in a house in Georgetown? That’s impossible with the security envelope that now surrounds the President.
And the guests! Joseph Alsop and his wife, Phil and Kay Graham, Arthur Schlesinger, Chip Bohlen, and their wives, along with others. Journalists, publishers, and the president’s close advisors and spinmeisters talked politics and foreign policy, including apparently about the classified and explosive situation in Cuba, because Berlin knew when he wrote his letter the next day. That’s impossible today. The journalists would be tweeting to get the scoop. The spinmeisters would be working everybody 24/7 with tediously predictable talking points. Congressional hearings would be held to investigate the breach in national security.
It was a very different time. Although America had endured the slaughters of World War II and was engaged in a fundamental and potentially world-destroying Cold War with the Soviet Union, on a day-to-day basis people felt safer. And there was an Establishment that allowed very powerful people from different places in the system to have drinks, dinner, and conversation outside their official roles.
By the end of the decade much of that world had come apart, in some cases for good reason. Gain and loss. That’s history, I suppose.