Did John F. Kennedy really write "Profiles in Courage?"

November 7, 2003

Dear Cecil:

Did John F. Kennedy really write Profiles in Courage? I read that there were rumors at the time of its publication that it had been ghostwritten, and that the Kennedy family later conceded as much. Recently I visited Amazon.com and was surprised to see online reviews posted by readers praising the president for his fine writing. Is there any consensus about Profiles in Courage and who the real author is?

Dear Kevin:

Yes, there's a consensus about Profiles in Courage (1956), which established JFK's intellectual credentials and helped make him a credible presidential candidate. We'll get to that. Yes, we know who did most of the heavy lifting for the book — we'll get to that too. The principal controversy, apparently, has been what to call the curious process by which the book came to be. Even Garry Wills, a Kennedy critic, writes that JFK was the author of the book in the sense that he "authorized" it. Come now. Kennedy conceived the book and supervised its production, but did little of the research and writing. If you or I were discovered doing the same for a sophomore term paper in sociology, we'd get an F.

The idea for the book — a study of heroic U.S. senators — came to Kennedy in 1954, when he was a first-term senator himself. Initially he imagined it as a magazine article, but during a long convalescence after a couple back operations he decided to make it into a book. His chief assistant on the project was his speechwriter Ted Sorensen, often described as his alter ego. (Remember the bit about "Ask not what your country can do for you"? Sorensen was in on that one.) The recuperating Kennedy sent Sorensen a steady stream of notes and dictation, requested books, asked that memos be prepared, and so on. Sorensen worked virtually full-time on the project for six months, sometimes 12 hours a day. He coordinated the work and drafted many chapters. Others also made contributions, most importantly Georgetown University history professor Jules Davids.

The book was published on January 1, 1956, to lavish praise. It became a best seller and in 1957 was awarded the Pulitzer prize for biography. It established Kennedy, till then considered promising but lacking in gravitas, as one of the Democratic party's leading lights, setting the stage for his presidential nomination in 1960.

But doubts about the book's authorship surfaced early. In December 1957 syndicated columnist Drew Pearson, interviewed on TV by Mike Wallace, said, "Jack Kennedy is … the only man in history that I know who won a Pulitzer prize on a book which was ghostwritten for him." Outraged, Kennedy hired lawyer Clark Clifford, who collected the senator's handwritten notes and rounded up statements from people who said they'd seen him working on the book, then persuaded Wallace's bosses at ABC to read a retraction on the air.

Kennedy made no secret of Sorensen's involvement in Profiles, crediting him in the preface as "my research associate," and likewise acknowledged the contributions of Davids and others. But he insisted that he was the book's author and bristled even at teasing suggestions to the contrary. Sorensen and other Kennedy loyalists backed him up then and have done so since.

The most thorough analysis of who did what has come from historian Herbert Parmet in Jack: The Struggles of John F. Kennedy (1980). Parmet interviewed the participants and reviewed a crateful of papers in the Kennedy Library. He found that Kennedy contributed some notes, mostly on John Quincy Adams, but little that made it into the finished product. "There is no evidence of a Kennedy draft for the overwhelming bulk of the book," Parmet writes. While "the choices, message, and tone of the volume are unmistakably Kennedy's," the actual work was "left to committee labor." The "literary craftsmanship [was] clearly Sorensen's, and he gave the book both the drama and flow that made for readability." Parmet, like everyone else, shrinks from saying Sorensen was the book's ghostwriter, but clearly he was.

On a related subject, did JFK's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, twist arms to get his son the Pulitzer, as some believe? Parmet finds no smoking gun. True, Profiles wasn't among the books recommended to the Pulitzer committee by its judges, a pair of expert reviewers, so when the rather slim volume came out of nowhere and trumped some seriously weighty scholarship, people got suspicious. (Supposedly Profiles won because someone on the committee said his 12-year-old grandson liked it.) New York Times columnist Arthur Krock, a friend of Joe Kennedy's, boasted that he had lobbied hard for the book, but Krock's partisanship was well known and the committee members were distinguished newspaper folk, not easily swayed. Parmet harrumphs that it would have been unlike Joe P. to let an opportunity slip, but who knows? We do know this: JFK, not for the first or last time, got credit he didn't deserve.

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