Thursday, October 31, 2013

Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House by Robert Dallek

Robert Dallek has followed his successful 2003 biography An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963 with the recently released Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House (Harper, October 2013, 525 pages, $32.50), a dynamic and interesting behind the scenes account of the policy and politics in the Kennedy administration during a period of extremely high international and social stress. Like Lincoln (see Doris Kearns Goodwin's fascinating study Team of Rivals), Kennedy preferred to surround himself with men, and they all were white men, who represented differing viewpoints, interests, parties, and experience. Given the diversity of viewpoint present in Kennedy's cabinet and among the advisers he surrounded himself with and the volatility of both national and international events during this crucial period, it is hardly surprising that both the events themselves and the conflicting viewpoints about how to react to them and provide leadership in a dangerous world, provides fodder for a fascinating and engaging account often reading like a novel in its immediacy and dramatic tension. Dallek offers readers new, and sometimes surprising, pictures of the people and situations during this crucial period.
John F. Kennedy came to office just a few weeks before an ill-advised and ill-fated exercise by Cuban exiles based in Miami resulted in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, for which Kennedy took much of the blame. During the too short three year period of the Kennedy administration, the country was besieged by a continuing fervor of anti-communism, a widening war in Southeast Asia encompassing Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, growing discontent in the U.S. over the slow progress being made towards civil rights, the tensions and fears surrounding the on-going Cold War, as well as the space race made more intense because of it. Throughout this period, Kennedy had to balance interests within his own party and continue to create an environment that would assure his own reelection.

John F. Kennedy

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of Kennedy's strength is mentioned by Dallek almost in passing. Diplomat George F. Kennan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union and an important writer on post World War II Cold War politics, wrote that Kennedy was one of the best listeners he had ever met. Charles DeGaulle had counseled him early on in his presidency to listen to all points of view and then to follow his own understandings of the correct course to pursue. Kennedy was at his best when he combined these two elements, listening carefully and then making up his own mind. He was more likely to make greater mistakes when he allowed his own careful thought and analysis to be too swayed by those around him. That being said, his closest adviser was his brother Robert F. Kennedy. Bobby was edgier than JFK and more likely to play the game with stronger language. His role was to protect his brother at all costs while often acting as both his sounding board and mouthpiece. If there were strong words to be issued, they often came from Bobby's mouth. The profiles of the various advisers Kennedy selects help to provide insight and nuance to Dallek's analysis.

Robert F. Kennedy
 Coming to office in 1960, just fifteen years after the end of World War II and a few months after Fidel Castro's successful revolution in Cuba, Kennedy took up the mantle of the Cold War. His military advisers were men who had risen in the ranks to top positions during the Korean War and whose experience was informed by the rapid technological change suggested by the dropping of nuclear bombs on Hiroshima to end the second world war. During the Cuban missile crisis, their counsel was always to respond with overwhelming force and through the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Because the CIA and the NSA (National Security Agency) consistently over-estimated the military strength of the Soviet Union, their plans frequently called for the U.S. to make first strike nuclear attacks. Kennedy, despite being somewhat overwhelmed by the anger and showmanship of Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev, insisted on maintaining the wiser course and continuing to meet and negotiate. However, when missile launch pads were discovered on Cuba and ships seen steaming towards the island with missiles on their decks, Kennedy established a clear line and a blockade which forced Khrushchev to back down. This section communicates effectively the danger and tension of the few weeks of the Cuban missile crisis while showing Kennedy's wisdom and strength of purpose. 

President Kennedy, as the son of Joseph P. Kennedy who ruined his own diplomatic and political career through overt support of Hitler while serving as U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, needed to shore up his liberal support in order to win and hold the Presidency. He was closely advised by liberal thinkers like economist John Kenneth Galbraith and historian Arthur Schlesinger but kept them at arms length by giving them posts where they were out of the way. He chose several conservatives for key economic and diplomatic roles in his administration, while balancing them with more liberal ones. These choices led conflicts to arise in the frequent meetings he held, giving Kennedy a broad spectrum of opinion and action from which to make decisions. However, members of his military and security apparatus often kept knowledge from him and acted on their own volition, eventually needing to be disciplined. 

Many Kennedy appointees tended to be Cold War hawks on Vietnam, always counseling widening the military influence and supporting the Diem and Nhu families there. The narrative indicates that the diplomats appointed to posts in Saigon were too influenced by the Diem administration when a much better picture of conditions on the ground came from journalists like David Halberstam and Neil Shaheen, whose stellar careers were kick-started there. On visits to Vietnam, Defense Secretary Robet McNamara swallowed the “rosy scenario” whole cloth, counseling widening the war to win it, thus prolonging the conflict. Meanwhile, despite the counsel of his military and political advisers, Kennedy continued to work for a nuclear test ban for both atmospheric and underground testing. Viewed at a fifty year distance, the Cuban exiles appear increasingly like a loud but ineffective bunch agitating with CIA collusion and right wing legislators to “free” Cuba from Castro. The emergence of the Tea Party dissidents, with leadership from politicians descended from this dissident group like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, only serve to reinforce this impression as the Cuban exile population reaches its third generation.

Robert Dallek
 Robert Dallek is the author of Nixon and Kissinger, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, among other books. His writing has appeared in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Vanity Fair. He is an elected fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the Society of American Historians, for which he served as president in 2004-2005. He lives in Washington, D.C. In writing Camelot's Court he has presented an inside picture of the Kennedy administration which effectively presents the difficulties faced by the ill fated President and the conflicts helping to shape the outcomes. The book is solid and interesting reading. 

Robert Dallek's Camelot's Court: Inside the Kennedy White House (Harper, October 2013, 525 pages, $32.50) was supplied to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through Edelwiss: Beyond the Treeline. If you decided to purchase it, please consider doing so through the Amazon portal on my blog.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Newell Lodge Fall 2013 - Review

Newell Lodge, nestled in the midst of the piney woods of south Georgia, just north of Folkston, is one of the most delightful places we go to attend festivals. Owners Harvin and Kay Carter developed it as an equine resort and then decided it would be a good place to hold bluegrass festivals. They chose just the right people to ramrod a bluegrass event when they selected Robert and Clint Wilson to ramrod their bluegrass events. Experienced, knowledgeable, and skilled, this father son duo has performed throughout the region with the rest of their family as The Wilson Family and then widened their influence as Clint has gone off to college, become a published and recorded song writer, married, and continued to extend his interests and skills, becoming one of the best sound men we see in our travels.  The only fly in the ointment is that competition for the recreational dollar in October is fierce. College and high school football as well as the opening of hunting season draw bluegrass lovers to other interests after the long summer of bluegrass, making it difficult to attract a large and diverse audience. The Wilsons have responded to their restricted band budget by identifying up-and-coming young bands and mixing them with popular local bands and at least one band calculated to draw people based on its national reputation. The result has been a festival that's musically pleasing and well organized, although, especially in the Fall, one that has difficulty attracting a large enough audience to grow. Nevertheless, despite the rather cool evenings, we enjoyed our time here and look forward to returning in March.

The Stage in the Live Oak Grove

Open Stage

Irby Brown - Emcee

Midnight Rain

 We last saw the Gandy Brothers (Schyler and Brandon) when they were much younger at Arcadia. They have kept at it, emerging as a young and interesting band mixing contemporary and traditional, secular and gospel music together into a lively and enjoyable combination program of bluegrass music. They have gathered together a group featuring youth, but anchored by experience. It was fun to see their development, and we look forward to their continued work and to the outcome.

 Brandon Gandy

Schuyler Gandy and Brandon

Patrick Carlton

 Brandon Taylor

 C.B. Ewer

 The Trio
Schuyler, C.B., Brandon

Schuyler & Brandon Gandy

The Hold Your Horses Cafe

 The Wilson Family
Robert Wilson

As the family has grown and their interests have developed, the Wilson family, both sadly and gladly, perform less and less frequently. Combining the experienced and high quality vocals of Robert Wilson, who toured with the River Grass Review in the eighties, with the attractiveness of the young and developing kids has been a sure-fire attraction in Georgia and Florida with a sprinkling of attention further afield. Now they sing sometimes in church and here at Newell Lodge, where their loyal audience look forward to hearing them once more.

Melissa Wilson

Katie Wilson

Clint Wilson

Kalyn Hall Wilson

Norman Winter
#1 Katie Wilson Fan

The Thomas Family

The Thomas Family, pursuing a Christian ministry through gospel music, have continued to develop as their children have matured and advanced in their skill level. Daughter Sarah Beth is very high in "cute factor." Sons Ethan and Joel continue to develop their skill levels on their instruments.  This very earnest and attractive family was overburdened by playing four full sets and needs to continue to work to develop its entertainment value to complement its ministry. They are engaging folks who bring a solid wholesomeness to their presence at a bluegrass festival.

Michael Thomas

Amy Thomas

 Joel Thomas

Ethan Thomas

 Sarah Beth Thomas

 Sarah Beth & Amy Thomas

Ethan & Joel Thomas

The Golf Cart Brigade

 Ashley's Stables
 JR Davis & the Bridge

JR Davis is a fine country music interpreter who has lately found himself singing in bluegrass bands, where he makes a versatile and welcome addition. At Newell Lodge he has joined with the members of Sarasota-based Swinging Bridge to appear as JR & the Bridge.  They presented a popular, skilled, and varied selection of country and bluegrass classics and were both entertaining, enjoyable, and well-received.

JR Davis

Chris Bryson

 Bobby Martin

Alan Colpits

 Doug Rowe

Jeff Cisco


JR Davis & the Bridge

Clint & Kalyn Wilson
Time Out from the Sound Board

The Bankesters

 The Bankesters are a good example of what happens when a family band stays together as it grows, develops, and takes advantage of its assets while remaining true to the inspiration that put it on the road originally. Beginning as a family gospel band nearly ten years ago, the family has broadened their appeal by adjusting their repertoire while remaining true to the princples that originally brought them to performing. Father Phil Bankester estimates that their material now consists of about twenty-five percent gospel music while having introduced increasingly secular material into their performances. Mother Doreen insists, however, that they have maintained their insistence upon an upbeat and positive message. Meanwhile, the three daughters' voices have developed and deepened, lending a greater musical appeal to their obvious attractiveness. Eldest daughter Melissa has married, and her husband Kyle Triplett has joined the band while continuing to pursue his education.  It all seems like a formula for success, opportunity, and happiness.

Melissa Bankester Triplett

Emily Bankester

Alysha Bankester

 Kyle Triplett
 Phil & Doreen Bankester

The Vocal Trio
Allysha, Emily, and Melissa Bankester 

 Irene Babysits for the Bankesters

 The Sound Crew
Kalyn Hall Wilson, Wesley & Abby Welch, Clint Wilson

Melissa Wilson on a Chilly Evening

Breaking Grass

Breaking Grass made its second visit to Newell Lodge and, once again, acquitted themselves better than well, offering a delightful combination of hard driving bluegrass, country classics, New Grass Revival covers, and leader Cody Farrar's original songs with enthusiasm and skill. Farrar's supple voice and winning smile present a fine front for this very good band. Meanwhile, fiddler Tyler White and banjo player Thelton Vanderford contribute unobtrusive and excellent instrumental work, and Thelton also sings baritone solos and harmony. Britt Sheffield on bass plays and sings well. Zach Wooten on mandolin does an excellent job. This band presents a winning combination which deserves more attention than it has so far achieved. 

Cody Farrar

 Tyler White

Thelton Vanderford

Britt Sheffield

Zach Wooten

Cody Farrar


Danny Paisley & Southern Grass

When I first saw and heard Danny Paisley at Pickin' in the Pasture in Lodi, NY, I really didn't get what I was hearing. Over the years my appreciation for both his music as well as his skill and commitment in delivering it has only grown.  Danny Paisley toured with his dad Bob Paisley at the end of the careers of many of the first generation bluegrasss innovators. Since Bob's passing he has continue in his steps while continuing to add material in the same tradition, but with new songs. He has now added his own fourteen year old son Ryan to the band on mandolin to continue the tradition. One look at the joy with which Ryan attacks his instrument lets the audience know that there's no coercion in this continuation of a tradition. Ryan's the real deal. The remainder of the band is fine, too, combining youth and experience to create an authentic sound delivered with young enthusiasm.

Ryan Paisley

Mark Delaney

 Doug Meek

 Eric Troutman

Danny Paisley

Danny & Ryan Paisley