These days we don’t ask of a new president “what will he do?” but “how will he appear?” The image of the leader at home, and now the “credibility” of his intentions abroad—these are the crucial elements of contemporary politics. Similarly, he does not ask us “how are we living?” but “what is our posture?” Domestically, the new questions suggest an end to significant political conflict; internationally, they are a part of the elaborate and frightening mime the cold war has engendered.
It is a little hard to adjust one’s conventional ideas about politics and power to this new situation, to the idea, for example, that the crisis atmosphere of last summer and the policies adopted at that time did not have the purpose of increasing our strength but of making our use of that strength conceivable. Conceivable first of all to ourselves, so that the resulting mood (or appearance) of national determination might convince the Russians. President Kennedy played his part in this crisis with considerable skill. He is the first of our politicians whose style and rhetoric are perfectly adapted to the cold war. Nowhere more clearly than in his own person and administration are the limits and dangers of cold war politics revealed.
A president like Franklin Roosevelt depended at least as much upon the effects of his radically new policies as upon his personal style; Kennedy has hardly done the same. Truman was innocent of the higher art of public relations and depended for his effects upon actual participation in vulgar political struggles. Eisenhower was content to allow his lassitude to represent the weariness and confusion of the nation. Comfort was the effect he achieved and for that, art was unnecessary. Kennedy’s style, on the contrary, is deliberate and willful. Hating and fearing the inertia, indeed, the comfortableness, of his public, he is constantly straining for effects of a new sort. Readiness, will, nerve, determination, endurance, sacrifice: these are the terms of his rhetoric. They do not constitute a political program or suggest a legislative effort comparable to that of the New Deal (the promise of another “hundred days” was designed to convey a sense of urgency but not a program). They do not require any involvement in social conflict. Kennedy’s style reflects the official morality of the cold war. Its purpose is to create a cold warrior—frightening but high-minded—with a stern visage and an uplifted face. But it is at least as important that this new citizen be credible as that he be real; it is never possible to deduce from Kennedy’s rhetoric his real intentions.