Naftali sheds light on relationship between Ike, JFK


Lori Humphreys | Staff Writer

Timothy J. Naftali, former director of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, is absolutely, definitely, cross his fingers and hope to die, not going to be speaking about former U.S. President Richard Nixon.

Rather, he will be speaking about “The Peacock and the Bald Eagle: The Remarkable Relationship between JFK and Eisenhower,” Tuesday morning at 10:45 a.m. in the Amphitheater, which continues to explore this week’s theme, “The Presidents Club.”

The relatively unreported chapter of the relationship between two presidents of different generations and different parties is also considerably more edifying than Nixonian reminiscences.

Naftali will not give the story away. He did share an aspect of the story, which he believes will reveal the character of both men and sets the context for his remarks.

Kennedy and Eisenhower’s presidencies intersected after the 1960 election, and Naftali said the two men did not like each other. Eisenhower thought Kennedy was unprepared for the burdens of the presidency. Kennedy admired Eisenhower’s military achievements, but thought his presidency was stale and ponderous. However, Kennedy knew that he needed Eisenhower’s support or, at best, the appearance of that support. At that time, Eisenhower was a more popular and respected figure.

“During the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy admitted things to Eisenhower that, if revealed, would undermine and destabilize the country,” Naftali said. “Eisenhower would not repeat them, as he would not play politics in foreign policy; he respected the constitutional position of the presidency.”

According to Naftali, both men were interested to be seen as getting along. The motivation was different. He said that Eisenhower’s was a constitutional imperative; Kennedy’s, a political one. He concludes that whatever their differences, their relationship was important to the country, and he will tell why this morning.

“Their relationship tells us what we once had, what we should have and what we don’t have now,” Naftali said.

He is currently writing a book about JFK. Just when history aficionados might have thought there was no more to be learned, Naftali said the approximately 240 tapes, which Kennedy recorded, have all been released offering more about the 1,000 days of the Kennedy presidency. As the editor of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Recording Series, he is in the historical “cat-bird seat.” He has also served as director of the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia.

For Naftali, history is not a review of dusty documents. It is organic and alive and a search for truth, he said in a Washington Post interview when he was appointed director of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

“I’m not a veteran of the Nixon wars, I’m a Gen Xer. My passion is for history and getting the story out. … I’m a scholar. I want to see things released, and I want people to have a chance to use them,” he said in the interview.

Naftali has written articles for many periodicals including Foreign Affairs, the Journal of American History, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. His books include George H. W. Bush and Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism. Naftali received a bachelor’s degree from Yale University; a a master’s degree from the John Hopkins University; and a doctorate from Harvard University.

He will travel from Los Angeles, visiting Chautauqua for the first time.

“It’s an incredible pleasure to speak with an audience that cares about history, and history always matters,” he said.

Update: This story has been corrected to show that Naftali was the director of the Presidential Recordings Program, not Presidential Recordings Project.