About Laurence Leamer
When I was growing up in the fifties, my father would always fix the television
set just before the Democratic convention so we could watch Governor Adlai Stevenson,
the noble prince of the liberal faith. My father was a college professor, and
though he was a deacon in the church, his other faith was in Stevenson. My parents
would sit there mesmerized by the governor's eloquence, awed by the sheer civility
of the man, praying that he would finally reach the White House so that a great
new age could begin. As this went on, I would prowl around behind the sofa,
looking with dismissive disdain at the courtly gentleman on the black-and-white
I was afflicted with what I call "professor's son syndrome". This is a common
condition in which those suffering believe that the world in which they were
brought up is unreal, contrived. They must do intrepid, often crazed things
seeking a world that is real and true. My mother sat in the car crying when
I went out for football, as well she should have, for I weighed less than any
of the other boys and was run over from one end of the field to the other. And
that, poor mother, was the least of my craziness.
When I first heard about John F. Kennedy, I felt I had finally found a politician
in whom I could believe. He said many of the things that Stevenson said, but
he and the men around him seemed titanium-tough. They could walk any street,
and take on anyone. They did not retreat from the rude smells of the world.
I headed off to Antioch College, an ultra-liberal institution where candidate
Kennedy was generally reviled as a corrupt politician pandering to the pathetic
jingoism of many of his fellow Americans. Antioch has a work-study program,
and I was so fascinated by Kennedy that I arranged to go to Washington to be
there during the first three months of his administration. I stood on Pennsylvania
Avenue on that frigid January morning in 1961 watching the new president ride
to the White House. I worked as a low ranking GS-3 at Health Education and Welfare.
I learned that the New Frontier didn't touch my humble job and that the conservatives
were right in believing that government was full of ineptness and sloth.
In 1964 when I graduated from college, I joined the Peace Corps, Kennedy's noblest
achievement. I was hardly the purest of idealists, and I was going as much so
I could climb in the Himalayan Mountains as to help humanity. I ended up serving
for two years in the eastern hills of Nepal, a two-day walk from the nearest
road. I taught English, science, and health and it was in many respects the
defining experience of my life. At the end of the two years, our group got together
in Katmandu to evaluate our experiences. What was so striking was that the pure
idealists of the group had come down from their starry heights, and were much
more realistic about the world. And those of us who had come in some measure
to have great adventures had become far more idealistic, concerned for others
in a way we perhaps hadn't been when we started out.
In July of 1999, I was at Lake Tahoe for a reunion of our Peace Corps group.
Vesna, my wife, couldn't make it but my daughter, Daniela, and her fiancé,
Antonio, were there. My daughter had recently come back from teaching English
in a small town in Costa Rica, in a Peace Corps-like program. And she was about
to begin her first year teaching a bilingual fourth grade class in Oakland.
I wanted her to see what my friends were like.
I hadn't seen some of these people since 1966, and I had surely had one of the
more unusual lives. As a graduate student, I started writing for magazines.
I even interviewed Senator Robert Kennedy two weeks before his death. After
an unhappy stint as an editor at Newsweek, I became a freelance writer. I worked
incognito in a West Virginia coal mine where I developed a life long love of
country music. I covered the war in Bangladesh for Harper's, the only foreign
correspondent to live among the Bengalis and not at the Intercontinental Hotel
in Dacca. I spent two years living in Peru writing a novel about drug trafficking.
I wrote a whole series of books, on an eclectic group of subjects. My biggest
success was The Kennedy Women, a massive multigenerational history, and an unlikely
candidate to reach number two on The New York Times bestseller list. My most
recent book was Three Chords and the Truth, which was about country music and
Nashville where I had lived for a year. After that, I began working on The Kennedy
Men, an ambitious study of the Kennedys.
As I listened to the tales of my friends, I kept wondering what truly is an
interesting life? On the surface, I suppose I had one of the more adventurous
lives, but what an extraordinary group this was, and who was to say who had
reached deeper and felt more in these years. There was Lloyd, who was blind,
and had brought to the unsighted in Nepal a promise they had not known before.
There was George, who had taught in elementary school all his life. What contributions
he had made. There was Suzanne, who was helping to dispense billions of dollars
in the health field for Bill Gates' new foundation. There was Kitty, a diplomat
who had served her country all over the world. There was Fran, who had made
important advances in American education. As I heard these tales, I realized
that this was part of the Kennedy history too. As I was researching my book,
I was learning all kinds of startling things about the Kennedys, but I kept
telling myself that this practical idealism was part of the legacy too.
Saturday morning the phone rang. It was a call from NBC telling me that John
Kennedy Jr.'s plane was missing, and did I have any comment. Soon afterwards,
ABC called. I don't remember what I said, but I had no idea that my comments
to both networks were going out live on national television. MSNBC called a
few minutes later and asked if I would be a consultant, going on the air during
the next days. I didn't want to be seen exploiting the matter, but I wanted
to be sure that the aspects of the Kennedy history, exemplified by my reunion
with my friends', got on the air. And so I left my friends and flew to Los Angeles.
I didn't pretend that I was John's friend. I didn't suggest an intimacy that
I did not have. But I tried to help people understand what John's father was
like, and why we care so much about this family.
I have finished Sons of Camelot now, and I hope that I have captured much of the complexity of these Kennedy men, the good and the bad, the light and the darkness. I have convinced all kinds of people that I was writing an honest book, and because of them the pages are full of revelations. I think I deserve credit for my persistence and persuasiveness in getting all of these Kennedys and friends to talk. But they deserve even greater credit for daring to be so deeply truthful about their lives.