I’ve realized that when I’m dealing with other people, it’s all too easy to be honestly misled, to misunderstand, to think that I grasp someone’s motives when in fact I’m totally wrong.
It’s just very hard to understand other people’s thoughts and actions. We think we understand more than we do.
For instance, I remember a story I read when I was doing the research for my short, unconventional biography Forty Ways to Look at JFK. What a fascinating subject Kennedy was! I loved writing that book.
Kennedy had a devoted aide, Harris Wofford. And in his book Of Kennedys and Kings: Making Sense of the Sixties, Wofford writes about just this kind of misunderstanding, between JFK himself and the journalist Theodore White.
Wofford explains this misunderstanding, which happened when White was drafting his book, The Making of the President 1960. Wofford writes:
Late on election night, with Nixon still not conceding…John Kennedy walked across Bob Kennedy’s lawn…In the dark his companion [journalist Theodore White] thought he said, “I’m angry.” In the original manuscript [Theodore White] showed me, White pegged The Making of the President 1960 on that incident. What finally broke the calm of this cool, contained Kennedy and caused him to display such heat? To answer this, White (in his first draft) flashed back over all the miles traveled, talks given, hands shaken, and deals made…culminating in that outburst in the early hours of Wednesday, November 9, 1960.
But note! Wofford continues his story, and recounts what he, Wofford, said to Theodore White, after he read that first draft.
“Even if Kennedy said that, don’t build your book on it,” I advised White. Irony, gaiety, grace, restless curiosity, antipathy to ideology, concern for the common good, a thirst for power, and a respect for reason were [Kennedy’s] dominant qualities, I contended…
While I was making the case against marring an excellent book with such an uncharacteristic anecdote, White stopped me. “Don’t worry,” he said. “When Kennedy read the manuscript that was the only thing he said I had to change.”
“That’s not what I said,” the President-elect told White. “What I said was ‘I’m hungry.’"
- Wofford, Of Kennedys and Kings, 65-66.
What a mistake! “I’m angry”/“I’m hungry.” White didn’t even understand what Kennedy was saying, let alone understand how he was thinking!
It’s very hard to know the truth about someone else’s thoughts, or actions, or motivations, or even to read their facial expressions.
We don’t know, we really can’t know—it’s important to remember.